Genesis 1:1-5; Psalm 29; Acts 19:1-7; Mark 1:4-11
Baptism – Our Common Journey
2020 is behind us, or at least the numerical marker on the calendar indicates that this difficult year is past us. However, the ongoing pandemic, the events of the past year, and the news of the first few weeks of the new year has left an indelible mark on all of us. We all had anticipated just a few days ago, that the new year would bring hope of a new start and a new day, but that new day of 2021 has been stained in our own capital. There is a rift emerging in our common life as a people, filled with emotion, frustration, and a divide. Even so, we can find healing, we can find a common life together, if we but return to the path of love, the life in Christ made possible through the sacrament of our baptism.
Today is the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord and this is not just another Sunday. It is a day of commemoration through which all the church is reminded to renew our promises made on one of the major transitions in the life of Our Lord’s ministry, and the same major transition in our own lives. Baptism is much more than a mere rite of passage for infants or spiritual fire insurance. Baptism is not just a sweet church ritual where baby in baptismal gown is dedicated by parents and grandparents. Baptism is a once-in-a-lifetime holy event.
I think sometimes we have lost the meaning of baptism, and I believe we need to renew the church’s teaching of baptism, and what it means for all of God’s children. I had a parishioner once who had a grandchild, they wanted baptism. They asked me when we could “get it done” and began to talk about preparing the parents for their responsibilities. The parishioner said, “Father, come now, we are just talking about a little water, a few words, and then the baby is on Jesus’ team, right?” Well, I took the opportunity to teach them about baptism. I shared with grandma that this is no water bath, but a pivotal moment of transformation that Jesus has left for us. I explained how this particular moment of our lives is a change, a new start, a life moment the whole community of God participates in, and it is one Jesus left for us to follow. I explained that Baptism is the moment we enter into the family of God. It is the door to the church. It is how we become sisters and brothers of the one who left this sacrament for us to follow.
Baptism Changes Us, Baptism Changes Our Relationships
Some people have a hard time understanding why Jesus participated in baptism in the first place. Even John the Baptist initially misunderstood why Jesus showed up at the waters of the Jordan for that holy water bath. John stated, “the one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” John really didn’t understand, but later realized that Jesus was leaving us an example of the life we are to lead, and the example we are to follow. Jesus invites us to identify with him, and for him to identify with us.
In the Book of Common Prayer, in the Thanksgiving over the Water found in the baptism rite we read what the church teaches about the waters of baptism. It states, “In it we are buried with Christ in his death. By it we share in his resurrection. Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit.” The Apostle Paul in his letter to the Galatians spoke about dying in a death like his and sharing in a resurrection like his. Paul asserts that “the person who has been baptized is ‘in Christ,’ is no longer subject to the divisions of human society and is part of a unified body.”
In other words, because of our baptism, we find our identity in Christ and we find our identity in community in Christ. Our identity as the baptized supersedes our identity in any other group, association, or even our citizenship. Through baptism, we die to our old self and live into a new reality. That new reality is the church, the Body of Christ, the family of God. We are now called to live a life of peace, joy, service, love, and reconciliation. We need to understand that as a baptized Christian our loyalties are now to Christ and the Kingdom of God.
What is Baptism
In the Episcopal Church’s catechism it states, “Baptism is full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ’s Body, the church.” Thus, we are by virtue of our baptism, a full-fledged part of “Team Jesus.” We are on the team, we are unified, we are a group, a gaggle, a community, and we are a family. The church is much more than a secondary association, or a community of folks brought together for weekly worship alone. We are a new people.
We humans are social folk, and we need to gather with others in order to feel complete and whole. There are all kinds of groups and communities out there these days and in each one, folks come together for different reasons and purposes. There are civic groups that gather for service to the community, there are golf groups who gather for golf; there are social groups who gather for fun. The Church however is a community with a purpose, a mission, and life-changing path. The Church, the Body of Christ, “Team Jesus” is brought together for the purposes of love, and our association is formal, well-defined, and permanent because of an indissoluble bond made possible by following the example of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ through the waters baptism.
Baptism is Christian initiation, an entry, a turning point, a new phase of life made possible by water and Spirit. In baptism, we pass through water yes, but we also take promises upon ourselves or in the case of infants, they are taken for us and on our behalf. Baptism is ritual, promise, and it is covenant. It is a promise made by each of us as individuals and corporately as the church, and it is a promise made between us and God. In baptism, God promises that we will are God’s people and we will share in God’s kingdom. In baptism, our promises to God and each other, define how we will live into God’s promise to us, and how we will be God’s people. This way of life we promise to undertake in baptism is of God, because it is the life, death, and resurrection of God in Christ which we promise to follow.
