Isaiah 42:1-9; Psalm 29; Acts 10:34-43; Matthew 3:13-17
Archie Bunker and Little Joey
When I was a kid, my fathers’ favorite television show was “All in the Family.” Sometimes I think my dad actually saw some of himself in Archie Bunker (the main character) and that’s why he religiously watched it every week. There was one episode in which Archie, against the wishes of his daughter and son-in-law, took his grandson Little Joey to the local church to get him baptized. At the church office, Archie met with the pastor, and asked him to baptize Joey that day. The pastor asked, “Are the parents here?” Archie explained that the parents couldn’t make it, so if possible, let’s get it done today. Archie reminded the pastor, let’s get it done, because “A soul has to be saved.”
The pastor recognized that the parents did not consent to the baptism and so he refused. Not ready to acknowledge defeat, Archie snuck into the church’s nave near the baptismal font and confessed to God, “Lord I don’t want my little grandson Joey to be born without religion.” Archie was a little misguided about baptism, but he went ahead and baptized Little Joey. Archie then prayed, “Lord, I hope that took, because when I get home, they are going to kill me.”
Yes, little Joey’s baptism was valid and it did take, but something was missing. Without the committed support of a faith community, and more importantly the active training by the parents who refused to have little Joey baptized, then the boy would miss what Archie intended, religion; or the opportunity to grow up in the faith with instruction and support. . Moreover, Joey missed being welcomed into the community of faith.
The Body of Christ did not participate in welcoming the child into the community and did not make promises to the parents and God to help raise the child in the faith. The parents made no promises to God on Joey’s behalf, to raise him in the faith. Something essential, critical, and necessary was missing, even though Joey was baptized that day. Archie took it upon himself to go through the ritual of water bath, out of some misguided idea that if the child was baptized, he would grow into the faith in community (by osmosis I guess), simply because of the water bath. Archie missed the whole point of baptism, initiation into the community, the church, the Body of Christ.
Baptism – what it is not.
In today’s gospel reading, regarding Jesus’ desire to be baptized, he says to John, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Even though Jesus was without sin, some find it strange that he wanted to be baptized. We have to understand though, that Jesus’ baptism was the underpinnings of what the church has come to understand about the sacrament, this sacred moment of baptism. The baptismal waters are the door through which we enter the Body of Christ, the church, the way we continue the trail of fulfilling right relationships. That is why the baptismal font is located at the entrance to the sanctuary. The font reminds us, as we enter the church, of our first entry into the church at baptism.
Now this understanding has not always been prominent in the church. Like Archie Bunker, we used to think baptism was “holy fire insurance” or the child’s “holy immunization.” The idea was that baptism somehow kept the child or adult from eternal damnation. It was a misguided idea in the middle ages, because when mortality rates of infants increased, fear led parents to baptize their children as soon as possible, because they felt baptism would keep the infant from eternal damnation. Unfortunately, that concept still finds its way into the church today, and many of us grew up during a time in the church, where that archaic understanding of baptism seemed to linger on.
Another misconception of baptism is that is merely some empty and non-efficacious “rite of passage.” Wikipedia defines “rite of passage” as, “a ceremony or ritual of the passage, which occurs when an individual leaves one group to enter another. It involves a significant change of status in society.” We mark certain life stage events with ritual however, it often feels like the event itself is the end all. For instance, through ritual we celebrate school, kindergarten, high school and college graduations. Through ritual we mark the event of retirement and weddings. Sometimes the meaning behind why we do what we do is lost, and the ritual itself is the only purpose of the gathering. We miss the fact that the purpose of school graduations is to move the person from one educational stage, from one tribe of fellow learners to another. We miss the fact that retirement moves us from one tribe of fellow workers to another tribe of fellow retirees; a new life of common activities. We miss the fact that weddings move us from our family tribe, a micro-community, into the union of two people who begin the process of forming an extended micro-community. We miss the fact that baptism moves us from being a member of that micro-community of family, into the family of God. Baptism is much more than a religious rite of passage.
So, What is Baptism?
