Sunday 11 January 2015
Baptism of the Lord Sunday
The Gospel of Mark is the earliest gospel written, the very first narrative written of the life of Jesus the Christ. And what is the very first event that Mark records about Jesus’s life? It’s not his birth. There are no angels or shepherds or wise men. No, the very first thing that happens in Mark’s gospel is Jesus’ baptism by John. Jesus comes down from Nazareth, we don’t know why. He comes out to the wilderness where that crazy preacher has been dipping people in the river, telling everyone about someone more powerful who is coming soon. And Jesus gets in line with everyone else, wades out into the water, and is plunged under by John, to emerge a few seconds later.
When he does, something amazing happens. Jesus has a vision. The technical term that we use is theophany; it’s a revelation, an appearance of God. As Jesus comes out of the water, he looks up, and he can see the heavens being torn apart, being drawn back like a curtain to reveal the divine realm. Then he sees a vision of a dove coming down out of heaven, and it lands on him. Just then, Jesus hears a voice coming from heaven, telling him, “You are my son, the beloved, and I am pleased with you.” According to Mark, no one else sees anything, no one else hears anything. Just Jesus. He has a mystical experience that is directly triggered by being baptized.
A generation later Paul comes across some believers in Ephesus who have been baptized either by John or by one of John’s disciples, but they had not received the Holy Spirit. In fact, they had never even heard of the Spirit. Paul takes this as an occasion to baptize them again, and they have mystical experiences in which they begin to speak in tongues and prophesy.
So what does that say about baptism? What is the purpose of baptism? How do we know whether a particular baptism is valid or not? What changes after someone has been baptized? And what is the connection between baptism and the coming of the Holy Spirit?
Jesus was baptized by John. Some of Jesus’s disciples had probably been baptized by John as well, but as far as we know from Mark, none of the twelve apostles were. And Jesus never baptized anyone. Matthew tells us, though, that Jesus commanded the disciples to baptize new believers in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
So what was it about the baptism of those disciples in Ephesus that didn’t seem quite right to Paul? They had apparently been baptized in the same way that Jesus had been baptized. But they hadn’t had an experience of the Holy Spirit like Jesus did when he was baptized. Is that what made the difference? And if that’s the case, what does that say about us? I’m guessing there aren’t very many of us who heard a voice from heaven or started speaking in tongues immediately after we were baptized? Does that mean that our baptisms are somehow invalid or need to be repeated? It seems that even in bible times there were differing opinions about what baptism was and how it should be carried out.
In today’s world, we still have disagreements about what baptism is and how it should be done. Should it be only for adults, or is it alright to baptize children? Should we do baptism by sprinkling, by pouring, or by full immersion? Should baptism be done only once, or are there times that baptism should be repeated?
Christians don’t agree about the answers to any of these questions. This congregation is connected to two different denominations: the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, or ELCA, and The United Methodist Church, or UMC. Our two denominations don’t agree on everything. But one thing we do agree on almost completely is baptism. We use slightly different language in our baptismal rituals, but our theology of baptism is almost exactly the same.
In fact, when our two denominations first started talking with each, the first thing we did was a joint study on baptism. It happened before I was born, 1977-1979. Baptism is the first thing the Lutherans and Methodists agreed to agree about.
The current document of agreement between the UMC and the ELCA is called Confessing Our Faith Together, and it outlines seven points on which our denominations agree on baptism. It does give even one point on which we disagree.
The first point is this: “Both the ELCA and the UMC accept as valid all acts of Baptism in the name of the Trinity using water according to Christ’s command and promise.” If you’ve been baptized in the name of the Trinity, it doesn’t matter where it was done, when it was done, how it was done, who did it, or what has happened to you since then, you do not have to be baptized again.
Which leads to the second point: “Baptism is the sacrament of entrance into the holy catholic Church, not simply a rite of entrance into a particular denomination.” We are not baptized into the Lutheran Church or baptized into the United Methodist church; we are baptized into Christ’s church. “Baptism is therefore a sacrament that proclaims the profound unity of the church.” Every time we celebrate baptism, we declare that there is only one church of Christ, that every baptized Christian is one in Christ, regardless of creed or denomination. We are all one in baptism. That’s part of the reason that our partnership here is so important. By being church together, we are living into the common identity that we proclaim in baptism. Let me say it another way. Whether we have a joint ministry here or not, we are one church. The fact that we do have a partnership is simply a statement of what God already knows: in baptism we are one in Christ.
The third point: “Baptism is intended for all persons, including infants. No person should be excluded from Baptism for reasons of age or mental capacity.” It’s convenient for us that both of our denominations believe in infant baptism, but there is something deeper behind this point. The grace offered in baptism should not be denied to anyone. Every person is equally a person and has equal access to God’s kingdom.
Point four. This is kind of a long one: “God gives the Holy Spirit in Baptism to unite us with Jesus Christ in his death, burial, and resurrection; to effect new birth, new creation, and newness of life; to offer, give, and assure us of the forgiveness of sins in both cleansing and life-giving aspects; to enable our continual repentance, daily reception of forgiveness, and our growing in grace; to create unity and equality in Christ; to make us participants in the new age initiated by the saving act of God in Jesus Christ; and to place us into the Body of Christ where the benefits of the Holy Spirit are shared within a visible community of faith.” Okay, there’s a lot going in this statement. Whether or not we have a mystical experience during baptism, we believe that the Holy Spirit is active in baptism. We think that something actually happens when we are baptized. It’s not just a remembrance and it’s not an empty ritual. It marks a person’s adoption into God’s family. It serves to graft us into the Body of Christ, to make us members of Christ. In baptism, we are symbolically submerged under the water, we symbolically drown and die to our old selves, and we are then brought back to a new life in Jesus Christ. Baptism marks us as God’s own and begins our journey of discipleship, a journey that we share with our fellow disciples.
The fifth point: “In Baptism, God enables the Christian to rely upon this gift, promise, and assurance throughout all of life. Such faithful reliance is necessary and sufficient for the reception of the benefits of Baptism.” In other words, the power of baptism lasts our whole lives. It doesn’t wear out. But, in order to receive the full benefit of baptism, we have to rely on it. If we recognize the worth of our baptism, we will receive more benefit from it than if we don’t recognize its worth.
Point six: “Baptism embraces both the prior gift of God’ s grace and the believer’ s life of faith . . . In faith and obedience, the baptized live for the sake of Christ, the church, and the world that Christ loves. In Baptism, the church witnesses to the faith and proclaims to the world the Lordship of Jesus Christ.” In other words, baptism does not just have a momentary effect on our lives. It draws on what has come before it, and it anticipates the future. Baptism is a way of realizing God’s kingdom.
The seventh and final point that the UMC and ELCA declare together is this: “Baptism has practical ramifications for the Christian life. Through the Holy Spirit Baptism gives us our true identity. People struggle with that most central of questions in life: Who am I? The church proclaims boldly in Baptism that we become forgiven children of God and members one of another. In Baptism we are reminded of who we are and to whom we belong in life and in death. By welcoming us freely into the Body of Christ, the Sacrament also points to the central commitments in the Christian life, including the mandate of the family of God to make disciples of Jesus Christ. Every celebration of Baptism is a reminder of our responsibility to one another. Baptism is connected intrinsically to mission. The Sacrament not only proclaims who we are, it frees us for our primary vocation in life, to love God and neighbor as agents of God’s reign of peace, justice, and abundant life for all.”
And so, as we celebrate our identity in baptism, as we declare our unity in baptism, as we live into our vocation in baptism, let us together, as one church, reaffirm our baptismal covenant.