Monday, January 11, 2016

Splish Splash

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The scripture was Luke 3:15-17, 21-22:

I know that most of you are too young to remember the game show To Tell the Truth, so let me give you a quick summary.  Each week, there would be three people all pretending to be the same person, although one of them was the actual person, and then the panel of four celebrities would ask each of the contestants a series of questions to try and determine who was the real person and who were pretenders, at the end of the show, the host would say “would the real Joe Schmoe please stand up.”  At the beginning of today’s passage we have a short version of To Tell the Truth taking place.  John the Baptist is out at the Jordan River making a unique, or somewhat unique, proclamation about God and calling for people to come and repent and be baptized, hence his name.  Some of the people are beginning to wonder if John might be the Messiah, or the Christ in Greek, when Jesus shows up on the scene, and suddenly people are saying will the real Messiah please stand up, except that rather than the host making that call, it is John himself, at least in Luke’s gospel, that makes the call.
The Baptism of Jesus, which we remember today, and always the first Sunday after Epiphany, represents the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in many ways, but is also unique amongst the gospel stories.  It is unique because it is one of the few stories that is actually found in all four gospels.  That puts it right up there with the passion story.  We like to think that all the gospels tell the same story, or stories, but they don’t.  They have their own unique perspective and their own unique stories that only occur in their gospels, or perhaps in another.  So for example, only two gospels give us birth stories, and they are nowhere close in telling us the same story, other than the rough outline that Mary and Joseph had  a baby named Jesus and it happened in Bethlehem.

Each baptism story in the gospels are different as well, but what they do also hold in common, is something about John being a precursor to Jesus, being lesser than Jesus, that Jesus is the messiah and the most important person.  So in the passage we heard from Luke, John says, “one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals.”  But apparently he is worthy enough to baptize Jesus.  This is sort of a where there is smoke, there is fire, that the early church was having to battle claims about John the Baptist’s importance, after all we know he had his own set of disciples, and perhaps even calls that John was greater than Jesus because Jesus went to John for baptism rather than the other way around.  So we are probably getting some echoes of some 1st century turf battles taking place between these two groups.

But it is clear that Jesus goes to John to be baptized.  What John means by his baptisms is not quite clear.  There is clearly a call to repentance, but what is thought to happen in the waters during the baptism?  That is not as clear.  The early church did not think that John’s baptism was enough, because, as John the Baptist says in the passage, it does not involved the Holy Spirit, which is one of the things that we believe happens when we are baptized is that we received the Holy Spirit.  And the Holy Spirit gives us what? Power.  Just trying to keep you on your toes.  We do know that there were certain aspects of what John is doing that looked similar to actions that took place in Judaism, such as converts to Judaism would not only be required to be circumcised if they were male, but also to undertake a ritual bath to cleanse themselves and to die to their old selves and being reborn before they officially became Jewish.  In addition, there were also ritual baths performed at other times, as prescribed by Jewish law, in order to cleanse the person and put them back into purity.  It’s possible that John was taping into this tradition, but also doing something that was uniquely his own.  We just don’t know, but we do know that baptism does become something uniquely different either during Jesus’ time, or more than likely after the resurrection as the gospel message begins to spread.  Baptism becomes the mark of the covenant, replacing circumcision, and it is the initiation right into the Christian church.

This tends to shock some people every time I say it, but no one is born a Christian.  Jesus was born a Jew, why because he father was Jewish.  Later Judaism changed that and so now the faith is passed through the mother, so that if you mother is Jewish then you are Jewish.  But that’s not the way it happens in Christianity.  Abigail and Samantha are not Christian because they were born to a minister.  My faith, my religion is not passed on to them by caveat, either because of my faith, or because of position or my gender.  This too was a dramatic change from Judaism and the act of circumcision.  If you are doing the daily readings, then you read in Genesis this week about God commanding Abraham to undergo circumcision, along with all other males in his household, and for every male child born to be circumcised on the 8th day.  But only men participated in the covenant of circumcision.  Women were included in the covenant through their relationship with the men in their lives, their fathers, brothers, husbands and sons.  As long as the men continued to practice circumcision, then women were grandfathered into the covenant, pun intended.  But baptism changed that, because now everyone, male and female, were called to participate, and not just really participate but undergo the same activities as part of the new covenant.

