An act of gratitude

When the patron saint of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther, found himself besieged on all sides by adversaries both political and spiritual – when he was plagued deep within his body and soul by fear, self-doubt and physical pain – he cried out: “I am baptized – and through my baptism, God, who cannot lie, has bound himself to me in covenant.” I am baptized…

St. Paul, that crusty old Pharisee who had a spiritual change of heart and became a disciple of grace, used to regularly call upon the blessings of his baptism as a reminder that no matter what life threw at him – neither death nor life, angels nor principalities, things present nor things to come, not powers nor height nor depth nor anything else in all creation – nothing would be able to separate him from the love of God in Christ Jesus the Lord because… he had been baptized. And John Newton, who came to write what is now America’s favorite hymn, “Amazing Grace,” understood that it was his baptism into the life, death and resurrection of Christ that “saved a wretch like me… who once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see” after leaving behind his part in the human slave trade. I have been baptized. This morning’s text in Peterson’s translation tells us:

By faith in Christ you are in direct relationship with God. Your baptism in Christ was not just washing you up for a fresh start. It also involved dressing you up in an adult faith wardrobe – Christ’s life, death and resurrection – as the fulfillment of God’s original promise. Therefore since you have enter this new family there can be no divisions among you – no Jew and non-Jew, slave or free, male or female, (Republican or Democrat) – among us all are equal because we are all in a common relationship with Jesus Christ… heirs of God’s blessing through the promises of the covenant. Galatians 3: 25-20

And yet today, twenty one hundred years after Christ’s own life-changing baptism at the hands John the Baptist, the sacrament of Holy Baptism is not only treated like some magical rite that is the automatic privilege of anyone who walks through these doors, it is also fundamentally understood backwards – as if we are doing something for one another or God – instead of responding spiritually to God’s presence, power and grace-filled invitation. William Willimon, United Methodist Bishop of Alabama, describes a baptism in a “typical North American church in the late 20th century” like this:

A young mother phones the church office and asks to have her new baby “done” next Sunday. One of the baby’s aunts will be in town that weekend and it would be nice to have her there. The pastor hesitates for a few moments before responding, since he only sees the baby’s mother in worship occasionally and has yet to meet the father whom the mother describes as “not the church going type.” But, since everybody will be in town this weekend and since the pastor feels that he could not begin to explain to the couple why he feels uncomfortable baptizing their baby, the pastor agrees to “do” the baby during next Sunday’s service. “We’re already having a rather full time of it next week because we’re in the middle of our fall stewardship emphasis and the choir has planned two anthems… but I guess I can wedge the sprinkling in during the first part of things before the baby gets restless. You go ahead and bring her down on Sunday.” (Copenhaver, In the Beginning, p. 143)

I’ve been there, done that as they say: I’ve wrestled with trying to respond to the lowest common denominator of some folks’ spiritual life, tried to sort out how to teach my congregations about the high calling and sacrificial nature of their baptismal vows and never been wholly satisfied with any of the one size fits all solutions to this dilemma whether that’s refusing to baptize people who are not active and faithful members of a church to doing whatever people ask and letting the Lord sort it out later.

I take Jesus very seriously when he tells us Matthew 10: Don't think I've come to make life cozy. I've come to cut—make a sharp knife-cut between son and father, daughter and mother, bride and mother-in-law—cut through these cozy domestic arrangements and free you for God. Well-meaning family members can be your worst enemies. If you prefer father or mother over me, you don't deserve me. If you prefer son or daughter over me, you don't deserve me. If you don't go all the way with me, through thick and thin, you don't deserve me. If your first concern is to look after yourself, you'll never find yourself. But if you forget about yourself and look to me, you'll find both yourself and me.

So what I want to do today – and next week, too – is explore together some of what’s at stake in how we practice baptism. First, I want to ground us in an understanding of the origins and early practices of baptism in the church. Next week we’ll review the three essential theological truths in the paradox of baptism and consider why all of this matters to us as people of faith in the 21st century. But right now let’s think deeply and carefully about what it means for the whole congregation to take responsibility for welcoming a child or adult into the blessings of God’s grace promised in baptism – not just the pastor or the individual believer – but the whole body.

Yousee, the scriptures tells us that there is one body and one spirit; we have been called into one hope through one Lord, one faith and one baptism given to us by the one God and Creator of us all. Reclaiming and renewing the integrity of baptism, I suspect, has something to do with the way we – as one body – make our commitments flesh. And to do know where we are going requires knowing where we’ve been: scholars tell us that sometime during their exile in Babylon, “Judaism began the practice of baptizing proselytes coming into the faith from other religions.” (Howard Rice, Reformed Worship, p. 48) In this ritual bath, parents and children were washed in the water together. All male children were circumcised, too, shortly after birth – both Jews by birth or those by choice – so that “baptism and circumcision came to be signs of belonging to the covenant people of God.”

About 500 years later, John the Baptist took this type of baptism and “applied it to all Jews who, he said, needed to be baptized as a confession of sin, as a washing for forgiveness and in anticipation of the coming of the Messiah.” You may recall that John immersed people in the waters of the Jordan out in the desert wilderness, a place symbolic of Israel preparing to enter the Promised Land, and Jesus was baptized in this manner. So first what we have is baptism as a human response to God’s call: the convert is responding to a spiritual invitation, the penitent in the River Jordan is responding to a change in his/her heart and everyone is responding to God’s loving invitation to cross through the waters of the wilderness into a new life of promise and community.

