“All Baptized Together”
By The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, October 24, 2021
Reading: Acts 16:25-34
A couple of weeks ago, I had the joy of performing the first wedding since COVID-19. It was a small and emotional affair, both for the couple who were married, and their families, but also for me personally, a profoundly touching moment. One of the was that the bride and the groom represented two major parts of my personal life. The bride, a nurse from Toronto and someone who has put her life on the line over the last eighteen months to two years, and the groom, from Manchester, England. When we saw one another after waiting more than eighteen months, the joy was inexpressible.
In my meditation to them, I said, “You know, now you are joining another family.” To the bride from Toronto, “You actually now belong to the family of Manchester, England, and I welcome you.” To the groom I said, “And you now join the family of Torontonians and I welcome you.” They were joining and creating an entirely new household, a real sense of belonging for them both. The more I thought about that moment, the more I thought how, in an almost sacramental form, it represents so much of what our life is like when we believe in God. That from the very beginning of the Bible, there was this understanding that the people on Earth were very much a family with a common heavenly parent. The fatherhood of God over all created beings was expressed from the word go in the creation story, and having made it, declared that it was good.
All the nations of the Earth, all the peoples of the Earth were members of a household that had a common source. Naturally, over time, God revealed that truth, and chose a covenantal people, the people of Israel. He named them, and gave them a covenant, saying, “I want you now, as one of my chosen people, to say to the rest of the world that they are mine and I am their God, and they belong to my household.” The purpose of Israel was not only to honour and celebrate God, but also to share God with the nations.
When the earliest Christians gathered from all nations around the world gathered at Pentecost and the Holy Spirit came upon them they knew that they were now a family, that they were united to bring the message of God’s redemption to the whole world, and they were to do that, of course, because of God’s Son, Jesus Christ. From the very beginning when God created the household of God, when he had a covenant with Israel, when he came in person in Jesus and called people to follow him, it was for the purpose of everyone knowing that they ultimately belong to God the Creator and the Maker. It was a household from the very beginning.
It was also a household that needed to be redeemed and saved at times. When you go back, for example, to one the most ancient books in the Bible, the great book of Job, the story of a family who lost everything but were redeemed and set right by God. Job and his family were restored and healed; everything returned that they had lost.
Noah was there as an instrument of God’s salvation of the world during the flood, that all the animals, all the creatures, all the people that God created were saved. Rahab needed her family to be saved, restored, and renewed. And in the New Testament, somebody like the great Apostle Paul, who was fervent in his belief in the covenant of God with Israel right to his very death, nevertheless believed that there was a new Israel, there was a new family that was related to the person of Jesus Christ. So, this notion of belonging to a household, a family, was central to God’s covenant with us as human beings and believers in Jesus Christ.
What we have done today in this place symbolically, is to give a sign of that belonging. You notice that both Rev. Lori and I, when we blessed these children, said we welcome them into the church, into a household, into a worldwide body, that they may enjoy for all their lives. Baptism has been a central symbol from the very beginnings when Jesus himself was baptized. At the end of his ministry, Jesus said to his disciples, “I want you to go out and baptize in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” Baptism is a sign, a symbol of belonging to the household of God through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Our text this morning from the book of Acts is a classic example of how a whole family can belong to the household of God. The story goes that the Apostle Paul, and we’ll call him his sidekick, Silas, were arrested for having converted a soothsayer and a cultist and bringing them to faith in Jesus Christ. Paul and Silas were imprisoned – not only that, they were put in chains. We read that there was an earthquake that shook the building, and of course, buildings were not set up for earthquakes in biblical times; (the doors and the bolts were often made of wood), the walls collapsed and the doors opened up.
There was another character there as well, the jailer. Under Roman law, he was responsible for making sure that all the prisoners were secure. Now that the walls were down and the doors blown open, the jailer wonders what to do. They could just walk out and, as a jailer, you are responsible for the life of the person. If they escape, you could lose your own life. That was the element of terror over the life of the jailers. We’re told that the jailer, having realised that he couldn’t hold back the prisoners, was going to take his own life ahead of the Roman authorities doing it for him. But Paul and Silas remained, they did not run away. They knew the jailer was in a prejudicial situation and they stayed to ensure the jailer was safe. The jailer recognised that Paul and Silas had essentially saved his life, and he says to them these incredible words, “What must I do to be saved?”