Pastor Andrew Conners writes in a recent article that I read, “Jesus does not need this baptism, but chooses it in order to lead others to its waters.” (1) Jesus leads us to the baptismal font, so we might join the family of God, in obedience to his example. Our Lord gave us an example of the depth of God’s love for humanity through this act of living in communion with humanity. It was Christ’s act of righteousness that opened the way, by which we might identify with Christ. His baptism was a sign of Jesus’ solidarity with sinners and thus, by our baptism, we participate in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We begin to live the life of righteousness.
Righteousness means being in right relationship with God and with each other. Thus, fulfilling righteousness in baptism, means we take the first steps to being righteous following the example of Jesus. 16th Century reformer Martin Luther once preached, “The heavens, previously closed, are now opened, becoming a clear gateway and window for us to see into heaven itself. There is no longer a dividing line between God and us, for he has descended into the [baptismal] water.” (2) It is through the waters of baptism, that we enter the blessed community, admitted to participate in the holy meal, and then sent out on mission into the world, depending only on God to guide us, direct us, and sustain us.
Conner also writes, “It is almost as if Jesus wants us to see—right from the beginning—that we have no idea what we are doing when we come to the font or bring our children to its plain old waters. We have no idea what it will mean for our futures, no idea of how it will affect our lives.” (1) Baptism washes away our dependence on self, and baptism makes a way for us to don the holy outer garments of grace, which allow us to follow God’s leading every single day.
Now you’re in, now what
So you may say, “Father Eric, I was baptized as a baby and I do not remember it, but I know I am a Christian, initiated, sprinkled, and anointed with holy oil, now what?” Jesus tells us to move from font to table to mission. “It’s time to follow Jesus,” He tells us. Martin Luther once said, “So, we are commanded to look to the Son, for God did not shrink from saying to all of us: “Listen, all of you people: This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” What that means is this: “If you want me as a gracious Father, that is quite easy: Hold fast to my Son. Hear and do what he tells you.” We should follow this voice through thick and thin.” (2)
Being baptized means you can with confidence know that you are definitely in the holy club of faith, but that does not mean the members can be comfortable and relax now that they have eternal membership privileges. We are members of the Body of Christ and we are recipients of grace, and we have the promises of everlasting life. However, being in holy club card carriers means so much more than membership. It means we have certain responsibilities.
Our Baptismal promises, which we will reaffirm today in place of the Nicene Creed, helps us know our responsibilities to both our sisters and brothers in church, and our responsibilities to all of creation, of which we are a part. We promise to continue to participate in the life of word and sacrament and prayer. We promise to resist evil by which we acknowledge our sinful nature and our need for repentance and reconciliation. We promise to be witnesses to the Good News of God in Christ, through our lives. We promise to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, “loving your neighbor as ourselves,” “striving for justice and peace among all people,” and respecting the dignity of every human being.” We acknowledge our responsibility to both those within the Body of Christ in terms of serving Christ in all persons, and to a broader sense as a community and as individuals who strive for justice and peace for all people. The Baptismal Covenant helps us to understand how we identity with Christ, and it show us how we can truly follow him.
You see, baptism is not fire insurance, nor is it some kind of holy immunization that we have to accomplish to avoid our eternal demise, nor is it just one more cultural rite of passage. Baptism is entering the body of followers he calls, then doing what Jesus does, following Jesus, even when we do not know why. Baptism most importantly I believe, reminds us that we cannot do this Christian life thing all alone, because we need each other, we need a community to help us be like Jesus. Through the waters of baptism, we identify with Our Lord Jesus Christ, we are initiated into mystery of the Body of Christ, the church, and through these waters, we take our share of the ministry of Christ in the world, by bringing all to the knowledge and love of Christ. My sisters and brothers, you are a child of God. You are a member of the Body of Christ, and you never have to wonder if your baptism, as Archie Bunker prayed, “took.” You are a follower of Jesus Christ Our Lord and Savior. You, like Jesus Our Lord are the ones to whom God has proclaimed, “This is my Son, This is my daughter, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.”
- Connors, Andrew Foster. “Matthew 3:13-17.” Interpretation, vol. 64, no. 4, Oct. 2010, pp. 402–404.
- Luther, Martin. “‘This Is My Son, the Beloved’: Sermon on the Baptism of Jesus, The Epiphany of Our Lord (January 6, 1534).” Word & World, vol. 16, no. 1, Wint 1996, pp. 7–10.