Honoring the Nestorian Christians

Sunday, April 26, 2015



Fred Vergara. St.James Episcopal Church, Elmhurst, New York. 4/26/2015

On the occasion of the baptism of Sebastian and Ashley and the gospel reading on the Good Shepherd, I would like to turn this sermon into a teaching moment on baptism, confirmation and reception in the Episcopal Church.

In the Episcopal Church as in most mainline churches, baptism is the required entrance into the Christian faith. It is what makes you to be called a Christian, a follower of Christ. Baptism is done by the priest, and in cases of emergency, can be done by any baptized Christian. The formula for baptism is the administration of water, with the words, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

Emergency baptism is done when a person is in danger of death and this is the case of Ashley. According to her mother, Roseline, Ashley was born prematurely at 6 ½ months and she weighed only 2 pounds. As they feared she was not going to make it, while being incubated, an emergency baptism was done by the chaplain at Elmhurst Hospital on December 26, 2004. 

When you look at Ashley today, you will never think that she was almost given up as dead while in her mother's womb, then she suddenly moved and the doctor's performed a c-section on Rosaline, and when taken out, she weighed only 2 pounds. Thanks be to God who gives her life and have it abundantly. She is a survivor from the very start.

It is a practice that an emergency baptism be followed by a public celebration in the church once the person survived---and ten years, later today, we are here regularizing Ashley’s baptism. But because baptism, whether emergency or non-emergency is an “unrepeatable act,” we want to avoid any action that might be interpreted as “rebaptism.” 

The rubric from the Book of Common Prayer provides “that the Baptism should be recognized at a public celebration of the Sacrament…and the person baptized under emergency conditions together with the sponsors or godparents, taking part in everything, except the administration of the water” (BCP, page 314).So Ashley will join Sebastian in all the baptismal vows and proceedings but will not have the repeat of the pouring of water.

Baptism is a sacrament, meaning “an outward or visible sign with an inward or spiritual grace.” Water is the outward sign and the inward grace has a three-fold meaning, namely:
         In baptism, we are united with Christ in his death and resurrection. This is aptly demonstrated in the baptism by immersion with the image that when a person is submerged in water, she virtually died with Christ and when she rose up from the water, she rose again with Christ.

2.      In baptism, we become members of God’s family, the Body of Christ, the Church. In the Episcopal Church, the sacrament of baptism is the only requirement to partake of another sacrament, the sacrament of the Holy Communion. You need not wait for Confirmation, another traditional sacrament, in order to partake of the Body and Blood of Christ. 

I will talk about Confirmation later, but for now, it is sufficient for you to know that when you are baptized in the name of the Holy Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Spirit), you may already partake of the Holy Communion.

3.      In baptism, we receive forgiveness of sins and new life in the Holy Spirit. In the baptismal covenant, the person being baptized is asked to renounce Satan or the Devil, the evil powers and the sinful desires that draw her from God; and after renouncing them, she will be asked if she accept Jesus Christ as Savior and obey Jesus Christ as Lord. Then she will go through a Baptismal Covenant in which she recites the Apostle’s Creed and make vows to “persevere in resisting evil, proclaim the Good News of Christ, love neighbor, strive for justice and peace and respect the dignity of every human being.”

So baptism is really a rite of passage from death to life, from darkness to light, from old birth to new birth. This is being born again! It is a passage from the old life of sin to a new life in Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus said to the old Nicodemus, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh but that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.”(John 3:6)

For this reason, St. Paul said, "I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me” (Galatians 2:20). 

St. Peter also inspired the Christians with these words, “For you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Peter 2:9).

Nowadays, many young people pride themselves with the words, “we are spiritual but not religious.” What they mean is that they believe in God and do good things but they do not want to belong to a church. What they do not realize is that the context of new birth in the Spirit is tied to baptism in Christ and membership in Christ’s Body, the Church. St. Teresa De Avila aptly said, “We are not material beings with spirits; we are spiritual beings with bodies.” She further said, “Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”  

Now let me speak briefly about Confirmation and Reception. In the Episcopal Church, there are seven (7) sacraments. Two are called gospel sacraments: Baptism and Holy Eucharist. They are called Gospel Sacraments because they are expressly mandated by Jesus Christ. The other five---Confirmation, Ordination, Marriage, Reconciliation of the Penitent, Unction of the Sick---are traditional sacraments practiced by the church for generations.

Confirmation, from the meaning of the word itself, is an action of confirming all who have been baptized. The Bishop visits the parish and all those who have been baptized are confirmed by the laying on of hands and the bishop praying, “Strengthen, O Lord, your servants with your Holy Spirit, empower them for your service and sustain them all the days of their life”(BCP, page 148).  

