His Baptism and Ours
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
Rev. Michael F. Bailey
January 10, 2016
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, ‘I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’
Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’
My dad had a great line for parenting my brother and I in our teen-aged years! I suspect he got it from his pastor father, and I know I used it profusely on my own children when raising them. Before we’d go out with our friends, perhaps with some intended teen rowdiness planned, before we’d go on a date, and when we left home for college, he’d always tell us he loved us and to “remember who you are!” I teased him once and said those words so haunted me that it took me years to even sit by a girl in church; I told him he ought to pay for my therapy! What he was doing though was shaping my identity as a member of my family and as a child of God. So, what shapes your identity? The world will hoist an identity upon you in a blink! The world will define you by heritage, class, education, social status, income and on and on. But here’s the question: what is your core identity, your unshakable belief in who you are? For Christians, our identity is as a forgiven, baptized child of God and that’s what we’re looking at today on the Sunday where we read of the baptism of Jesus.
A theological question from the earliest days of Christianity was, “If Jesus was sinless, why was he baptized?” All kinds of theories came about. Some said He did so, copying the priesthood rites of the Old Testament, to show He is our Great High Priest. Others, understanding that the Jewish faith of the day required Gentile converts to be baptized, said Jesus was baptized to show that His Good News would be extended to the Gentiles. Some maintain that the sinless Son of God was baptized as the One who would bear the sins of the whole world. And then, there are those who indicate Jesus was baptized as a lesson in action that Christians are to be obedient. All of these have some validity. The one which makes the most sense to me was offered by St. Justin Martyr (d. 165), one of the first great theologians of the church. He emphasized that the Son had no need to be baptized—just as he had no need to be born, to suffer, or die—but did so in order to reveal himself to humankind; Christ’s baptism, in other words, was showing the world, for the first time in His ministry, His identity as the Son of God, the Lord. When Jesus came to the waters, St. Justin wrote, “He was deemed a carpenter,” but the proclamation of the Father and the descent of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove showed him to be far more than a mere worker of wood. Justin Martyr’s emphasis isn’t on the act of baptism but rather on the revealing, identifying words of the Father, right at the very beginning of Jesus public ministry.
Our own baptism does much to reveal and set our identity as God’s forgiven children. Let me share a bit of our United Methodist tradition regarding baptism followed by it’s meaning for us.
You may be interested to know that the United Methodist Church is very open about baptism and it’s timing! Foundationally, we believe that baptism is actually done by the Holy Spirit and that in the church we celebrate what the Holy Spirit has done (and will do) in human life by the use of water, a Biblical symbol of the Spirit. One of our baptism liturgies describes the sacrament of baptism as “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” This is an ancient definition taken from Augustine, with a one-word modification by our mother church, The Church of England. Because it is an act of the Spirit and God’s initiating love and grace, we don’t tie the amount of water or the mode of baptism into any singular practice. United Methodists may be baptized by sprinkling, pouring or immersion in water. For us, the amount of water used doesn’t dictate the amount of the Spirit or grace active in the human life. Moreover, we don’t insist that parent’s have their infants baptized, though the vast, vast majority of parents choose this timing. For those who have their infants baptized, the service initiates the child into the church, but the child, at a more mature age, still has to say, “yes” to Christ through confirmation, the completion of baptism. In the period between an infant’s baptism and their confirmation, the parents and the whole congregation promise to provide the Christian climate and ministry necessary for that child to claim Christ for themselves.
As mentioned, others choose to let their child be baptized immediately after the child claims Christ. Of course, there are always those who may have come from a tradition other than Christian and are baptized upon conversion. There are some, who, for various reasons, have been living the “baptized life” but never participated in the sacrament and we are glad to baptize them as adults. Now, understand in the United Methodist Church we never “re-baptize” again and the reason is simple: God doesn’t make mistakes! If God moved in a person’s life, either through their parents or at a time of commitment, God doesn’t move from us! We may move from living in response to God’s presence, but God has always been there, so there is no need to re-baptize when a person comes back to God.
Baptism, at its core is all about grace. We believe that grace, touching us through the Holy Spirit, works at three levels. There is the grace of God poured into our lives, even before we can or do recognize God’s love for us. Technically, this is prevenient (an old word for proceeding) grace. An appropriate modern word for this is “preparing” grace. God loves us so much that before we can or even love God back, God’s love prepares us for the day when we claim and name that love and give it back to the Lord! God’s love is poured into the life of a child whose parents get them to church, support that church, nurture them in the faith, and teach them to pray and serve Jesus; intentions claimed even before the baby can say their own name. Others, baptized later in life, recognize the people God put in their lives to show them the way; all this is preparing grace.
Then, grace comes to us as justifying grace. Justifying grace is when we come to claim our salvation in Christ. Through the cross and resurrection, Christ has cleansed us and is our Sovereign ruler, our Savior and Lord. Some have said that justifying grace’s meaning can be understood as “just as if I’d” never sinned because of Jesus’ salvation of us. Again, a more understandable modern word for justifying is “accepting” grace; God accepts us as new persons in Christ through Christ and we accept that God did such in our lives through Christ.
