Some of you may know the comedian Emo Philips. He told this story about twenty years ago. He was walking across a bridge, and he tells the story like this:
I saw this guy on the bridge about to jump. I said, “Don’t do it! don’t do it!” He said, “Why not? Nobody loves me.” I said, “Well, God loves you. Do you believe in God?” He said, “Yes. I believe in God.” I said, “I do, too. Are you a Christian or a Jew or a Muslim?” He said, “I’m a Christian.” I said, “Me, too! What franchise?” He said, “Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Baptist, or Southern Baptist?” He said, “Northern Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist, or Northern Liberal Baptist?” He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist, Great Lakes Region, or Northern Conservative Baptist, Eastern Region?” He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist, Great Lakes Region.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist, Great Lakes Region, Council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Baptist, Great Lakes Region, Council of 1912?” He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist, Great Lakes Region, Council of 1912.” I said, “Die, heretic!” And I pushed him over.
It’s a funny joke, funny because it gets at the reality of religious division. Not only is the world divided into hundreds of different religions, each with their own beliefs and rituals and pathways to the divine and understandings of this world, but even within religions there are deep divisions. Christianity is a great example. Just three hundred years after Jesus died, Christianity had become the official religion of most of Europe and North Africa, but there were problems. Church leaders couldn’t agree on the exact wording for the creeds, those texts that are supposed to lay out exactly what Christians believe about God, and about who Jesus was and what his birth, his life and ministry, and his death mean. There were also cultural and language divisions, with folks from Southern Europe not always being able to communicate effectively with folks from Eastern Europe. And so the church split in two. The eastern church became what we know today as the Orthodox church, and the western church became what we call the Roman Catholic church. A thousand years later, and more divisions happened, this time with folks leaving the Roman Catholic church and forming what became the Lutheran church in Germany, the Reformed church in Switzerland, and our own Anglican church in England. The divisions continue today: more new denominations and new churches were formed in the 20th century then in any time in history, and our own Episcopal church continues to divide itself over various issues.
All of this has some sobering implications for churches like ours. According to the Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project, about one-fifth of the U.S. public - and a third of adults under age 30 - are religiously unaffiliated today, the highest percentages ever in the Pew Research Center polling. There is some hopeful news, however. Two-thirds of religiously unaffiliated adults say they believe in God, more than half say they often feel a deep connection with nature and the earth, while more than a third classify themselves as “spiritual but not religious, and one-in-five say they pray every day. Most of them also think that church and other religious institutions benefit society by strengthening community bonds and aiding the poor. But despite all that, 88% of religiously unaffiliated adults say they are not looking for a religion that would be right for them. Why? Overwhelmingly, they think that religious organizations are too concerned with money and power, too focused on rules, and too involved in politics. And I can add from my conversations with my friends who for the most part don’t go to church that they find all of our theological disagreements and arguments about what the bible really means confusing and unappealing.
There is some comfort, then, in our reading from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, which seems to show that disagreements in the church go back almost to the very beginning. First, a little background. Paul was not one of Jesus’s disciples; in fact, he never met Jesus, but despite this, probably no one else had a greater influence over how the early church grew and what the early church looked like. You probably remember the famous story about Paul. Originally, his name was Saul, and he was an important Jewish authority who spent his time persecuting those Jews who were following the teachings of Jesus, persecuting those very first Christians before they even called themselves Christians. One day on the road to Damascus, on his way to persecute another group of Christian leaning Jews, Paul as an experience of the divine. A light from heaven flashes around him, he falls to the ground, and he hears a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Saul asks, “Who are you?” and the voice replies, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. Now get up and go into the city and you will be told what you must do.” The men traveling with Saul are speechless; they have heard the sound but they couldn’t see anyone. Saul gets up from the ground, but when he opens his eyes, he can’t see anything. The men have to lead him by the hand into Damascus. After three days, the Lord sends Ananias to lay his hands on Saul, and something like scales fall from Saul’s eyes, and he can see again. He gets up, is baptized, and from then on he is known as Paul. Paul spends the rest of his life traveling around the northern Mediterranean, from modern Turkey to Greece to Italy. He comes to a city, cities like Galatia, Thessalonica, and Corinth, sets up his shop as a tentmaker, gets to know some folks, and starts a church. These churches are very small, probably ten to twenty people, and they meet in people’s houses. Once Paul has instructed them and is confident they’re ready to go it alone, he moves on to another city. But he keeps in touch with these churches through letters, and it is those letters that we have today in our bibles, letters Paul writes to the churches he founded in various cities across the Mediterranean. These letters give us some insight into the issues that the early church faced, as well as let us know what Paul and the early church thought was most important about their faith, and most important about Jesus. They don’t give us a perfect picture, because we only have one side of the correspondence: none of the letters the churches wrote to Paul have survived, all we have are his responses.
