Still Learning, Still Sharing, Still Praying

+In the Name of God: who has called us to be Christ’s Body in the world. Amen.

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

Acts 2:42

If you’ve ever been to a baptism in an Episcopal Church, then you’ve heard the words I just quoted from the Acts of the Apostles. That’s because the words are part of what is known as the Baptismal Covenant in the prayer book where they’ve been converted into a question. The question goes like this: “Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?”  It’s one of those questions where “yes” is the right answer.

If you were an adult or older child when you were baptized, you responded yes to the question yourself. You didn’t say “yes” exactly. You said, “I will with God’s help,” which is the more formal religious version of “yes.”

If you were a baby or a younger child when that question came up, your parents and godparents answered the question for you. “Yes,” they said on your behalf, again with all the religious formality that the occasion demanded – “I will with God’s help.”

I remember talking to a couple several years ago about whether or not they should have their new baby baptized. They hadn’t been to church in a long time – since before they left home for college. Well, that’s not exactly true. They’d been in a church once when they got married. They’d had a church wedding for many of the usual reasons – because they thought it would make their parents happy, because churches are pretty places for weddings, and because they wanted their ceremony to have a “spiritual aspect”. Being married by a justice of the peace wasn’t going to do it for them. And they wanted something more than having a friend marry them who’d been “ordained and licensed” by one of the churches that offer online ordinations – like the Universal Life Church or American Marriage Ministries.

I am in no position to criticize anyone who has been married by a family member or a friend or who got married in Las Vegas at one of those drive-through wedding chapels. Weddings in our extended family have featured all of the above. So, no judgment.

Anyway, back to this couple. A few years after they’d been married, they’d had their first child. And they were thinking about having the baby baptized. Someone they knew was a member of the church where I was the priest. Their friend said, “why don’t you go talk to Stephen.” So they did.

They made an appointment for a Saturday morning, and arrived at my office with one of them carrying the baby in a car seat carrier and the other one carrying bags loaded with fruits and vegetables from the local farmers’ market across the street from the church.

After the usual introductions and “get to know yous,” I gave them a copy of the baptism service and started to review it with them. I’m a firm believer in full disclosure when it comes to Holy Baptism, so I wanted them to read the service and think about the promises they’d be making for themselves, and the promises they’d be making on behalf of their child.

Sometimes when I go over the service with people, they just listen quietly without saying much of anything. Sometimes parents have a lot of questions. These parents really want to understand what they’re getting themselves into – and what the vows mean. Often, the word “Covenant” is the word that jumps off the page at them – The Baptismal Covenant– in bold type – right there at the top of page 304 in the prayer book.

I’ve discovered that lawyers really pay attention to the word “covenant” in the baptism service since it’s a term they’re familiar with. It’s a legal term as well as a religious term. The word covenant takes them right back to their first year of law school and the Contracts course they took. They think, “I’m entering into a contract, and I need to make sure I understand the fine print. Just what am I agreeing to here? What constitutes a breach of this contract, and what are the remedies for breaching this covenant, like damages?”

Neither spouse in this case happened to be a lawyer, but they were serious people. They paid close attention to what I was saying. They understood the point I was making when I said that baptism was an initiation rather than an inoculation – that baptism is the start of something, not the end of something. We slowly worked our way through the service, line by line. We talked about the promises they and the godparents would make about bringing the child up in the Christian faith and life, and about helping the child grow into the full stature of Christ. And they liked the part of the service when the congregation said they would do all in their power to support them and their child.

And then we came to the Baptismal Covenant. The Baptismal Covenant begins with the Apostles’ Creed in question and answer form. Three times the priest asks: Do you believe? And three times the people answer, I believe.

Then come the five questions that round out the Covenant. We ask and answer them at every service of Holy Baptism and every time we renew our vows: The questions are about proclaiming God’s Good News, about our response to evil, whether we will respect every person’s dignity, and whether we will love our neighbors as ourselves. Each question and answer declares our core values as disciples of Jesus. They are about really important traits that often turn out to be the opposite of the values and behaviors we see exhibited all around us. Who knew that 60+ years after I was baptized, Christian values would end up being counter-cultural values?

It’s the first question that I want to focus on now and for the rest of this sermon – the one that comes from the Acts passage this morning. “Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?”

The couple read that question, looked at me, and said, “what does that mean? What does it mean to continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?” I said, “It means to come to church.”

