Let us pray.
Take our lives and let them be
Consecrated, Lord, to Thee;
Take our moments and our days,
Let them flow in ceaseless praise. Amen.
In October, eight teenagers from this parish and I began exploring the possibility of them being confirmed in the Episcopal Church. While seen by many as a mere adolescent rite of passage, Confirmation is technically, according to our Book of Common Prayer, a liturgy in which those who were previously baptized confirm their adherence to the faith into which they were baptized and receive the laying on of hands by a bishop. For adolescents or adults who were baptized as infants, confirmation can serve as a way for them to claim for themselves the promises made at baptism by others on their behalf.
Because all of our official church documents state that confirmation depends on baptism and presuppose that baptism is important, I thought I would ask the eight smart, earnest, independent individuals who joined me on that October afternoon to reflect on the meaning of baptism as a way of beginning our time together. Interestingly enough, however, baptism didn’t seem to be something that was really on their radar screens. Much to the dismay of professional theologians everywhere, these young people did not spend their days contemplating the cleansing waters into which they were sprinkled as children or their redemptive incorporation into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ or the immense but thrilling promises made for them in the Baptismal Covenant. When I asked them the question, “what is baptism?” the answers I received ranged from “something to do with water” to “something that happens when you’re a baby and have no idea what’s going on” to my personal favorite, “something that is long and boring and makes the service go 20 minutes longer.”
Don’t worry, parents: I gave them a short theology lecture on the importance of baptism, which they were naturally delighted to hear; I told them that it was one of the two undisputable sacraments of the Church; I noted how across the centuries many important figures have seen baptism as a fundamental aspect of what it means to be Christian. But I confess to having had more than a little bit of sympathy with their perspectives. Like my younger compatriots, baptism as I was growing up was for me little more than a tiresome extension of the liturgy, a perfunctory acknowledgement of mysteriously appearing infants whom hardly anyone in the congregation would ever see again. Even though I was liturgically and theologically precocious in many ways, it didn’t make sense to me that water was involved, or that parents and godparents were asked questions on behalf of a baby who couldn’t even speak, or that people thought some sort of special magical process occurred when the words of baptism were said that changed the tiny infant for ever. When I worked at a religious summer program for high school students for two summers, I was befuddled by the way in which the administration characterized baptism as something that underlies every aspect of the Christian life. And even to this day, when I hear over and over again from clergy colleagues that only the baptized should receive communion or that everything we do as Christians stems from our baptism or our baptismal covenant, I feel alienated and discouraged.
In seminary, I read the Bible thoroughly and took several courses in the history of the Church and its liturgy, and in doing so, I was surprised to discover that the history of baptism is far more complicated than I had ever previously assumed or been led to believe. We get a taste of that complexity this morning. Since baptism became one of the two non-negotiable activities of the Christian church, we might reasonably assume that Jesus himself had initiated it, but in all four Gospels the person who performs the first baptisms is not Jesus himself, but John the Baptist. That Jesus the divine being submits himself to John the human being and receives baptism at his hands raises a whole bunch of fascinating questions as to what baptism really is, confounding many of the standard definitions of baptism that are often given. If baptism is about becoming Christian, how can Jesus himself, the founder of Christianity become part of that same Christianity before Christianity even exists? If baptism is about being cleansed from sin, why would Jesus the sinless one choose to receive it? If baptism is about sharing in the death and resurrection of Jesus, how could Jesus possibly share more in his own life experiences, especially when neither event had yet happened?
In Luke’s account specifically, the story of Jesus’ baptism includes a variety of subtle but clear challenges to baptism’s typically unquestioned status. “I baptize you with water,” Luke depicts John as saying, “but one who is more powerful than I is coming. He will baptize you with Holy Spirit and fire.” Is John saying that baptism with water isn’t that important, that it’s not actually necessary at all? Then, after Jesus’ baptism, Luke notes that the heavens are opened and the Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus, but this occurs only after Jesus was baptized, not at the same time, suggesting that the arrival of Holy Spirit occurs not simultaneously with but separate from the act of baptism. A similar distinction between baptism and the bestowal of the Holy Spirit appears in the selection from Acts we heard this morning. “As yet the Spirit had not come upon any of them,” the passage reads, “they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.” It seems that baptism and the gift of the Holy Spirit are not tied inextricably together, that it is possible to be baptized and to not have come into contact with the Spirit at all.