Now, his salvation was not an ethereal idea, it was existential, it was about that very moment. It means he could have lost his own life there and then. He also knew that his eternal life was in jeopardy, that the very existence of his soul was on the line. Paul and Silas simply said to him, “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.” That’s all they asked of him, just believe in the One who had sent them. The jailer did, so much so that the man who just before, had overseen their incarceration, was now inviting them to his home for dinner. When they went to the house, Paul and Silas shared the Word of God, the message of Jesus, with his whole family, and the jailer believed. Then – and here is where it comes down to you – the jailer asked, and Paul helped baptize the entire family. They then came into the household of God, just as the children this morning did.
Can you imagine the emotion of it all? Can you imagine a jailer who was probably going to take his own life with his family, being baptized into the church of Jesus Christ? What courage the jailer had, what faith, what passion Paul and Silas had that they believed in the power of Jesus Christ to change people’s lives and to bring them into the household of God.
The story goes, and I commend it to you when you go home, if you’ve got a family Bible, to read it because it has a nice ending. Paul and Silas make the claim that they are Roman citizens and should never have been imprisoned, that it was a great travesty, and gave credence to what they’d done in setting the jailer free – free from death. It’s a fabulous story.
How does it relate to what we’ve done this morning? Well, we have whole families here, gathered in this place and maybe some of you who are worshipping here, or watching online, or listening on the radio, do not have somebody here being baptized, but you might think about your own baptism, or that of a member of your own family. But as you do, I want you to realise that this is always about belonging to our Lord Jesus Christ. There’s been a lot of talk over the last couple of weeks about vaccine passports. Have you ever heard more about passports than you have done in the last couple of weeks? I never have. Whether it’s passports to enter arenas, or stores, or to travel to another country, the vaccine passport has been on everyone’s minds and tongues. What that passport does, though, is tell you two things. One, where you're from, your province or your country. Two, it tells you something about yourself, about who you are, that you're a vaccinated person and that you’ve made that courageous step. It says something profound about you.
I would like to suggest, and I have suggested this before from this pulpit, that the baptismal certificate that each of these children received, or when you were baptized, that you received, is a passport. It says where you're from, it says to whom you belong. You belong, like the jailer’s family, to Jesus Christ. It says about you, that you have the courage of your convictions and of your faith, and this is so desperately needed in the world. Baptism is a sign, a symbol of our belonging.
An interesting essay in a book that I endorsed earlier on this year, writer, Tony Lane of the London School of Theology, says this about the book of Acts:
“We see in Acts that baptism is clearly an integral part of Christian initiation, a part of what happens for someone to become a Christian. This coheres with the rest of the New Testament, where faith and baptism are like the clichéd two sides of a coin. Baptism is a part of Christian initiation by which people become Christians, but this is not baptism without faith. Salvation is by faith, but this is not faith without baptism.”
He argues that the church has not taken its baptismal vows seriously enough over the years. When I read this, it resonated with me. Isn’t it interesting that one of the first things we’ve been able to do since we’ve come back safely into Timothy Eaton Memorial Church as a congregation, is to stand and say, “Now we can baptize and now we can affirm our faith and now we can bring children into the covenant of Jesus Christ, so that they belong to him.”
There’s one last part of all of this with the jailer – he had put his life on the line, and he was at the very beginning of the church, but we have had two thousand years of Christian history. The problem has arisen, and is now prevalent, (and I suppose this is almost a passing word from me before I leave at the end of the year) that because our Christian faith is not always lived out or advocated in the public square, the church of Jesus Christ, as a family, becomes not less important, but more.
I read something, and it’s a little cynical, and I don’t endorse it completely, but it says something powerful: “To our forefathers our faith was an experience, to our fathers our faith was an inheritance, to us our faith is a convenience, to our children our faith is becoming a nuisance.” The church, if it is to love it’s baptized children, if it is to take its faith seriously, must continue actively to engage and endorse, teach and nurture, guide, love, and embrace its children. Throw everything you’ve got at helping the next generation to know that they belong to Jesus Christ. Help make the baptisms that we perform the instrument, the symbol of God’s overwhelming grace and goodness. Let them know that no matter what they face in this life, no matter the challenges, they have a passport, and that passport says that they are loved by the Lord Jesus Christ.
My friends, never forget the jailer and his family. Amen.