Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Down to the River

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Matthew 3:13-17:

A man is stumbling through the woods, totally drunk, when he comes upon a preacher baptizing people in the river.   He proceeds to walk into the water to see what’s going on. The preacher turns around and is almost overcome by the smell of alcohol, but asks the man, "Are you ready to find Jesus?"  The drunk answers, "Yes, I am." So the preacher grabs him and dunks him in the water.   He pulls him up and asks him, "Brother have you found Jesus?"  The drunk replies, "No."  The preacher shocked at the answer, dunks him into the water again for a little longer.  He again pulls him out of the water and asks again, "Have you found Jesus my brother?"   The man again answers, "No,”  By this time the preacher is at his wits end and dunks the drunk in the water again -- - but this time holds him down  until the man begins flailing his arms and legs, and then the preacher pulls him up and again asks, "For the love of God have you found Jesus?"  The drunk wipes his eyes and catches his breath and says to the preacher, "No, are you sure this is where he fell in?"

Today we celebrate the baptism of Jesus, and so I thought it would be the appropriate time to teach you more about baptism then you’ve ever known, and maybe more than you’ve ever wanted to know, in help us understand what baptism is and what it does so that it might begin to make more sense and give more meaning to us.

So where did baptism come from and where did it begin?  Most people’s answer is that it begins with John the Baptizer, as we have in today’s scripture.  John is calling people out to the Jordan River to be baptized in repentance of their sins, but baptism, or at least a similar practice, is older than John.  In Judaism, in order to be ritually pure, people, both men and women, would have to enter into what is known as a mikvah in order to be ritually cleansed.  There were actually mikvah at the entrance to the temple in Jerusalem that people would enter so they would be ritually clean when they entered the Temple grounds. In addition, some Jewish sects required that gentile converts not only be circumcised, but that they must also take a ritual bath in order to be cleansed and die to who they were and be reborn into something new.  Orthodox Judaism still requires this for converts.

In Colossians, Paul writes, “In him also you were circumcised with a spiritual circumcision, by putting off the body of flesh in the circumcision of Christ; when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.”  (2:11-13) Now what is Paul saying in this incredibly dense passage?  Well he is saying that baptism is to Christians what circumcision is to Jews.  In Genesis 17, God commands Abraham and all of his descendants be circumcised as a mark of the covenant that they have entered into with God, and this was to be done on the 8th day for infants.  Jews become people of the covenant through circumcision.  It is the initiation rite, it is the means by which jews begin to participate in the covenant, and the same is true with baptism, but in addition, Paul is highlighting the first of the things that baptism does for us which is the cleansing of our sins.

In baptism, we are cleansed of our sins, but not just the sins we have already committed, but, and this is important, we are also forgiven for sins we have yet to commit.  In the early church, some people believed that they should wait until their death beds to be baptized so that they would then be forgiven for all their sins.  But, this is not a covenant of the past and present, but of the future as well.  God promises us forgiveness with repentance.  That is one thing that baptism does.

The second thing that happens is that through baptism we are adopted as children of God.  We die to who we were and are reborn into Christ.  After Jesus’ baptism, what does God say, “This is my son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”  When we are baptized, God says the same thing to and about us.  We become children of God, different than the way that Jesus is the son, but we become adopted children of God.  We were born into the world through the water of the womb, and through the water of baptism we are also reborn, God claims us as his own.  We die to who we were and are reborn as children of God.  Some early baptismal fonts recognize this reality through their design, which often took the shape of a sarcophagus, or coffin, and later were made in the shape of the cross.  We issue baptismal certificates, just like your birth certificate.  It is because of this understanding of adoption that we don’t rebaptize, because God is always faithful, even when we stray, and so the covenant does not need to be remade, instead we need a renewal of our commitment to our side of the covenant.

Baptism also imparts to us eternal life.  When Jesus encounters a Samaritan woman at a well and he asks her for a drink, Jesus tells her that if she knew who he was she would be asking him for a drink because he gives “living water… and everyone who drinks from… this water will never be thirsty.”  That is the water of eternal life, this is the water we receive.  Jesus says that he came that we might have life and have it abundantly.  God gives us unconditional grace which extends for all time.

Next, through baptism we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.  Immediately following Jesus’ baptism, the Holy Spirit, in the shape of a dove descends upon him.  On the day of Pentecost, people ask Peter what they need to do to receive Christ, and Peter tells them “repent, and be baptized every one of you so that your sins may be forgiven and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

The final thing baptism does is to incorporate us into the body of Christ.  We do not believe that baptism is an individual thing.  Except for extreme circumstances, baptism is a communal activity.  We not only enter into a covenantal relationship with God, but we also enter into a covenantal relationship with each other. The church in its simplest definition is a body of the baptized.  This is not just some cute ceremony to make everyone feel good about church, or to appease grandparents, this is a significant covenant we are entering, in which God pledges allegiance to us and we in turn pledge allegiance to God, and it is something that we should remember every day of our lives.  To help us do that, in a little bit you will have the opportunity to take one of these baptismal tags, which reads “Lord, as I enter the water to bathe, I remember my baptism.  Wash me by your grace, fill me with your Spirit.  Renew my soul.  I pray that I might live as your child today and honor you in all that I do.”  I invite you to take one of these tags and hang it in your shower, or near you bath, or near you sink, wherever it is that you get ready in the morning and pray this prayer as you begin your day.

