Sermons

The EPISCOPAL CHURCH of ST. JAMES the LESS

One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism

Welcome to the Cline family, whose daughter (second daughter) Hannah will be baptized today. Hannah was our baby Jesus in last year’s Christmas pageant. Her older sister Amelia was baptized almost two years ago, in the Parish Hall, where we worshiped as our new organ was being installed. So it’s fun this time around to use the big marble font. Also, I just learned earlier this morning that little Hannah’s baptismal gown, worn also by her sister and older cousins, was custom made out of the material from her grandmother’s wedding gown. And the fact that Amelia and many of those cousins–and the grandmother–are here today makes this even more special! Again, welcome to all of you.—-

Christians (I’m sure you’ve noticed) have a hard time agreeing with each other, from what we believe to how we worship to how we live our lives. I began my priesthood at Grace Church in Manhattan, which was where a priest named William Reed Huntington served as rector in the late 19th century, during a period of optimism about Christian unity. Huntington and others believed there would be a merger of Christian churches in their lifetime.

That didn’t happen. But if you look in the back of the prayer book, there’s a section called “historical documents,” in which is a statement Huntington wrote, called the Lambeth Quadrilateral. Lambeth, because it was presented at a church conference in Lambeth, England, and Quadrilateral because it attempts to boil down our faith to four core tenets. Baptism, performed with water and in the name of the Trinity. Holy Communion, performed with bread and wine. Third, ministers, in the threefold and ancient order of bishops priests and deacons. And fourth, adherence to Holy Scriptures and the Ancient Creeds. He felt that, if we could have some basic agreement on those four things, all of our other differences we could call non-essential, not affecting our unity as Christians. Baptism, Holy Communion, Ministers, and Scripture and Creeds.

It is amazing how much there is to argue about within each one of those. I used to chair the Episcopal Methodist dialogue committee for this diocese, and Episcopalians simply could not accept that Methodists use grape juice instead of wine. That was–is–anathema to us. The Quadrilateral specifies that it must be wine, so that already is a non-starter for Methodists.

The legitimacy of each other’s clergy is a huge issue. When women were first ordained in the 70s and 80s, some Christian groups simply gave up hope for any kind of agreement on what makes a priest valid. [pause] Episcopalians, as do the Catholics and Orthodox, have a very high bar for ordination; each priest must be ordained by a bishop, and each bishop consecrated by three other bishops. We claim this goes in unbroken succession all the way back to the twelve apostles. But if Lutherans haven’t had the same standard, is it their job to conform to us, or ours to relax? These are the kinds of questions churches have to ask when they dialogue with each other.

Holy Communion, I’m sure you can imagine, is a mess. The range of views Christians hold on that–what happens, what it signifies, who gets to consecrate the bread and wine–is so vast as to make reconciling positions almost impossible.

The deeper you look into these matters, the further from agreement we seem to get. So while Huntington’s quadrilateral seems simple enough, in reality, it’s not.

There has been one area of success, though: Holy Baptism. People often don’t realize that you can be baptized in the Roman Catholic Church and that is no different than being baptized in the Presbyterian Church, the Methodist Church, or the Episcopal Church. You can be baptized in the Lutheran tradition and your baptism is as good as the pope’s. Francis would say so himself (and has). That’s official Roman Catholic teaching–and Episcopal, and Presbyterian, and Lutheran, and Methodists. Since 1982. It took about a hundred years from the time the discussions began, but we now all agree to recognize each other’s baptisms as fully valid and interchangeable.In today’s Gospel reading from John, Jesus begins to imagine his future church. Did he picture Notre Dame? Or Westminster Cathedral? I’m sure not. But he could see by this point, this last night of his life (because our reading takes place at the Last Supper), a growing community of followers. And he prays for them–for us–that we might be unified. “I ask not only on behalf of these [twelve disciples], but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one.” This prayer is sometimes called the “Prayer of Christian Unity,” and it’s the foundational text for churches in dialogue with one another.There are other things to unify over, important things beyond what Huntington and his peers spoke of. Feeding the hungry. Helping the poor. Making sure no one has to suffer because of where she was born, or the color of his skin, or their sexual orientation. You may be interested to know that our baptismal covenant, where we promise to respect the dignity of every human being, and to seek and serve Christ in all persons, was written jointly with all those other traditions, as we worked our way toward agreement on the meaning of baptism. If it’s not the baptismal service that some of you older people out there remember, that’s because it includes changes made in the wake of recognizing each other’s baptisms.

If we can all just work as one on fulfilling these promises, then maybe it’s enough, and more than enough, just to agree on this one sacrament, Holy Baptism. Today we baptize another new Christian–an Episcopalian yes, but a Christian first. And we all remember as we repeat these vows together, what really makes us one with one other, and with Christ.

6/12/2019