Sermons

Sermon for the First Sunday after the Epiphany, January 8, 2017 Solemn Evensong By the Reverend Stephen Gerth

Year 1: Genesis 1:1–2:3; John 1:1–7, 19–20, 29-34; Romans 6:3–1
Today we began reading Genesis. The way the church calendar falls this year, we will be hearing Genesis at Evening Prayer until the last two Sundays before Ash Wednesday. On first Sunday in Lent we pick it up again. In the Fourth week of Lent we will be in Exodus. But today I want to mention only one thing about this first creation story.

I’ve begun reading what for me is a new translation of Genesis by Robert Alter, who teaches Hebrew and comparative literature at UC Berkeley. I think Mother Mary Julia Jett may have given it to me when she was here—the highlighting is in pink.[1]

I came across the book when I was preparing a sermon for Evensong at Trinity Church, Allendale, New Jersey. Father Michael Allen, Penny Allen’s husband, is the rector, and the parish was celebrating his twenty-fifth anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood. The first reading was about Adam and Eve and the consequences for disobeying the Lord God.

The one thing I want to mention tonight about our reading is Alter’s translation of Genesis 1:27:

And God created the human in his image,
in the image of God He created him,
Male and female he created them
.[2]

It turns out that the human and the woman don’t get names until they are punished and sent away from the garden. Alter notes that the last two clauses could also be translated, “in the image of God He created the human, male and female He created them.” But that translation he thinks makes things messy for the second creation story. My response to Alter is, “So?” They are different stories. I think, “In the image of God he created the human, male and female he created them” captures the Hebrew and the meaning just fine.

But because today is the Feast of the Baptism of Christ and our General Convention is trying to begin a revision of our Prayer Book and our Hymnal, I would like to mention one important and unresolved theological issue from the 1970s: the Rite of Confirmation in the Episcopal Church, in the wider Anglican Communion, and for the Roman Catholic Church.

Theologically, there was no greater change in the Prayer Book than the first two sentences of the notes that precede the service of Holy Baptism:

Holy Baptism is full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ’s Body the Church. The bond which God establishes in Baptism is indissoluble.[3]

The 1979 book removed the requirement of confirmation before communion. There is no basis apart from ecclesiastical discipline for denying Holy Communion to a baptized member of the Church. And we are permitted to welcome baptized persons who received communion in their own communities to receive communion in our church. But, confirmation remains important—and I’ve never met a bishop who doesn’t love it or many laypersons who haven’t experienced the power of its prayer.

One has to be confirmed to be ordained; our bylaws require that our trustees be confirmed communicants in good standing. In the Eastern Orthodox churches, parish priests confirm in the course of Holy Baptism using oil consecrated by their bishop. Then, the newly baptized and anointed receive Holy Communion. In the Roman Catholic Church, priests confirm adults who are baptized at the Easter Vigil, but not younger children who are baptized at the same service. I caught just a little of the Solemn Mass from the Vatican today. The pope himself baptized 28 babies—mothers held them. Others assisted with the ceremonies. But I’m pretty sure I heard a prayer about how confirmation would complete the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

And then there’s the whole issue of the ministration of Holy Communion before baptism, about the Eucharist being about hospitality not faith—a practice I and the other clergy heard our bishop say at the diocesan priests conference—was normative, he thought, in 70% of our congregations. It’s not normative at Saint Mary’s, and I don’t think it will ever be as long as I am rector. That’s a bridge too far for me. Faith matters.

✠ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

[1] Robert Alter, Genesis: Translation and Commentary (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1996).

[2] Ibid., 5.

[3] The Book of Common Prayer [1979], 298.

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