It’s a summer of superheroes. Kerry and I have already seen Thor and X-Men: First Class, and the previews running before each have whetted our appetite for more. Yet upcoming are Green Lantern and Captain America: The First Avenger. The stuff of legends for a boy raised on comic books and Saturday morning cartoons.
Comic book heroes always have amazing origin stories. Thor came from Valhalla to Earth to learn humility. The X-Men’s powers set them apart at birth, making them strangers among their own people. Green Lantern was chosen by an alien community of peace-keepers and given the power to combine courage with imagination to recreate reality. Captain America was the runt of the litter who kept looking for a way to serve his neighbors, and was granted strength beyond that of other men.
I met with Danny and Amber Kelter earlier this week as part of the support and preparation we give to parents preparing to baptize a child, and I was reviewing the promises that parents make when they bring their children to the font. You’ve just heard them again this morning, so you remember what we ask:
As you bring your child to receive the gift of baptism, you are entrusted with responsibilities:
to live with her among God’s holy people,
bring her to the word of God and the holy supper,
teach her the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed & the Ten Commandments,
place in her hands the holy scriptures,
and nurture her in faith and prayer,
so that she may learn to trust God,
proclaim Christ through word and deed,
care for others and the world God made,
and work for justice and peace.
After I finished reviewing these responsibilities with Campbell’s parents, I asked them what was unfamiliar or surprising about these commitments. Danny said, “I like the part about caring for others and working for justice and peace. It sounds like she’s becoming a superhero.”
And that’s about right. Baptism is for the Christian what falling from the sky in a rocket ship was for Superman. It is our origin story. It’s where it all begins.
Too often, when we think about baptism, we get hung up on what baptism does for the one being baptized. We tend to think about baptism as somehow connected to being saved – even if we’re not sure what we’re being saved from, or how exactly it is that having some water splashed on your head saves you from anything.
When I was a hospital chaplain at Children’s Memorial, anxious parents would want to be sure their children were baptized, “just in case.” In those moments of anxiety, chaplains and pastors do their best to reassure worried parents that their child is already, and always has been, seen and known and loved by God, and often we do the baptisms as an act of pastoral care to the parents more than the children. But, since we’re not in a hospital this morning, and we’re not plagued by those sorts of doubts and insecurities, I just want to do a little bit of teaching about baptism here.
As we talked about Campbell’s baptism, her mother, Amber, said, “I just don’t believe that something happens in baptism that makes Campbell suddenly recognizable to God. Like, before baptism God did not know her, but after baptism God will.”
She’s absolutely right. As the book of Jeremiah says so eloquently in its opening verses, “before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations” (Jer. 1:5). Baptism is not the beginning of our relationship with God, but it is absolutely a part of how God saves us – just not individually, not personally, not apart from the rest of the world that God also made and God also loves. Like God says to Jeremiah, “I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”
Often at baptisms the one being baptized, whether a child or an adult, will be given a white robe or garment to wear during the baptism as a symbol of the new identity that now rests on our shoulders. Think of it as the superhero’s cape, or the icon imprinted on their chest. The white robe is a sign of the purity that comes with forgiveness, but when we imagine that everyone in this room who has been baptized is also garbed in white, then we can see that we are like the Green Lantern Corps, but outfitted in a different hue. We are a forgiven people, sent to proclaim repentance and forgiveness.
This is what the lessons for Ascension Sunday are all pointing us toward. Jesus, the one we all assumed was the superhero, the Savior, the messiah, the first mover and ultimate shaker, has been killed. He confronted the powers and principalities of this world, and he paid for his courage with his life. But death could not hold the power of God down, and so it rose from the grave and immediately afterwards people dressed in white started showing up.
At the end of Matthew’s gospel, “as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel (a Greek word, which also translates as “messenger”) of the LORD, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning and his clothing white as snow.” And he said, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised” (Mt. 28:1-6)
And at the end of Mark’s gospel, Mary Magdalene and Mary, the mother of James, arrive to anoint Jesus’ body, but instead of finding Jesus they find “a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, ‘do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised, he is not here” (Mark 16:5-6).
And in Luke’s gospel th
ey come to the grave, but find no body there, and suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. I think this may be a case of competitiveness creeping into the gospels, like churches comparing the number of people worshipping with them on Sunday morning (“we had two messengers at the grave…”). And they said to the followers of Jesus, “why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen” (Lk. 24:2-5)
Then Luke continues, later in that same chapter with the verses we heard read this morning, “the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed” – note, not that Jesus is going to do the proclamation of repentance and forgiveness, which he did all throughout his life, but now someone else has been commissioned to do that heroic work – “repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.”
And finally, Luke continues in his account of the Acts of the Apostles, describing how the community of God gathered around Jesus would be baptized with water and the spirit and would receive God’s power to do the work of witnessing to God’s love and God’s justice. But as Jesus makes these final promises, he ascends one more time, and they are left looking up at the sky, waiting for something to happen. That’s when two more people in white robes show up and say what by now should be obvious, “people, why are you looking toward the heavens?”
Baptized people of God, you are wearing the white robes. You are the messengers. No need to look towards heaven. Look at each other. Look at Danny and Amber and Campbell. You have been called and you have been commissioned. The saving power of baptism is like this: the God who has known you since before you were born has entrusted you, and me, and all of us together, to be the ones we’ve been waiting for. Stop looking toward the skies for your superhero to fall from the heavens. The world is filled with violence and degradation, and we have the power to heal and to forgive.
The superhero stories say “with great power comes great responsibility,” and “use your powers wisely,” and “use the force,” and “truth, justice, and the American way.” But we say, “go in peace, serve the Lord” or “remember the poor” or “share the good news” or, most comforting of all “Christ is with you.”
People of God, the risen Christ has risen into you. Remember your baptism, the origins of your calling and your commissioning, and be not afraid – Christ is with you.