Then there is sanctifying grace. To sanctify means to make holy. In our lives the Holy Spirit helps us grow more and more like Jesus. This is a great self-diagnostic! Are you more like Jesus today than yesterday? Are you more forgiving, generous, caring and loving as you live life in Christ than you used to be? If not, practicing the spiritual disciplines in a more robust way is something you’d be invited to do. A modern word for sanctifying is sustaining grace; the grace that keeps us alive and growing in Christ. And it all begins in baptism.
So, what does the baptized life and identity look like? What are some marks of a life lived with the Holy Spirit poured into it, not just as a one-off service, but day-to-day? Let’s think about this together.
First, the baptized life is a life aware of sin and the need for contrition, confession and repentance. With his sonorous voice, my father, and many pulpiteers of his era would invoke our awareness of the Holy Spirit as a prayer of illumination and ask the Spirit to “convict, convert and to consecrate.” That’s simply asking for the Spirit’s conveying of grace: preparing, accepting and sustaining, but in a bit more muscular fashion. It’s asking the spirit to convict us; to make us aware of the sin in our lives. A life lived with an awareness of the poured out Holy Spirit is a life aware of the fact that one single sin is enough to keep us out of and from spoiling God’s perfect heaven, where God can’t abide to look upon sin. And sin doesn’t have to be an action (a sin of commission), it can be an in-action (sin of omission)! A sin can be failing to do what God has ordered us to do or doing what God has prohibited. Jesus teaches that even a bad thought can be a sin. So, if you live to be 90 you’ve lived 33 thousand days. What if you had three bad thoughts a day! I don’t know about you, but I probably have more than 3 bad thoughts a day. This means just sitting on your couch for 90 years, not doing anything bad, just having 3 bad thoughts a day, would result in about 100000 sins. Without grace, that would keep you out of heaven. This points out our need for grace and forgiveness, true conviction and deep confession and repentance. The baptized life is one that continually knows it needs Jesus and His love.
Next, the baptized life is a life lived in grace: forgiven and forgiving life. While we are aware of sin, we don’t dwell there. We live in the reality of forgiveness and a new direction in life. This is no cheap grace (to use Bonhoeffer’s term). It is forgiveness and grace hard won for us by Christ through the agony of the cross. It is a forgiveness marked by repentance, turning toward a new direction. And, because we have been forgiven, we in turn are a forgiving people. A life lived in the outpoured Spirit forgives others in and through that Spirit, in a manner that is rooted in the Divine initiative to forgive, overcoming our human reluctance not to do so. Graceful folks are those who’ve received grace; forgiving folks are those who know the cost of their forgiveness.
Then, the baptized life is an assured life. A gift to Wesley’s theology from the Moravian Christians is that of assurance. When we believe the truth of the scripture about our relationship with Christ resulting in salvation, we can be assured of such! Some traditions have, as their stock in trade, kept people in doubt; almost on a weekly basis they preach a message that’s hardly good news. “Are you sure you’re saved? Maybe you better get saved again just to be sure!” Our sense, as the people called Methodists, is that a joyous, Good News life is lived when we celebrate God’s faithfulness in saving us and are assured of that fact!
More, the baptized life is a stewarded life: time, talent, treasure and terra. In the presence of the Holy Spirit being poured into our lives, we become acutely aware of the fact that we are not our own, but belong to a Loving Lord. We also become aware of the fact that our time and talent and treasure and terra all belong to God and we will be held divinely accountable for the caretaking of them all. Now note, I said, “and” very intentionally between each dimension of stewardship, it’s not “or”; you can’t say well I give time on a committee or help in the church kitchen so I’m off the hook in terms of giving treasure. It’s time, and talent and treasure and terra – care for God’s planet.
Additionally the baptized life is a thirsting life; thirsting for more of the “living water.” You recall, don’t you, our Wesleyan sense that grace in our lives works in a consecrating or sustaining fashion? What this means is that God isn’t finished with any of us yet; God invites and provides for us all to grow more and more in Christ as we live life. And God has given us the tools to open ourselves more and more to God’s transforming presence: prayer, meditation, searching the Scripture, fasting, Christians conferring with one another in small groups, serving the poor and generous financial giving. And when we practice such disciplines on a regular basis, people can notice a difference; the result is a more gentle, loving, caring, giving person, for it is Jesus Himself showing through our personalities. The wonderful thing about this kind of growth is, we typically thirst for it more and more as we engage in the journey.
Finally ,the baptized life is a proclaiming life; proclaiming of what it’s found in Jesus! The ministry of everyone who is baptized is to proclaim Jesus in word and deed, not just the clergy. Someone once described baptism as the ordination of the laity. You are ordained to this ministry of sharing Christ in every way, each and every day.
Along with most of the mainline denominations and our Catholic sisters and brothers, we have a wonderful service that is used often on this Sunday of the church year and at other times for renewing our baptismal covenant. What a great way to start off the new year, renewing promises to God to live baptized; to live responding to the outpouring of God’s spirit into your life. This time, we hope will be a time to be aware of sin in your life and the need to repent and turn in a new direction. It will be a time of claiming God’s valuable grace and forgiveness and letting the Spirit forgive others through you. It can be a time of realizing, maybe for the first time, and claiming assurance, that God loves even you, even eternally. This time should mean a re-commitment to be more caring and generous with your time and talent and treasure and the terra. It should be a holy time of claiming your baptism as your ordination to share Christ in Word and deed. Let us pray for this holy time of renewal in our congregation.