Sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter:
The Baptism of Charles Edward Smith III
Trinity Church, Mt. Airy, NC
May 6, 2018 10:30 AM
Ἔτι λαλοῦντος τοῦ Πέτρου τὰ ῥήματα ταῦτα ἐπέπεσεν τὸ πνεῦμα τὸ ἅγιον ἐπὶ πάντας τοὺς ἀκούοντας τὸν λόγον. καὶ ἐξέστησαν οἱ ἐκ περιτομῆς πιστοὶ ὅσοι συνῆλθαν τῷ Πέτρῳ, ὅτι καὶ ἐπὶ τὰ ἔθνη ἡ δωρεὰ τοῦ ἁγίου πνεύματος ἐκκέχυται· ἤκουον γὰρ αὐτῶν λαλούντων γλώσσαις καὶ μεγαλυνόντων τὸν θεόν.
While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who were hearing the word. And the circumcised believers that had accompanied Peter were amazed that the gift of the Holy Spirit had also been spilled on the gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and exalting God. (Acts 10:44-46a)
I celebrated my first baptism as a minister at the Lee Park Presbyterian Church in Monroe, NC during the summer of 1967. A new family in town had decided to join our church, and none had been baptized, so I met with the family of five several times to discuss baptism and to discuss the mechanics of the service that would bring all five of them into the family of Christ’s body. I was especially conscious of the children’s ages. One was an infant; one was a young man of eleven; and daughter Lilly, was six years old. I spent some extra time with Lilly and her older brother in the hope that they would find the service meaningful. Both said they wanted to be baptized with their parents and with their baby brother. So, it was all set. The family sat before me in church as we prayed and sang and I delivered the mandatory 30-minute Presbyterian sermon, then it was time for the baptism.
Dad, Mom, and the baby came first. Older brother followed. We had the doors and windows to the church open since air conditioning had not yet come to Lee Park Church, and we could hear the traffic sounds outside increasing as worshippers left nearby churches. The Presbyterians were slow that morning because of the baptism, but we were on a roll and would soon join the going-home crowd. I reached down to pick up the diminutive six-year old Lilly, just as we had planned. But you had to see things from Lilly’s perspective. Lilly had been a good little girl, sweltering in the Union County heat for over an hour, listening to long words she didn’t understand; and now this menacing, wordy 6’6” preacher, wearing a long black robe, was reaching down to grab her. What would you do? Lilly’s sense of self-preservation took over; and with a shriek, Lilly turned her little self around and ran screaming out the church door. Next, her mother dropped her purse and bulletin and ran out into the church yard after her. Lilly’s father looked after them, obviously wondering whether he should join the chase; and Lilly’s brother just stood there laughing. As I remember it, beyond a loud intake of breath, the other Presbyterians in the sanctuary were too shocked to make any sound at all.
On the whole, I’d say, Charlie’s baptism this morning came off better than Lilly’s; but Lilly’s reminded me forcefully that baptism is a very human act, not a precious little ceremony for us to ooh and aah about and then file away in a drawer of forgetfulness. I’ve appreciated those times when the candidate for holy baptism has taken the occasion to raise her voice or grace the sacrament with other noises that remind us that we are bringing a real, live, flesh-and-blood human being into the household of faith. My own newly-adopted son took that to extremes when he insisted on bringing the flashlight his grandfather had given him to the liturgy and then proceeded to pound me over the head with it while I was baptizing him; but he was entitled to his say, I suppose.
A little excitement and some unexpected noise, though, might well help us recall that early Christians thought baptism was very important and still had the capacity to find wonder in it. Our lesson from Acts tells us how one baptism became rather rowdy, with the candidates breaking out into prayers in unknown tongues and the respectable Jewish Christians looking on in amazement—or was it in horror? Everyone knew that something momentous was happening. Here were these uncircumcised, Gentiles drowning out the polite piety of the Jewish believers with their exclamations in Phrygian, Cappadocian, or whatever it was they were shouting. And Peter, that erstwhile favorite disciple, went right along with it all, seemed to enjoy the raucous disorder, and let everybody know that he thought all the noise was God’s Holy Spirit at work among the pagans, those unclean Gentiles of Caesarea. No longer could there be real Christians, Jewish Christians, with their religious pedigree and an undifferentiated mass of gentiles. The School of Jesus from that moment on would know nothing of legitimate Christians versus pagan pretenders, of Jew versus Greek, of male versus female, of Roman versus Palestinian. Baptism would seal the deal, would seal the work of the Spirit that could not be constrained by ethnicity, by race, by religion, or by social station. The Spirit, like those pagans, could be quite rowdy.
Charlie, dear brother in Christ, I hope we’ve brought you into a rowdy bunch today that will not be satisfied with nice ceremonials but will insist on breaking out into Surry County and Orange County, NC with the incredibly good news about Jesus. I hope you’ll be one of those rowdy gentiles who cannot contain their glee over the joy their Lord has put in their hearts. Speak in the tongues God has given you to use. Make a joyful noise. Sing your heart out. Be the man God created you to be. And if you have to run out the church door now and then, do it with a shout. Tell us in no uncertain terms that you are that free soul our Lord created all of us to be. Sing to the Lord a new song, Charlie, for the Lord has done marvelous things; and you are one of them.
 Not her actual name.