Baptismal Promise – Gathering
On page 304 of the Book of Common Prayer, we find the promises of our baptism, which all of us say together when someone new enters the family of God. These promises are often renewed again and again throughout the Christian year, especially today, when in some congregations we replace the Nicene Creed for the Baptismal Covenant. Let me summarize those promises of baptism, which define what it means to be a member of “Team Jesus.” First, we are asked to promise, “Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?” Some of God’s people have dedicated their entire life to studying the teaching of the apostles and so should we. I dare say that a 10-15 minute sermon once a week is just not enough to learn to live the path of love.
We all need to study the scriptures daily, and we should take advantage of the any Adult Christian Education opportunities that are out there. We are invited by virtue of our baptism into a deeper love and commitment to Jesus Christ, and that itself takes effort. The fellowship of the body through the sacrament of the breaking of bread is essential. We gather each week to receive the sacrament, but this meal is not just about you and me as individuals. When we share a meal with someone, we just don’t eat and run; we interact. We make ourselves vulnerable, and we enter into relationship. Communal living in Christ is not a drive-thru, fast food endeavor, but a multi-course meal in which, we gather, share, reveal our brokenness, and learn what it really means to love one another (not just the ones we like or those who are like us). That “and in the prayers” part seems easy enough, but many folks struggle with having a conversation with God. That’s pretty much what prayer is by the way, listening for God’s Spirit to speak to us. Sometimes in prayer, we may say too much. Maybe the key to prayer is merely taking the time for a few minutes to listen, to quiet our spirit and wait on God.
Baptismal Promise – Doing
The next baptismal promise is “Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?” We all stray and fall off the path. We all will fail, but it’s in the returning to “Team Jesus,” that we embrace this promise and find the arms of God awaiting our return. As a community of reconciliation and restoration, we become an example of God’s forgiveness and grace to the world.
The next promise is as follows, “Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?” This promise frightens Episcopalians because it sounds too much like Evangelism. It is by the way, but evangelism does not include the use of bullhorns and Gospel tracts and street preaching on the local main drag. No, sharing the Gospel means that we live knowing our lives may be the only lens through which others can see Christ. We need to realize that “our lives draw others to Jesus,” and “this community’s life reflects the life of Christ to others.” The next few promises are difficult ones to keep, especially in times like we live in today, “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?” and “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?”
Loving neighbor, striving for justice, and respecting dignity is tough these days. However, caring for the poor, afflicted, and broken is NOT just a clichéd litany of teachings that Jesus offered us, but ones he really did not really expect us to follow. We, the Body of Christ are a missional community commissioned to bring others to unity with God and each other in Christ. The others God claims always extends well beyond just those gathered together on Sunday, but includes those for whom our earthly associations might not include. The others are all of God’s creatures, especially those for whom we might hold differing opinions.
Baptism and Unity
Now in these times, when the divisions of our common national life seems to be growing, it is time for we Christians to remember our baptismal promises. we need to realize when things are feeling like they are being ripped apart, we are brought together by our promises made to God and each other. Right now, when we wrestle with how we as Christians might live in these times, we can go to the higher authority of God’s word, and live differently than the world.
The events of the past week have left an indelible mark on our society, and our nation may never be the same. But we Christians have been left with an indelible mark on us long ago. At our baptism, the priest takes oil and makes the sign of the cross on our forehead. and reminds us that we are marked by Holy Spirit and we are ” Christ’s own forever.” that mark may be the hope, the life transformation that can heal our nation. Our baptism serves as a call for all of us to live a life of service, a life of peace, a life of reconciliation, and a life of love. As we go out today to “love and serve the Lord,” as the candles are extinguished please never forget your baptismal promises.
In the days to come, when all seems hopeless, let the mark of Baptism remind you that we find our common life, our hope, and our purpose following the one who loved all, accepted all, and unifies us all in God’s grace. Let us pray, “Heavenly Father, we thank you that by water and the Holy Spirit you have bestowed upon these your servants the forgiveness of sin, and have raised them to the new life of grace. Sustain them, O Lord, in your Holy Spirit. Give them an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works. Amen.”
1 Schowalter, Daniel N. The Oxford Companion to the Bible. Edited by Bruce M. Metzger and Michael D. Coogan. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.