We will conclude our look at baptism with the issue that those who talk to me about baptism ask the most, that is why we practice infant baptism and don’t practice full immerson.  We’ll start with the one that’s a little easier, and that is conducting baptisms that are not full immersion.  In the United Methodist church we practice sprinkling, pouring and full immersion, although certainly sprinkling and pouring are more common.  The argument that is made, usually by Baptists, is that unless the baptism is full immersion, then it’s not a legitimate baptism, but let me provide a little background.  The first is that the earliest groups of what are now Baptists, did not practice full immersion, that does not come until later.  Second is that the Greek word from which we get baptism is Bapto, and it means simply to get wet.  There is a Greek word for something being immersed, and it is never used in scripture in reference to baptism.  But here is an argument that I think is better.

This is a work called the Didache, or The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles.  Scholars estimate that it was written somewhere between 60 and 110.  If it was indeed written in the year 60 then it predates some of the books we have in the NewTtestament, and there were some early church fathers who argued that it should be included in the New Testament, but here is what the Didache has to say “Regarding baptism.  Baptize as follows: baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, in running water.  But if you have no running water, baptize in other water; and if you cannot in cold, then in warm.  But if you have neither, pour water on the head three times in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

So as early as 30 years after Jesus death, the church was saying that while full immersion was preferable it was not necessary.  And why were they saying that?  Because they understood  that the water was not the acting agent. The amount of water doesn’t matter.   It would be like saying that if you are baptized in the ocean then you are more baptized then if it’s done in a pool.  We understand that the quantity of the water does not make a difference because the water is merely a symbol, it is not what actually cleanses people, that work is done by God not by the water.  So that leads us to the issue of infant baptism.

The people who tend to argue against infant baptism tend to be the same ones who argue for full-immersion, and the reasons typically given are because an infant cannot consent to the baptism, and/or that there is no scriptural witness for children being baptized.  As I already said, circumcision was the outward sign of the covenant of God from Judaism and it took place eight days after birth.  Now did these children consent to being circumcised?  Did they say, “I’ve read the law, I understand the story of the people, and I consent to undergo circumcision to become a part of the covenant people?”  Of course they didn’t, they were circumcised as a symbol that they were God’s, and with the understanding of their parents that they would raise the child up in the faith, and would tell them the stories, and would train them up in the way so that when they were older they would not stray.  God commanded infants to undergo the initiation to become people of the covenant, but somehow that idea doesn’t apply to us because I guess maybe God changed God’s mind about the logic of having children participate in the covenant, also disregarding the special place that children held in the ministry of Jesus.

Now while there are no explicit scriptural witnesses to children being baptized in scripture, what we do have is several instances in which we are told that someone is baptized and their entire household is baptized along with them.  Two of these stories are found in Acts chapter 16 in which Paul baptizes Lydia and her household and also the jailer and his household.  Now the Greek word for household used here usually included children, but that of course does not mean that it included infants, but it does not say that Paul baptized the household except for those who were under the age of 10.

But my final point is from the practices and statements of the church.  In the second century, in opposition to those who opposed infant baptism, Origen said that infant baptism had been practiced by the apostles.  In 254 the Council of Carthage said that infant baptism went back to the apostles.  Augustine supported infant baptism and said that it was practiced by the apostles.  At the time of the protestant reformation, both Martin Luther and John Calvin said that they were going to remove any practice which did not meet scriptural witness, and they removed a lot, but they practiced infant baptism.  When John Wesley was asked how God’s grace worked through baptism in infants, he said that he could not comprehend it, but “neither can we comprehend how it is wrought in a person of riper years.”  Today more than 80 percent of the church, Roman Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants practice infant baptism.

For those who still may have a problem with infant baptism, or with sprinkling, that’s fine, I merely want you to understand that we do not practice these things because we don’t know what we are talking about or have no theologically basis for doing so, and for those who do support them I hope you now have a better understanding of them and why we do them so that you can better engage in conversation with those who question you about the process.  The water does not convey God’s grace.  The person performing the sacrament does not convey God’s grace.  The age of the person receiving baptism does not convey God’s grace.  When we begin focusing on those things as being important than we move the action away from God and say that the power of baptism is found in the things of baptism.  God is the actor and we are the recipients.

In By Water and the Spirit, which is the official position on Baptism according to the United Methodist Church, it says that “Baptism involves dying to sin, newness of life, union with Christ, receiving the Holy Spirit, and incorporation into Christ’s church.”  Baptism is a gift from God which is freely given by God to us.  God’s grace is always available even before we need it, and is always with us.  Even when we may go astray God remains ever faithful and waits for us to return.  In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians he says “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God,” notice that he doesn’t say and all this is done in one hour, which today it won’t, but through the one baptism we are all united for we are baptized, born anew into the body of Christ which does not know denominational boundaries, we are claimed by God who says “this is my child in whom I am well pleased.”  Amen.

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