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Easter 7: Deeper Into Life

May 16, 2013

A sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Seventh Sunday of Easter, May 12, 2013

Ephesians 4: 1-6

I spent most of Friday with a homeless woman who I have been helping return to her family in Baltimore. She arrived Friday evening, and saw her grandchildren for the first time in years. Late in the afternoon I had the opportunity to hold Gabriela for a bit. She was quite talkative, and cooed for me as I practiced bathing her head with warm water. And then I spent the whole night here in the church on retreat with our youth group and confirmation class as they prepared statements of faith reflecting what God has been doing in their lives this past year. I tell you this because it is a snapshot of what we are as church. I know the bulletin lists a second scripture reading this morning from the Acts of the Apostles, but we are not going to read it. When I got home on Saturday morning – tired, but satisfied – I decided to let our first reading, and our actions in baptizing this child of God, stand on their own.

Instead, I offer this ancient story from the Japan:

Once upon a time, three men who had been friends for a long time sought wisdom, power and righteousness. They studied and prayed together, looked for teachers, traveled far, and listened as they journeyed. Always they sought the tiger, the symbol and the doorway to wisdom and truth. One day they were on a road, going their way and discussing all that they had experienced so far and how far they still had to go. Suddenly they saw a tiger. The tiger’s eyes opened wide.

One of the men spoke: “Tiger, we would like to enter and learn the ways of wisdom.”

The tiger looked at each in turn and said: “Just how far would you like to go?”

The first smiled and said: “Thank you, this is close enough for me.”

The second answered: “Not too far, but far enough so I can say that I’ve been there.”

The third man said nothing, but he approached the tiger, who opened his mouth wide. The man put his head inside, and at that moment the tiger roared.

The other men turned and ran back to town and safety. The third man was never seen again, though soon after there appeared one who was wise, truthful, compassionate, and just. Some say he looked vaguely familiar, but no one knew where he came from.

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According to theologian and storyteller Megan McKenna, this story has much to say about Christian initiation. We experience Christian initiation in three stages: our baptism, our welcome at the table of Jesus Christ in communion, and our confirmation. Yet there is finally only one total experience or immersion into a world of belief and mystery. Thus McKenna can ask us, “When we discover or are discovered by the Holy, how much do we want to experience, how much do we want to know, how much do we want to be transformed?” Are we close enough already? Do we want just enough to say that we’ve been there? How deep are we willing to go into life, ever more abundant life, as scripture describes it for us?”[1]

To enter into the Christian life, to join ourselves to the community of God’s people in the body of Christ, is to immerse ourselves into the experience of God. It is to transform ourselves into the shape and substance of God’s Christ. And thus, when we say we are the body of Christ we are saying that to see us is to see God. And that is a frightful thing. The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church has this lovely phrase: it says the church is called to be “a provisional demonstration of the Kingdom of God in the world.” So when we baptize, prepare confirmands, call officers and members to service and commend the faithful departed, we say, in effect, “this is it, look no further.”

[Now] Those of us who have experienced disappointment, disillusionment, distrust or betrayal in this congregation are rightly wary of what I am saying. We might ask, “If this is it, what are we hanging around for?” Well,

The church is not some ideal community but a particular people who, like Israel, must find the way to sustain its existence generation after generation. Indeed, our Reformed Confessions tell us that there are clear “marks” through which we know the church is church. These marks don’t guarantee the existence of the church, but they are the means that God has given us to help us along the way. Thus the church is known where the sacraments are celebrated, the word is preached and upright lives are encouraged and lived. …

The sacraments enact the story of Jesus and, thus, form a community in his image. We could not be the church without them. For the story of Jesus is not simply one that is told; it must be enacted. The sacraments [of font and table] are crucial to shaping and preparing us to tell and hear that story. Thus baptism is that rite of initiation necessary for us to become part of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Through baptism we do not simply learn the story, but we become part of the story. [this citation is from Will Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas, Resident Aliens].

You have just promised to Gabriela, and to David and Adriana, that YOU will be the provisional demonstration of God’s kingdom of peace and justice so that someday Gabriela herself will hear and understand the story of God’s child Jesus. We remember our own baptisms, so that we may show her the image and likeness of Jesus Christ. In the blush of excitement and the beauty of this little baby baptized, we must be careful, very careful, lest we trivialize what we are doing here. What the Spirit is doing here this morning.  We confess through liturgy and song every week in this congregation that this is where the Holy Spirit bursts onto the scene to witness to the word and work of Jesus Christ. “The gift of the spirit in baptism leads one to struggle in life-and-death situations. It leads us into dangerous and confrontational situations. It leads us to be tested, tried, and, we hope, like Jesus, found to be true. This is initiation into the work of a lifetime.” (McKenna)

The Holy Spirit is intent on transforming us and our attitude toward life. As McKenna writes, “The Spirit and the practice of our commitment to Christianity change our attitude toward life.  We come to realize that it does not really matter what we expect from life — it is what life expects from us, what the Spirit expects from us. Life means taking responsibility with others for the care of the world.” The deeper we go into life, the more we are a disciple of Jesus.

Today, we have baptized a new child, Gabriela Elena Aviles, initiating her into this story and this community, acknowledging that God has called her to be a disciple. God promises that here, in this community of faith and trust, of seeking for justice and of forgiveness, here, Gabriela will find her deepest needs met. Here she will be nurtured and strengthened so that one day she will be able to look back and see the call of God working its way out in his life.

This is our story. This is what we offer you Gabriela, and in the coming weeks to Jackson, Julia, Julian and Ben. An invitation to go deeper into life as part of this community, strengthened by God’s presence. It is a life of hope and promise, fully open both to the pain and joy of our life together. Here you will grow with people like Melanie Millard, who has begun interpreting the wonder of scripture to preschools students just a few years older than you. Here you may find one day that you feel included when you learn to serve at the table of Jesus Christ and share in the bread and juice, as Alyssa, Jason and Makeyla did on Emmaus Sunday. You may one day carry a liturgical candle in our Maundy Thursday liturgy, or share your musical talent in worship, or advocate for peace between people and justice for the poor. You will certainly share the loss of those you will love here whose lives have passed, and welcome new lives, as we welcome you today, in baptism. For now that you have been marked, there is nothing that can separate you from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus.

This is a joyful reality, and it is our gracious privilege to share it with you. We have made our commitment to you, not because we are strong and you are weak, not because we more than anyone else can show you the way, and certainly not because we already are what God wants you to be. We are committed to you and with you, because we know that we ourselves have been called and we know how deeply we need to learn with you how to live God’s promises. Amen.


[1] Megan McKenna, Rites of Justice: The Sacraments and Liturgy as Ethical Imperatives (Orbis Press,  1997), p. 45.

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