January 8, 2023 — The Rev. Canon Britt Olson

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When my now husband Bryon and I were dating, he lived in Oregon and I was in Northern California. I invited him to come with me and some of my friends to Italy for a summer vacation. Now, he had never been to Europe but his mother’s parents were both born near Florence so I thought he’d be excited by a trip that included Rome, Florence and the Amalfi Coast.

Everything was a success, including his acceptance by all my friends but he had one problem with the trip. Why weren’t we going to Milan, he asked? This confused me since Milan is a big and not particularly beautiful city with a focus on fashion and furniture design, neither of which are important to him.

The mystery was solved when I realized that Milan is also the place where Bishop Ambrose baptized Augustine of Hippo, one of the most famous converts to Christianity in history. Although Augustine had been raised by a Christian mother, he devoted himself to scholarship and the pursuit of women. He has an independent mind and no desire to be constrained by Christian practice. He came to Rome and then to Milan as a scholar of rhetoric, a writer and speaker, skilled in argument. That’s where he encountered Ambrose, who was well known as an eloquent preacher.

Augustine’s conversion as an adult put him on a new course and resulted in the first truly autobiographical writing, The Confessions of St. Augustine. But first he was to be baptized. After many sessions during Lent, on April 24, 387 at the Easter Vigil, Augustine removed his clothes and donned the white robe of the catechumen. The baptistery is a large, eight-sided pool with steps going down to the center where those who are baptized have water poured over them. Once they are fully wet and the oil that marks them as sealed by the Holy Spirit is poured over them, the newly baptized walk up the steps on the opposite side to be welcomed by the Christian community.

This is what Bryon so desperately wanted to see on his visit to Italy. A few years after our marriage, we had an unexpected opportunity to return to Italy. When I was setting up our itinerary, I made sure that we flew into Milan so that we could experience this holy and meaningful place together.

Why should a site for baptism matter so much? After all, Jesus and many of his followers have been baptized in rivers, lakes and oceans for centuries. As Christianity grew and developed, not only adults were baptized, but children and infants were often brought by their parents to be baptized both as a sign of their belonging to a Christian family but also as a protection for their souls because of the risk of infant mortality. Many who have been baptized at a young age, not only have no memory of the event, they may not even know when, why or even where they were baptized.

What about the baptismal fonts where this sacrament takes place? We have moved away from the deep pools and the fonts shaped like a cross or a tomb. Instead we have small basins with water, tucked away in the side or back of the church, often with a cover over it or empty except for when there is a baptism. Unless we attend a Baptist church with a built-in tank, the baptisms we witness are sprinklings or sometimes water poured over someone standing in a kiddie wading pool. No one would travel thousands of miles to revisit the place of these baptisms.

But baptism is so much more than a place or a method. Baptism is the act by which God proclaims Jesus and all those who follow him in baptism as God’s beloved child. Baptism lifts each one up as precious in God’s sight. We are connected through the water and the Spirit to the divine life of God and in communion with all who join themselves to God’s dream for this world.

The pool in Milan and our little baptismal font here at St. Luke’s are both 8-sided because they symbolize the seven days of creation plus the 8th day of eternity. Baptism connects us to all of creation, all that is good in water, land, sky, stars, plants and animals.

We wear the white robe of baptism as a great equalizer, reminding us that God shows no partiality and that all are equally beloved regardless of status, wealth, race, gender or nationality. We are all equally sinners in need of forgiveness and new birth and saints, clothed in holiness and worthiness by the grace of God.

Baptism commits us to a different way of life in a process that will continue until the day we die. We are on a spiritual journey, walking in the way of Jesus, living out the promises made in the baptismal covenant, falling and rising again as we travel the pilgrim’s path. We may go years without remembering or honoring our baptism. We may, like Augustine run from or reject the Christian faith. And yet, the call on our lives is still there. It is the call of love from the One who anointed us and named us as God’s beloved.

This call is centered in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. He himself was baptized by John in an act of radical identification with humanity and as a sign of a new movement of the Holy Spirit. He healed, delivered and forgave those who were wounded in body, mind and spirit. He ate with the poor and strangers, the despised and outcast. He suffered and died in solidarity with and love for all. And in his resurrection he shared meals with his followers and commissioned us to continue his works of love, healing and forgiveness. Baptism unites us with the life, death and resurrection of Christ and empowers us to live as his Body in the world.

And yet, the place and act of baptism is so humble and quiet and seemingly insignificant. It is not like so many of the other symbols that people flock to and identify themselves by. Baptism doesn’t provide you a card that proves your membership, a sign of who is in or out. The mark of the cross on your forehead is invisible, yet indelible.

In baptism you are not given a flag to fly as a symbol of pride and identity. You won’t be able to use the flag pole to attack a perceived political enemy or have a banner to wrap yourself up in.

There’s no uniform for the baptized. The white of my robe and the white of a baptismal garment are intended to draw attention away from all markers of status, employment or identity. We are clothed in Christ and it is only as we walk in the way of Jesus that we can be marked as followers of him.

Baptism won’t provide you with a corner office, a set of initials behind your name, a title or a crown. Success for the Christian is measured in dying and rising to new life and new birth and can’t be measured with a bank account or the number of social media followers you have.

Instead, you are God’s chosen and beloved one. God delights in you. You are called by God for a purpose and your life has meaning. God has taken you by the hand and will you lead you if you allow it into a life that is beyond your wildest imagining: a life of giving and receiving, loving and being loved, suffering and blessing, joy and sorrow.

As you share in the life of Christ you will share his mission to establish justice, free prisoners, bring sight to the blind, show light and serve others. You will be characterized (but not all the time!) by humility, compassion, gentleness and persistence.

And, because you are baptized and marked by the Holy Spirit, you won’t ever do this on your own. The power and presence of the Trinity will be beside you and with you at all times should you call upon them. You will receive strength, power, and love beyond what you can ask or imagine.

I know our little font here isn’t very grand, but you may not realize how many people have come to visit St. Luke’s because this is the place where they received new birth, new life and the indwelling of God’s Spirit. We have had visitors from Japan, England, China, the East Coast and many other places who were set on their spiritual path because of this community. You are now a part of that heavenly host.

In years to come when we have our new church space and a large, baptismal font with running water and the capacity for full baptisms, this humble font and those gathered around it will be part of the ancient story of God’s love for all of creation. Today, as we affirm our faith in the words of the baptismal covenant, remember that you are baptized and marked as Christ’s own forever.


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