Usually, a Confirmation Class is held prior to the Confirmation by which the candidates for confirmation learn more about the doctrines or teachings of the Church. The Book of Common Prayer (pages 845-862) contains the basic catechism or Outline of the Faith that is taught in Confirmation Classes.

Reception is an additional rite by which those who have been baptized and confirmed in other churches, like the Roman Catholic Church, Orthodox Church or other Trinitarian churches and who have decided to affiliate with the Episcopal Church are formally received by the Bishop. The Bishop may lay hands on the candidates for reception or would simply say, “ (Name), we recognize you as a member of the one holy catholic and apostolic Church, and we receive you into the fellowship of this Communion” (BCP p. 418).

Reaffirmation is another additional rite for those who have lapsed in their commitment to the Church and have decided to return and renew their involvement and commitment. Now again, the Bishop may lay hands on them or may simply say the words, “ (Name), may the Holy Spirit, who has begun a good work in you in the service of Christ and His kingdom” (BCP 419).

Now, our Bishop, the Rt. Rev. Lawrence Provenzano, will visit our church on Sunday, July 26, 2015 and he does every year when we celebrate our church anniversary. When he comes to visit, we normally submit candidates for confirmation, reception and reaffirmation. Now I am glad that over the year, we have gained new attendees to our Sunday Worship. If you have not yet done so, I would like you to consider confirmation, reception or reaffirmation. There are three things I wish to emphasize on these rites:

1.      First, the decision for Christ maybe private but the rite or ceremony is public. Jesus expressly says in the Bible, “"Everyone who acknowledges me publicly here on earth, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven” (Matthew 10:32).

2.      Second, the importance of learning the faith. Hosea 4:6 says, ”My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge.” For this reason, I would like to announce that we shall have a Catechism, as we normally do, for those who are to be confirmed, received and would reaffirm their faith. Please watch out for the start of catechism sometime next month.

3.      Third, the significance of tradition. In the Episcopal Church, we believe in the three-legged stool of understanding our faith and they are: Scriptures, Tradition and Reason. Scripture means the Holy Bible, both the Books of the Old and the New Testament. As Episcopalians, we are also called “the people of the books.” Reason, according to our Anglican ethos, is "the governor of man's life, the very voice of God" (Archbishop Robert Runcie). 

Tradition, even in these fast-changing world is not to be tossed aside like a baby in bathwater. We, in the Philippines has a saying, “Ang hindi lumingon sa pinanggalingan, hindi makarating sa patutunguhan” or "those who do not remember where they come from could not arrive at where they are going." Tradition or magisterium has a place even in contemporary times.

The example of Jesus in Matthew 3:13-17 is worthy of our emulation. He was God incarnate but he came to John in the Jordan River and asked to be baptized. John who said he was not worthy even to untie Jesus’ sandals, tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”

Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented. And as soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”

Wednesday, April 8, 2015



(Winfred Vergara. St. James Episcopal Church, Elmhurst, New York. 03.15.2015)

Let me begin my sermon with Bible Trivia. What is the shortest verse in the Bible? It contains only two words. Answer: John 11:35 “Jesus wept.”
What is the longest verse in the Bible? Answer: Esther 8:9. It contains 90 words: ”'At once the royal secretaries were summoned--on the twenty-third day of the third month, the month of Sivan. They wrote out all Mordecai's orders to the Jews, and to the satraps, governors and nobles of the 127 provinces stretching from India to Cush. These orders were written in the script of each province and the language of each people and also to the Jews in their own script and language.'’ 

And what is the greatest verse in the Bible? Answer: it is in today’s gospel and it is  John 3:16  “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son that whoever believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life.”  

Why is this called the greatest verse?  Answer: Because it captures the essence of the whole Bible. 

Martin Luther, the German monk who started the religious reformation in Europe in the 16th century and paved the way for what is now the Lutheran Church, said that John 3:16  is “the whole gospel in miniature.” It is said that even if all the contents of the Bible will be erased and this verse is the only one left, we will still understand the biblical message.

So everyone, let us all try memorize this verse together: “For God so loved the world that whoever believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life.”  (John 3:16)

If we are writing a book, we can outline this verse into three parts:  Part I: God, the Greatest Lover ; Part II: Jesus, the Greatest Gift; and Part III: Eternal Life, the Greatest Promise.

1.     God, the Greatest Lover
This verse begins with “For God so loved the world that He gave”. This is the whole essence of love. Love is giving and not getting; Love is forgiving and not avenging; love is surrendering and not attacking.

So many stories were written about love; so many songs were sung about love; so many poems were spoken about love. But nothing can compare with the love of God for us. The First Epistle of John verse 3 says, “Behold what manner of love the Father has given unto us, that we shall be called children of God.” John made it clear that all love, real love, authentic love, agape love, eternal love, begins with God’s love.  We love because God first loved us.

