Katie Aikins is pastor of Tabernacle United Church in Philadelphia. She and her wife Heather Bargeron are parents to their adopted 20-month-old son Oscar Emmanuel Aikins-Bargeron. Katie preached this sermon on the occasion of Oscar’s baptism on July 21.
Baptism without the church, without the community of faith, would make no sense. One of the promises we make as parents is to raise our child in the community of faith.
This Heather and I know: That though we will make our promises to Oscar and to this church to raise him to follow in the way of Jesus Christ, to show love and justice, to resist oppression and evil, we also know that alone, we as parents will not be enough for Oscar to live into his full calling and identity as a child of God. The community of faith —the place where we are practicing resisting evil together, where we are growing together in our practices of justice and love – this is the context in which baptism unfolds in its meaning and fruitfulness.
Oscar has two moms who love him to the moon and back. And his two moms are white and have never experienced what it is like to grow up as a child in the age of Trump, to grow up as a boy and later as a man (if he continues to identify himself in that way), and as a person of color. This world is going to teach him all kinds of things that I will hate, and that I know that we will want to resist. The world is going to teach him that to be a man means to show little emotion, that to be strong is to dominate and control others, and that violence and making lots of money is a way to solve problems and get ahead. And as a brown man, he’s going to learn from our white supremacist culture that he’s not valuable, that his body is threatening and criminal. He’s cute now, but when he’s 12, people may begin to fear him. I hate all of this, but I know these powerful forces of evil are real in our world.
As a white person, I will never know what it feels like to be in Oscar’s brown body no matter how much I love him and try to understand. And though Heather and I will fight for him with every ounce of our being, we know Oscar will need people in his life who he can identify with, who look like him, who have experiences like he does, and who will teach him resilience as he experiences the evils of white supremacy first hand. And this is all another reason why baptism is not a private event. It has to be within the context of a faith community like this one. Because we, all of us, are asked to make our promises to nurture Oscar and teach him in such a way that he will know first and foremost his identity as a child of God. The world will call him other things, the world will try to make claims about him and label him, but we will claim that his primary identity is as a child of God.
What are we claiming in baptism? Today we are claiming specifically, that Oscar belongs to God. That his name is known to God. We are claiming that the grace of God is already at work in his life, saving him before he is even fully aware of who God is. We are claiming that Oscar has a place and has belonging in the family of God. That his body and life is valuable. We are claiming that he has been given the gift of the Holy Spirit as his advocate, and that the Spirit now and forever will be an active and creative presence in his life, leading him into all truth.
These are big claims to make. And the only way any one of us could ever really live into any of these claims, is through a community of faith where we are nurtured in our primary identity as children of God. And this identity is nurtured in resistance to the lies of the world that are constantly trying to name us and claim us.
What I want you to know today, that baptism isn’t just about one person. It’s not all about Oscar today. Baptism is about community. The community of Christ, the body of Christ. Baptism is about becoming a part of a beloved community of joy and of resistance as we follow in the way of Jesus.
I find it significant that Jesus would not just request baptism for himself, but rather would demand it (Matthew 3:13-17). Did you know that Jesus needed community too in order to live into his identity as a child of God? He demanded that John baptize him because he said, “We must do this to fulfill God’s justice.”
Jesus knew that he needed to be baptized. He needed not only community, but he needed to experience a kind of death, a death to the powers of evil. He needed to renounce his obligation to Rome, to Ceasar and to Herod, and to be born again into new life, life in God’s kingdom, where the requirements of citizenship are quite different from Rome’s requirements. Citizenship in the kingdom of God is based on radical love, solidarity with the poor, redistribution of wealth, sharing of God’s gifts and resources, it’s based on forgiveness of sins, it’s based on caring for the flourishing of God’s creation. Jesus needed that personal transformation and he needed community, mentors, people who would help him live into that new life.
As baptism was a new beginning for Jesus, so is it a kind of new beginning for Oscar. It’s the beginning of his life as a part of the church, the beginning of his life as a student and follower of Jesus. And the beginning of this new life is not a life marked by fear of the future or dread of the unknown. It is not marked by fear of the after-life, or fear of anything at all really. This new beginning through baptism is a beginning marked by an empowering force of the Holy Spirit. It is marked by a sure and certain hope that I am named and claimed by God as beloved. If we can start there, there is little to fear.