The origins of baptism begin with the Lord and evoke our response, not the other way around. One of the prophetic texts that shape this understanding of baptism is found in Isaiah 42: Take a good look at my servant says the Lord, I'm backing him to the hilt.He's the one I chose and I couldn't be more pleased with him. I've bathed him with my Spirit, my life. He'll set everything right among the nations… (But) he won't call attention to what he does with loud speeches or gaudy parades. He won't brush aside the bruised and the hurt and he won't disregard the small and insignificant, but he'll steadily and firmly set things right. He won't tire out and quit. He won't be stopped until he's finished his work—to set things right on earth.

Baptism is a comeback to God’s grace, an act of gratitude, not a magical rite that evokes it: it begins with God and ends with God and calls us to reply with our lives. Now the early church had only this model to consider when it went public after Pentecost – and at first this was enough. But in time it would seem that baptism took on other meanings, too. Paul teaches that baptism is an adult’s free choice to be immersed into the cross of Christ so that by faith we might die and be raised by God into a new life. Again, this is not something we do, it is Christ at work within and among us, so that baptism is our response to Jesus’ invitation: pick up your Cross and follow. Christ does the work – Christ does the calling – Christ does the healing just as God brought Christ from the tomb into the resurrection of Easter without anyone’s help.

Originally, Christian baptism took place as soon as a person sensed a change in their heart: it was immediate. As more time passed, and the consequences of saying “Yes” to Jesus and “No” to Caesar became more costly, the early church celebrated baptisms on Sundays before communion and eventually reserved them for the Saturday before Easter. This change asked people seeking baptism to show the evidence of Christ within them. In many cases this meant three years of study that were evaluated not by your knowledge of theology but by lives dedicated to compassion and service.

In Colossians 3 we have what is likely an early summary of how candidates for baptism were evaluated: Now you must get rid of all such things as anger, wrath, malice, slander and abusive language from your mouth. Do not lie to one another seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of our creator… as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience… and above all clothe yourselves with love which binds everything together in perfect harmony.

First baptism is about being called into a new relationship with God by conversion, then it takes on the cleansing of repentance; and in its Christian form becomes a way for believers to enter the death of Christ so that we might be raised by God into a resurrection like Christ’s. And just to keep things interesting, there is all this water imagery surrounding the theology: water at the start of creation that God’s Spirit gives shape and form and order to; water that brings death in the flood during the era of Noah; water at the Red Sea that allows the children of Israel to escape from oppression into freedom in the Exodus while bringing death to their captors; water in the Jordan River to be passed through on the way into the Promised Land and now the water of life and death in the Cross.

Now all this water is paradoxical, isn’t it? It means many different things all at the same time: there is blessing and curse, life and death and so much more involved and all of it is taking place during baptism. (For fun take a look and listen to Allison Krause singing, "Down in the River to Pray" set to pictures of water. Pretty cool:
Our baptismal prayer puts it like this: We thank you, Lord, for the gift of creation called forth by your saving Word. Before the world had shape and form, your Spirit moved over the waters. Out of the waters of the deep, you formed the firmament and brought forth all the earth to sustain life. In the time of Noah, you washed the earth with the waters of the flood and your ark of salvation bore a new beginning. In the time of Moses, your people Israel passed through the Red Sea waters from slavery to freedom and crossed the flowing Jordan to enter the Promised Land. In the fullness of time, you sent Jesus Christ, who was nurtured in the water of Mary’s womb. He was baptized by John in the water of the Jordan, became living water to a woman at the Samaritan well, washed the feet of his disciples at the Passover Seder and sent them forth to baptize all the nations by waters and Holy Spirit.

So tell me: what truths and images, nuances and insights, do you hear in this prayer – and what do they mean to you? The water of baptism: brings order out of chaos and sustains life, leads us into death and returns us to new life, is all about Passover and freedom as well as birth and humanity, repentance and compassion, welcoming outsiders, living in humble service and welcoming the world into community

That’s the context – and the promise – and the mystery of the paradoxical symbols of this sacrament: baptism is born of God’s love and our response to grace. Next week we’ll talk about the theologies of baptism and what they mean for us today, and, we’ll consider some of the ways that we can deepen our own commitments as a church body so that we encourage one another to really live into our baptismal vows.

But that’s for next week, right now I want to tell you why all of this matters: when we authentically and honestly respond to God’s grace it means we are getting real about our true selves – the ones we don’t let other people see – the ones we pretend aren’t really there but sneak out when we’re tired or hungry or under stress. You know what I’m talking about, don’t you? The theologian, Douglas John Hall, put it like this: “… the besetting sin of North American mainline Protestantism has been its “unreality” – its tendency to play at religion – to fake it by pursuing forms of religion and worship which do more to conceal… than communicate.”

I think Hall is right: so much of what passes for church life is fluff and show – empty tradition or sanctimonious judgment designed to control us by guilt or shame – rather than set us free by grace, faith and forgiveness. Let's be honest: Jesus did not enter real life – endure the agony and humiliation of the Cross and experience the awe of resurrection - to give birth to a museum of so-called saints. Nor was his life, death and renewal conceived as an act of piety or something so fragile and remote as to exist only on a pedestal.

No, the Lord became flesh to help us get real – to show us our worst broken selves in the mirror that we might cry out for healing - and when we find that we have been renewed by grace not judgment....then the good news has become flesh. Baptism is our act of gratitude for God's grace. So let those who have ears to hear, hear.


Anonymous said…
Strong imagery, strong concepts. I look forward to your follow-up.

Popular Posts