I think the saddest part of the 21st century is the resurgence of hate groups. According to recent survey, in the United States alone, there are over a thousand active hate groups. There are racist groups which peddle hate against another race; there are sexist groups that peddle hate against women or gay; there are religious bigotry groups which peddle hate against other religious people and other cultures.

With the increased efficiency of social media and cyberspace technology, many of these hate groups are enticing young people. We are shocked to see some cops, who instead of doing their duty “to serve and to protect,” would have no restraint in killing suspects. It is shocking to learn that young people even from England, Europe and the United States have been enticed by the ISIS, one of the most notorious hate groups in the world today, to become hateful avengers. Recently, ISIS posted a video of a boy who turned into a junior jihadi. In the video, he executed a hostage, firing point blank, cold-bloodedly,  on the head of an adult victim.

It is my prayer that God who is Love, will soon multiply love groups so that hate groups will become a very small minority and would lose their significance.  St Augustine wrote: “What does love look like? It has the hands to help others; it has the feet to hasten to the poor and needy; it has the eyes to see misery and want; it has the ears to hear the sighs and sorrows.”

 If we must make a difference in this world, we must proclaim that God is love and invite the world, especially the young people, to join love groups.

2. Jesus, the Greatest Gift
“For God so loved the world that He gave…” What did God give? “He gave His only begotten Son.” And who is this Son? Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Graeco-Roman world of Jesus’ time, was, in essence not different from the world in our own time. Punishment for crime included beheading, hanging and crucifixion. There were hate groups, religious bigots, racists, sexists, homophobes. The world was yearning for peace. The poor cry for justice; the widows and orphans suffer neglect and social apathy; there was corruption, oppression and wickedness in the land.

Into this world of darkness, the light of Christ broke forth.  Jesus came as the fruit of love, the love that was impregnated in the womb of a Virgin by the greatest lover in the power of the Holy Spirit. For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, begotten not made, one in being with the Father.

Into this world of hate, Jesus came to proclaim the message of the Father’s love. He came to seek and to save the lost; to destroy the power of darkness; to bear witness to the truth. He came to die for the sins of the whole world so that by His death humanity may no longer live in hate but in love.

Martin Luther King, Jr. our American hero and follower of Jesus Christ once said, “Darkness cannot overcome darkness; only light can. Hate cannot overcome hate; only love can.” I Peter 3:18 says, “For Christ suffered for our sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us back to God.” Romans 5:8 says, “But God demonstrates his own love towards us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

God, the greatest lover proved his love by giving us the greatest gift, the most precious gift of all, His only begotten Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

3. Eternal Life, the Greatest Promise 
God, the greatest lover. Has given us the greatest gift; his only Son Jesus Christ. For what? What is the motive of the Giver? “That whoever believes in Him will not perish but have everlasting life.” 

This is the greatest promise. All human beings, no matter how good and great, have “sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” All human beings, no matter how strong and healthy, are mortal and formed of the earth. From dust we came and unto dust we shall return. All human beings are like grass and flowers in the field. The grass withers and the flower falls---and all human beings will have the same fate.

But in the fullness of time, this greatest Lover, gave His only begotten Son, Jesus Christ to save us from sin and give us the promise, that whoever believes in Him will not perish but have everlasting life. And He became the first fruit of that promise. For on the third day after his death, Jesus rose again from the dead. And because He lives, we can face tomorrow. We can live life abundant on earth, and in the age to come, life everlasting. 

He said it out before he was to ascend unto heaven, “In my Father’s house are many mansions; I go to prepare a place for you and if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and bring you with me, so that where I am, there you maybe also.”

The Book of Revelation 21, says it like this:
“Then I saw "a new heaven and a new earth," for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. Then I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Look! God's dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death' or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away."

This was the faith of the early Christians. Believing in the promise of eternal life in Jesus Christ, there was no longer any fear in their hearts. They dispersed from Jerusalem, to Judea, to Samaria and to the ends of the world proclaiming the love of God in Christ Jesus. Many of them were martyred for their faith. Some were tortured, beaten up, beheaded and crucified like Jesus. But on their lips, in their hearts and in their minds were  written the words of  John 3:16 “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him will not perish but have everlasting life.”

I know there are some of you here who are not yet Christians or who have not yet truly believed. I want you to consider making this leap of faith by praying this prayer with me: 

“Heavenly Father, I thank you for loving me so much that you gave your Son Jesus to suffer and die on the cross for my sins and the sins of the whole world. Lord Jesus, I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of the living God. I believe that you die for my sins; and because you live again; I can face tomorrow. I ask you to come into my heart and be the Lord of my life. Give me the Holy Spirit to guide me, to teach me and to comfort me. I receive your promise of abundant life on earth; and in the age to come, life everlasting. Amen.”