For the first people who called themselves followers of Jesus Christ, Easter was the primary day when people were baptized into the faith. In the early years of the burgeoning community, it was really the only time that the church initiated new people into the community of faith. And as we talked about over the past five weeks, the season of Lent began as a period of final preparation for those who wanted to to enter into the baptismal covenant.
When the Christian faith started, baptism was a significant, life-changing, momentous occasion.
Joining a Christian community was against Roman law. To become a Christian by submitting to baptism meant willingly committing yourself to a minority status. It meant putting yourself in danger of persecution by the government. It likely meant shunning by your family and disassociation from your neighbors. For several centuries, Christians suffered persecution for their beliefs. The Christian martyrs were the hundreds of people who were killed in public settings to serve as examples to others not to rebel against Roman religion or Roman law by joining Christian communities.
As we talked about during the season of Lent, in order to prepare for initiation into the community, people had to spend a great deal of time learning about how to be Christian before they were initiated into the community of believers. They had to learn the stories of the faith, the Scriptures, which was hard because people couldn’t read. Even if a person could read, this was centuries and centuries before the invention of the printing press, so people didn’t have Bibles or other written materials that they could take home and study on their own.
In fact, the Bible as we know it was just starting to be put together around this time. The Old Testament—the collection of holy Scriptures that belonged to the Hebrew people—had been around for a couple thousand years. But Paul had only recently written his letters to the different Christian communities in Rome, Corinth, Galatia, Colossae, Ephesus, and Philippi. The Gospel writers Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, were only beginning to compile their accounts of the life and death of Jesus.
So the stories of Jesus and the teachings of Paul were largely passed on by word of mouth. People had to gather in groups to learn them. They had to memorize the stories, and they had to learn what the Christians believed, and they had to remember those teachings and demonstrate that they knew them by heart. The fundamental teachings were taught in the form of creeds—creeds that we still recite in the church today.
On Easter morning, the candidates for baptism would come to the church early in the morning, or maybe even the night before. They would have fasted on Friday and Saturday, and spent time in prayer. They would have practiced answering the questions that they knew would be asked of them.
After all of the weeks, months, and for some, years of preparation, finally, at first dawn on Easter morning, they were allowed to experience the mysteries of the faith that had been kept secret from them. These mysteries were the things that we call the sacraments today: Baptism and Holy Communion.
They would present themselves to the church leaders and answer questions to prove that they were ready: Do you believe in God? Do you believe in Jesus Christ? Do you believe in the Holy Spirit?
Their sponsors, godmothers for women and godfathers for men, would vouch that they were of good character.
And then, one by one, they would be stripped naked and led into a special room that held the baptismal font. The pastor, who was called a “bishop” in those days, would ask them to renounce the devil. He would blow in their ears and nostrils to blow out the evil spirits. He and his assisting deacons would anoint the bodies of the candidates with a fragrant oil, and any remaining evil spirits would be exorcised from them.
They would descend, one at a time, down the steps of the font and be immersed three times: in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. And then they would come up the steps on the other side and be anointed again with oil, dressed in a white robe, led into the sanctuary, and receive the sacrament of Holy Communion for the first time in their lives.
The whole idea of the stairs going down on one side and coming back up on the other was to symbolize that in baptism they were dying and rising with Christ. They would pass through the waters, symbolically descend into death with Christ, and rise up on the other side to enter into the new life and promise of salvation that comes through him.
Baptism is about dying to our old way of life. It is about dying to our old selves and rising to a new way, the way of Jesus Christ and his teachings. For people in the early church, initiation into the Christian community meant giving up their profession if it was not compatible with the teaching of Jesus. It meant giving up friends and blood family members and claiming a new family bonded together by the Holy Spirit. In some cases, it meant literal death through martyrdom. For early Christians, baptism was a transformation of every aspect of life.
What kind of life change do we expect from people who are baptized into the community of faith as United Methodists? Do we ask or expect people to make any kind of sacrifice of lifestyle in faithful response to the covenant they make? Do we take the vows seriously?
On Easter, we proclaim the power of life in the midst of death. We affirm anew our steadfast belief that the power of God shown in Jesus Christ and his love, by the power of the Holy Spirit, is infinitely stronger than the power of evil and death.
Dying and rising with him, we are changed, transformed, made new. We are changed from being individuals to being part of the body of Christ. Once we were no people but now we are God’s people.
The past year has been difficult for citizens of the United States. The election season was hard on folks, no matter what side they were on. It was a long, painful, sometimes even brutal fight. The devil really seemed to take a firm grip on us.
Now, with the election and inauguration of Donald Trump as the president of the United States, we are all living into our new reality. Some people are excited and filled with hope about what is to come. Others are worried or even afraid. Whichever way we may feel personally, the fact is, the future that lies before us is always unknown. We have to walk forward blind to where the road is leading. For some, it may be hard to believe in the promise of new life or see the signs that a new day is dawning.
Pastors, I urge you to proclaim to your congregation in no uncertain terms that as people of faith, we do not need to be afraid because Christ has risen. The promise of our Lord is that the dead will be raised to new life. Resurrection is not some vague metaphor for renewal. Resurrection is real because the power of God is real, and we need to trust that if God can raise Jesus from the dead, God will raise us from the dead too.
The promise of God is that we will rise up out of the waters of baptism and our lives will be completely transformed.
Mary Magdalene came to the tomb on the first day of the week, early in the morning of that first Easter Day, some 2000 years ago, thinking that her master was dead and buried forever. She came to the tomb filled with fear and hopelessness. She came weeping from the pain of her loss. She came accepting that the hope she found in following Jesus was dead and buried forever.
But what she found there was not what she expected. What she found there was an empty tomb. What she found was a new day dawning with hope and healing. What she found was confirmation, not of her fears, but of her Lord’s promise that he would rise. What she found was hope that because Christ is risen, WE WILL RISE also.
(Pastor moves to stand behind the Communion Table.)
Mary Magdalene went forth from the tomb transformed by her encounter with the risen Lord. She ran to find the rest of the disciples. When she found them, she told them what she had experienced at the grave of their teacher and master. She said, “My brothers and sisters, I have SEEN the Lord!” And she told them everything that happened at the tomb, and she shared with them all he had said to her” (John 20:18, author’s paraphrase).
Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed!