St. Augustine of Canterbury Anglican Church
Bishop Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for the 2nd Sunday after Epiphany, January 19, 2020
“Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and was baptized of John in Jordan. And straightway coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens opened, and the Spirit, like a dove, descending upon him: and there came a voice from heaven, saying, Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”
ON A STONE OBELISK at Monticello in Virginia these words are engraved: “Here was buried Thomas Jefferson: Author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, and Father of the University of Virginia.” Our 3rd president required these, and only these words to be on his headstone, with no mention of public office. Rather only three things: the writing of our founding document, a college, and one statute for the Commonwealth of Virginia: the bill he wrote and fought for, and James Madison insisted be passed into law. Freedom for faith.
While the story of America was still being written, Jefferson was determined to give his new country the freedom England would not. And that determination led to one of his greatest inventions: a way for every American – believing and unbelieving – to live an authentic life. Few governmental statutes had risen to this level of liberty, its principle a protection for the rights of conscience.
What Jefferson understood was that, without religious liberty, there is no freedom at all. Maybe that's why, despite all other accomplishments, the words that inspired our First Amendment are what he's most proud of. These are the liberties that set America apart. Jefferson would be gratified to know that today, in a world in which three out of every four people live in places hostile to faith, America is still one of the brightest lights on freedom's shore.
Three things he would insist on being remembered for. Not his presidency, nor that he doubled the size of America’s territories, or that he abolished international slave trade. He developed the plans for West Point, and when the British set fire to the Library of Congress in 1812, he single-handedly restocked it. Today some will complain that Jefferson owned slaves, but he was at the forefront of abolishing the practice in his own time, and made sure we could worship here today without fear.
It’s a fundamental principle in God’s creation that we should walk free. God wants all of us to believe in Him and follow Him faithfully, and yet He created us with the innate ability to disobey Him, deny Him, and ruin ourselves in doing so. But without liberty of thought, we are no longer human, not real persons, no individuality left, but mere dolls. God did not make any dolls.
Wednesday was the birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., born 91 years ago, and tomorrow is the national holiday named for him. Why? A man who, with personal flaws and failures, examples of free will sometimes mislaid, as is true of us all, yet this man saw the disgrace of institutional racial injustice and set his life against it. He knew that only a non-violent and peaceful public presence could win through and conquer the age-old prejudice that harms all races when it denies one its place in the sun. Freedom can be won, not by force, but only through a life that, like a flame, burns with the likeness of Jesus.
King had six principles that guided him and his freedom fighters to see segregation abolished in all states of the Union, which are: to-
1. Resist evil without resorting to violence.
2. Seek to win the friendship and understanding of our opponents, not to humiliate them.
3. Know that evil itself, not people doing evil, should be opposed.
4. Be committed to nonviolence, willing to suffer without retaliation as suffering itself can be redemptive.
5. Avoid both external violence and internal violence of spirit, refusing to hate, but loving those who would be our enemy.
6. Hold a deep faith in the future, because God is on the side of justice.
With these principles, in 1963, Dr. King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in D.C. at the March on Washington, looking out over ¼ million faces surrounding the reflecting pool, people of all races, who heard him say those fateful words:
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” And he closed in saying: “When we allow freedom to ring—when we let it ring from every city and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last, Free at last, Great God a-mighty, We are free at last.’” Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King
We come to faith freely. It’s the only way. No one can force your mind to think any thought, your heart to feel any emotion, your will to turn in one direction or another. Your body can be forced to kneel, but you won’t be worshiping. In the ultimate act of nonviolent resistance, Jesus Christ came to earth, God in man, to be pushed, slapped, whipped, beaten, pierced, cursed and killed for us, for us to look upon and realize our sins are redeemed in His Passion. It takes His dying to beckon us finally to live. And we live, but only because we choose to. It’s freedom that does that. There is no force in His divine presence except to display to us an awesome goodness we would do well not to resist.
St. Paul was a violent man, once. Jesus turned him around. Finally, he would write words that no doubt inspired Dr. King: “Bless them which persecute you: bless, and curse not. Rejoice with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that weep. Be of the same mind one toward another. Mind not high things, but condescend to men of low estate.”
We come to Christ in a turn of the will. It could be said that an older system of forced religion is found in baptizing our babies. But baptism is not salvation. A person may be baptized as an infant and never respond willingly to the graces given. It’s still completely in his or her power to say yes, or say no. In the liturgy of your baptism were questions you answered, or were answered for you, later to be taken of your free will in confirmation:
DOST thou renounce the devil and all his works, the vain pomp and glory of the world, with all covetous desires of the same, and the sinful desires of the flesh, so that thou wilt not follow, nor be led by them?
Answer. I renounce them all; and, by God's help, will endeavour not to follow, nor be led by them.
Minister. Dost thou believe in Jesus the Christ, the Son of the Living God?
Answer. I do.
Minister. Dost thou accept him, and desire to follow him as thy Saviour and Lord?
Answer. I do.
Minister. Dost thou believe all the Articles of the Christian Faith, as contained in the Apostles' Creed?
Answer. I do.
Minister. Wilt thou be baptized in this Faith?
Answer. That is my desire.
That is my desire. That is my desire: nobody is making me say it or do this. Salvation comes by hearing, then thinking on it, and sensing the truth of it all. Then an act of the will, to take Jesus up on the phenomenal offer He is making you, offering you His scarred hand to take into yours so that He lifts you up to Himself.
Three-fourths of humanity live without religious freedom. They are born into a caste, a clan, an enclave, a culture of one mindset, a framework that doesn’t make space for the individual, denying basic human life room to breathe, expand, and fly. Yet, under the oppression of another older foreign empire, with the best-equipped army in the world, caught in a religious system of rights and wrongs that stipulated the way to please its God, the people walked away into the wilderness, to hear an itinerate preacher in animal skins, baptizing those who were willing to turn their lives over to God and await their very unofficial Redeemer.
And on those banks came a man, John’s cousin it would be discovered, who John knew, but never realized until that day, was the One for whom he waited. “Behold the Lamb of God, He that takes away the sins of the world!” John had heard from God that he should look for this sign, that one he would baptize would have the Spirit of God descend on Him visibly, and remain on Him. And so it was. Jesus had no reason to need baptism, a symbolic act of repenting for sin. Jesus had no sin, but took the sin of the world on Himself, and in His act of ritual purification, we are all made clean. Now He commends it to all. John saw the Spirit come to Jesus, down from heaven, like a dove made from light, and heard God the Father’s voice above, saying to Jesus, “Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” Father, Son, and Holy Ghost: the Theophany of this season of Epiphany, the showing forth of Christ to the world. He is shown forth so that, in freedom, all may choose Him.
In His final instructions to the Apostles, His ministers to the world, Jesus commanded them to “Go, make disciples of all nations, tribes, ethnicities, families and races, and baptize them in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Teach them to obey and keep safely every command I have given you. See, I am with you, and will be with you throughout the ages to come.” Matt 28
More than three years before our Constitution would be ratified and become law in 13 states, on January 16, 1786, the Commonwealth of Virginia put into its foundations Jefferson’s words: “Almighty God hath created the mind free; that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishment or burdens… tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and are a departure from the plan of the Holy author of our religion…”
Our religion begins with freedom. If freely you come, then gladly will I pour the water on your head, saying, “I baptize thee, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.”