Now, for two people who hadn’t been in church for a long time, my answer probably came as something of a shock. I will tell you that I didn’t present it to them as a “quid pro quo” – as in, If you agree to come to church, I’ll baptize your baby. That never works. I certainly didn’t want to create a backlash by insisting that this couple come to church, so I simply stated the facts: if they and their child wanted to continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers, coming to church regularly was about the only way to do it.

When they left my office that Saturday morning, I wasn’t sure what they would decide to do. I was fine with whatever they ended up deciding. I knew that their decision would come after serious thought and discussion, and maybe even prayer. . . . In the end, they decided to go ahead with the baptism, and they, with God’s help, did keep the promises they made.

What does it mean for us to continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers now? We’re in a new situation, aren’t we? Uncharted waters. I’ve thought a lot about this since everything we are doing at All Saints’ moved online eight weeks ago. At last Sunday’s adult coffee-discussion group we talked about what it was like to go to church – about “real presence” – the presence of Christ in our services and about our presence to each other in our services. It was a rich conversation.

Equally rich was a lovely article that appeared last Sunday in the Dallas Morning News. It was written by Judson Watkins, who serves as communications director at the Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration in Dallas. Transfiguration is a large congregation with about 1,800 members. The title of the article was, “Switching to online church busted my theology and changed my experience of God.”

Watkins begins the article by talking about growing up in rural East Texas where he went to church with his Baptist grandmother. She told him that they were going to the “church house” on Sunday mornings. She would explain, “The people are the church; the building is just where we meet on Sundays.” The distinction didn’t mean much to Watkins at the time, but, as he writes in the article, now that his work as communications director “has been upended almost completely, [what his grandmother said] seems less stilted and more a pure and simple fact.” He said his work has moved from printing bulletins and promoting events at the church to one that takes place completely in the world of bits and bytes – in the digital world.

He worried about a lot of things as the church went online – the same things we’ve worried about here at All Saints’. How would people without Facebook watch worship? What about people without internet access? How could the church provide a worship service that felt authentic, personal and real?

I’d like to read what he said about his experience, because I think it matches the All Saints’ experience. Watkins writes:

I girded my loins for the desert of Facebook engagement that typically plagues our page, which rarely garners likes, comments or shares.

But what happened next contradicted my understanding of what the church is and how it worships. Grannie’s theology that the church is the people, not the building, unfolded before my eyes in real time.

“Roger Everette has joined.” The feed began to announce. “Sally Wilson Garfield has joined; Mark CB has joined; Brad Everhardt has joined.” One by one, I watched as friends, acquaintances, parishioners and visitors virtually gathered to worship. The feed kept rolling. At the end of the prayer of the day, a deluge of “Amen” comments. Dozens more comments came in, “Praise to you, Lord Christ,” at the end of the Gospel lesson. Snippets of the Nicene Creed were submitted, as if the viewers were standing in the pews affirming their faith in unison. During the Prayers of the People, I watched in wonder as person after person wrote in petitions and supplications, asking for guidance, peace and the healing for the world.

All in all, that worship service, the one I predicted to be lightly watched and barren of engagement, garnished 703 likes, comments and shares, with the message of God reaching more than 2,600 people across Facebook. This for a church with a total membership of around 1,800.

He goes on:

. . . . The church had indeed gathered to worship in the most beautiful way I’ve ever seen, more beautiful than any anthem, chant or impassioned hymn that could have ever been heard in a sanctuary so strikingly beautiful.

I saw the church that Grannie talked about; I saw the people of God; I saw the body of Christ, the fingers of Christ, if you will, tapping out their worship and praise. I realized then and there that my assumptions about the church, my expectations of the church, were utterly off-point.

Although Watkins doesn’t make this point explicitly, what he is saying is that the virtual church is every bit as much “church” as it was before his congregation and ours had to stay at home to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

Are we missing some things? Sure we are. But we are still doing what the early church did 2,000 years ago. We are continuing in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers. We are doing it in a way that the church in Jerusalem could never have imagined, nor could we have imagined back in February. But we are still doing the things that are right in line with what the Spirit-filled church in Jerusalem did: learning, sharing, praying and, as Watkin’s East Texas Grannie would say, “fellowshipping.”

So, here’s what I want to say: Thank you for every comment you make, every amen you post, every prayer you offer.

Let me end with the words Judson Watkins ended his article, because I don’t have better words to express how I feel about what All Saints’ has done: “What I saw has changed the way I experience God; it has struck down my naive theology, as the Holy Spirit gathers the rubble of these days and rebuilds it into something more mature and well-founded. What I saw has changed my life and faith, and I will forever be grateful for the people, the church, who made that happen.”

Amen.