Why Baptism? – January 7, 2018
It always seems a little odd to me that within weeks after celebrating Christmas and this year a day after the actual feast of the Epiphany and visit of the Magi, we get a Gospel event in which Jesus is all grown up and about ready to begin his public ministry.
As long as we’re here at the River Jordan, we might as well talk about what’s going on. The baptizing that John was offering was not some innovation by a creative fanatic. It had its precedence in the practice of Jewish baptism that was known in John’s day. To receive converts to the faith, Jewish leaders would sometimes guide converts into a river as a symbolic cleansing of their souls. The baptizer would stand beside the person in the water and recite appropriate words from Hebrew Scripture. This was a sign of a person’s belief and of his or her reception into the faith.
But, the baptism of John was different. He was not baptizing converts to the Jewish faith, but rather offering members of the Jewish community a new way of life. Specifically, he was bathing those who were persuaded by his powerful preaching. His baptism was not a conversion, but a reversion; it was a sign of turning around, of redirecting one’s life toward God. For Jesus to come seeking baptism must have seemed like a surprise to John. He knew he was not worthy to stoop before Jesus, yet Jesus came to John for the same ministrations that were given to others. Afterwards, the very heavens indicated that John had it right. God spoke very clearly. This Jesus was God’s Son.
Why would Jesus? Why would he need to do it? Well, he really didn’t need to. He accepted baptism from John in order to identify with us humans and our spiritual needs and to model for us what happens when we follow his lead and are baptized by water and the Spirit. The rather obvious question for us in this faith community is why do we offer and encourage baptism if we are a radically welcoming church that does not make it a prerequisite for membership nor for receiving the Eucharist as many churches do. Like the ancient Christian Celts, we operate here on the principle of “Belong before you believe” knowing that, with pace, space, and grace, belonging often leads to full inclusion in the life of the church.
Why Baptism?? You may know that I find great similarities between churches and restaurants, especially around hospitality and good service. I think that churches and restaurants have a lot in common. Like St. Paul’s, a restaurant doing its job well welcomes everyone to a table (of course in an eatery one needs to pay!). For me, baptism is like moving to the next step, like saying “I want to do more than enjoy the hospitality of God’s Table; I want to get into the kitchen and roll up my sleeves and serve. I want to delve into the meat and potatoes of this experience. I want to be a regular, even weekly participant in the Eucharist, the principal gathering of my community.
I want to raise my children in a faith community where they will learn about Jesus and how he taught us to live; learn values like love outplays hate, honor the differences of others, respect every person as a child of God. I want to deepen my relationship with the God who created and loves me and do that alongside those here in the Body of Christ who struggle as I do with life’s issues and disappointments. I want to be a partner in God’s holy business of healing, reconciliation and restoration in our broken world by serving those in most need of God’s love and I want to bring my gifts to this vibrant, diverse community by my financial support and my own unique talents. ”
I’d offer two insightful perspectives about baptism on this Sunday. Archbishop Desmond Tutu refers to the togetherness which is represented when we celebrate baptism. “If we could but recognize our common humanity,” he says, “that we do belong together, that our destinies are bound up in one another’s, that we can be free only together, that we can survive only together, that we can be human only together, then a glorious world would come into being.”
Too, we might consider how author Anne Lamott in her book Traveling Mercies approached her own baptism dreading the damage the water would do to her unruly, frizzy hair. “Most of what we do in worldly life,” she writes, “is geared to our staying dry, looking good, not going under. But in Baptism, in lakes and rain and tanks and fonts, you agree to do something that’s a little sloppy because at the same time it’s holy, and absurd. It’s about surrender, giving in to all those things we can’t control; it’s a willingness to let go of balance and decorum and get wet.”
Whether one is baptized or not, believing or not, belonging or not, I think that the final verses in this gospel today are where we might find the really Good News. In his book, Mark for Everyone, theologian N.T. Wright says that the whole Christian Gospel could be summed up in this point: when the living God looks at us, God says to us what God said to Jesus on the day of his Baptism. He sees us, not as we see ourselves, but as we are in Jesus. It sometimes seems impossible to imagine, especially for people who have never had this kind of support from their earthly parents. But it’s true: God looks at us and says, “You are my dear, dear child: I’m delighted with you.”
Here’s a practice for 2018 that we all might want to adopt: Read that sentence slowly, with your own name at the start, and quietly reflect on God saying that to you. “You are my dear, dear child: I’m delighted with you.”