We don’t really use the word covenant anymore to talk about baptism, instead we talk about baptism as a sacrament.  As United Methodists we recognize, along with most other Protestant churches, two sacraments, which are baptism and communion.  This is in contrast to the Roman Catholic church which has seven sacraments, and the Orthodox church, which while they do not have an official number as they consider everything the church does to be sacramental, they do recognize seven major sacraments, the same as the Roman Catholic church.  The term sacrament came into use in the church by Tertullian, one of the early church fathers, in the 3rd century.  Before entering the military Roman soldiers took an oath of allegiance and then after the oath was taken they were given a tattoo as a reminder of that oath.  This oath was called a sacramentum.  In observing this, Tertullian said taking this oath and then marking yourself with an outward sign to recognize that inward pledge was similar to what occurred in Baptism, and so he began calling baptism a sacrament.  Over time that term began to be applied to everything that could be used to convey God’s grace, which is how the church then began to have a multiplicity of sacraments, and the actual number has fluctuated over time.  But during the Protestant reformation, Martin Luther reduced the number to only include those things that Jesus participated in and also called for us to do, which is why we only have two sacraments.  But our understanding of a sacrament is fairly consistent across the church.

John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, tapping into his Anglican roots said that a sacrament was “an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace.”  That is a belief also supported by the Roman Catholic Church.  A sacrament is a means of grace, a way that God offers and gives God’s love to us, which is inward and invisible, and which have accompanying sign-acts, or outward and visible sign which accompany them.  Just like the tattoo represented the oath, and circumcision represented God’s covenant, baptism represents the vows we take to God and what God promises to us.  What that also means is that most of the things we argue about and get upset about when it comes to baptism don’t really matter.  It’s like the Baptist and Methodist preacher who get argument about whether baptism needs to be full immersion or whether water on the head is enough.  The Methodist asks if being immersed to the feet is enough, and the Baptist says no, and so he asks if being immersed up to the shoulders is enough, and is told no, so he asks if being immersed up to the eyes is enough, and is again told no.  So then the Methodist says, so it turns out we’re both in agreement with each other.  And the Baptist asks how that could be the case, and the Methodist says “because we both agree that water on the top of the head is the most important part.”

When we make these arguments we convey a fundamental misunderstanding of baptism because these arguments move the saving action from God to us.  God’s actions are no longer important because everything is dependent on who is saying the words, where they are said, and what is being done when they are being said.  But remember that baptism is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.  The grace is conveyed by God, not by us.  The forgiveness is given by God, not by us.  The adoption as children is given by God, not by us.  God does not depend on us to make God effective and efficient, we depend on God.  God is the primary actor in baptism, not us.  And while we might be baptized by a particular church, we are ultimately baptized into Christ and become members of the body of Christ.  The church in its most basic form is the body of the baptized, and that’s why baptism is ultimately a communal activity.

Except in extreme circumstances, such as at a death bed, baptism is not an individual or private action, it is a communal activity.  And this even includes Jesus’ baptism.  Jesus goes down to the river with everyone else and he is baptized along with them.  Baptism does not make sense outside of a community, a body of Christ.  Because we not only make individual vows to God in baptism, but we also make vows on each other’s behalf, vowing to uphold and support one another and pray for one another.  I have turned down people who have requested baptisms because they had no intention of being involved in a community, a body of Christ.  And so I’ve said that theologically it doesn’t make any sense to be baptized into the body of Christ if you have no intention of participating in that body.  This is not a cute thing we do with babies in order to make grandparents happy, nor is it the get into heaven free card.  That is not the purpose of baptism.  It’s about God’s grace, it’s about hearing God say to us, just as God said to Jesus, “this is my beloved child with whom I am well pleased.”

Have you heard God say that to you? Do you believe that God has said that to you? Baptism is a transformative event for us as Christians because it is a means by which God conveys grace and forgiveness and mercy to us, it is a means by which we mark ourselves as beloved children of God, it is a means by which we are given the power of the Holy Spirit, it is a means by which we are incorporated into the body of Christ, it is the means by which we die to our old selves and are reborn into newness of life, not only life eternal, but more importantly life here and now as Jesus said he came not to give us life, but to give us life abundantly.

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, but through the one baptism we are all united as one for we are baptized, born anew into the body of Christ and we are claimed by God who says “this is my child in whom I am well pleased.”  May it be so my brothers and sisters. Amen.

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