The letter we read from this morning was written to the church that Paul founded in Corinth. The first nine verses of the letter, those right before our reading, are sort of boilerplate introductory language. He wishes the church Grace and peace from God from the Lord Jesus Christ, and gives thanks for them. And then he launches into the point of letter. Brothers and sisters, he writes, I appeal to you by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. This of course tells us that there were disagreements and divisions in the church at Corinth. Most of this letter will be Paul’s attempt to mediate a number of arguments that have broken out in the church in Corinth, and this first one seems to revolve around baptism. Paul had baptized some of the folks at Corinth, and then it appears that some more people were baptized by Apollos and by Cephas. It’s not clear exactly what the issue is, but most likely people have been arguing about whose baptism takes priority, was it better to baptized by Paul or by someone else. Paul reminds the church that they are not baptized in the name of Paul or Apollos or Cephas, but in the name of Jesus.
Baptism was important to the early church because from the very beginning, baptism became the way one officially joined the church, the way one became a Christian. Baptism was originally for adults, and generally followed long period of instruction and reflection, maybe as long as a couple of years. Then, during the season of Lent leading up to Easter, you received even more intensive instruction and engaged in spiritual disciplines like prayer and fasting. Finally, at the long Easter vigil the night before Easter morning, you were baptized. You were asked a series of questions: Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God? and Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior? There would be a large body of water, either outside in a river or stream, or inside in a large pool. You would be taken down into the water and the bishop would literally push you down under the water, symbolizing your death to your old life. And as you came out of the water, it was as if you were sharing in Jesus’s resurrection from the dead and being born again to your new life as a Christian.
For all the ways the Christian church has figured out how to divide itself into various denominations and factions, nearly every Christian church practices baptism. What is even more astonishing perhaps is that for the most part we all accept baptisms from other churches: you don’t have to be baptized again because you decide to switch from the Lutheran church to the Episcopal church or to the Roman Catholic church. Some churches practice adult baptism today, but for the most part, Roman Catholic churches and mainline Protestant churches like ours practice infant baptism. This morning we will baptize Aria Grace Romeo. The questions that we would ask Aria if she were an adult will be answered on her behalf by her parents and godparents. They will promise to help bring Aria up to be a good and loving person, and we will promise to do everything we can to support her. In a few years, when Aria is a teenager or a young adult, she’ll have the opportunity and the choice to confirm these promises for herself.
Now, I suspect there is a wide range of beliefs here this morning about what baptism means, about who God is, who Jesus is, about what this life means. Maybe none of this makes a lot of sense to you. Maybe some of the language of the baptism service is foreign or uncomfortable for you. I want to say I think that is okay: I have spent most of my life feeling uncomfortable with a lot of things we say and do in the church. But the reason that I’m still here, and the reason that I wanted to be ordained and become a priest in this church, is that the Episcopal church is a place that welcomes questions and doubts and even disagreements. I’ve had parishioners I would call faithful Christians tell me that they’re unable to say the creed without feeling like a hypocrite or holding their fingers crossed behind their back. I know other faithful people who find it very hard to believe some of the things they think all Christians are supposed to believe. But in spite of this, they’ve found a home in the Episcopal church, and I’m thankful for that. So if you’re in that boat, if you’re not sure what you think about all of this, there is a prayer at the end of the baptism service which I wonder if you might find useful. After Aria is baptized, we will pray that God will give her an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love God, and the gift of joy and wonder in all God’s works. This is one of my very favorite prayers, and expresses for me the hopes I have not only for Aria, but for all of us. I pray that God will give us inquiring and discerning hearts, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love God, and the gift of joy and wonder in all God’s works. Amen.