The readings this morning do complicate our understanding of baptism, but not nearly as much as two thousand years of Christian history do. Throughout the long entirety of Christianity’s existence, Christian communities have struggled to decipher the proper identity of and purpose for baptism, arriving at a multitude of different conclusions about when, how and why baptism should be done. At various points in history, baptism has taken place at the very beginning of life because Christians feared that an unbaptized infant might go to hell; at other points, baptism has taken place at the very end of life because Christians believed that baptism offered a uniquely powerful cleansing from sin that should be reserved until immediately before a person faces God’s judgment. In some contexts, baptism involves sprinkling a few drops of water on an infant’s head; other communities require adults to be fully immersed in water; in yet other communities, baptism involves no water whatsoever. Many may be surprised to know that the Baptismal promises said at every baptism and at many other occasions in the Episcopal Church have not existed for centuries upon centuries, but were in fact invented by a committee of scholars in the 1970s. Indeed, many of us who renew our baptismal promises at each baptism and confirmation never even made them or had them made on our behalf in the first place. That the definition and meaning of baptism has shifted so much over time might reasonably lead one to conclude that it may just be nothing more than something that makes the service go 20 minutes longer, after all.
I will admit that I still have some questions about baptism, but over the past few years, as I have grown into the role of a clergyperson within this parish, I have begun to acknowledge the sacredness of baptism in a way that I was not able to before. I have watched people embrace baptism as a step towards belonging to this community in a new and fuller way; I have seen how useful baptism has been for new parents as they thought about how to raise their children as responsible and loving people in the world; I have heard about how touching and life-altering baptisms have been for so many of you, so much so that you still recall them fondly to this very day. I know that baptism can be incredibly significant for many, and I have experienced firsthand how baptism has contributed to the well-being and cohesiveness of our community and changed lives. Make no mistake: baptism is something that in my ordination my bishop charged me to do, and it is something that I cherish and believe in.
Nonetheless, I feel obliged on this celebration of the Baptism of Christ to question the notion that being Christian is about being baptized and the similar notion that following God necessarily requires or stems from a splash of water by a priest. Those ideas seem to me too disrespectful of the diverse and varied ways in which human beings encounter God and too dismissive of the nuanced and confusing roles that baptism has played in Christian scripture and history.
I certainly feel confident in saying that the story we heard this morning of the baptism of Jesus is by no means a defense for the way we practice baptism. If anything, it is a challenge to it. As far as I can tell, the baptism of Jesus in the river Jordan is far more about the Incarnation than it is about Baptism. Rather than chronicling God’s careful establishment of a profound and sacred initiation rite for all time, destined to shape Christian adherents for holy obedience in the millennia to come, Luke’s story of Jesus’ baptism depicts God himself surrendering control, God himself withholding his power and becoming one of us, and God himself submitting to an imperfect human custom and an imperfect human being, just like everyone else. Jesus’ own baptism serves not to emphasize the necessity of promising six impossible things before brunch, but to call us to marvel at the reality that God is able to receive as well as to give, to forsake his status and to let others take the lead, to step out of the spotlight and to blend in. And Jesus’ baptism calls us together as a holy community, not because we have all jumped through the same hoops to be counted as one of his, but because we all have been honored and dignified beyond measure by his having chosen to live with and among us.
After Jesus was baptized, the heaven was opened, the Holy Spirit descended, and a voice came from heaven, saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” If it is actually true that we walk the steps that he walked before, if it is really accurate to say that he inhabits our humanity and shares our life, then perhaps all of us—baptized or not—are beloved too.