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Luke 3:15-17 & 21-22
It is no longer a safe assumption to think that when you say “baptism,” everyone will know what you are talking about. Just look at the sanctuary this morning. I’d wager a fair amount that we have people in here who don’t remember much about their baptism. I was baptized as a baby, maybe like you, and I don’t remember a thing.
I’ll also bet that we have people here who remember it fondly, some who remember it less than fondly, perhaps alongside some degree of coercion, some who have never been baptized, and perhaps even some who haven’t the faintest idea what I’m even talking about right now.
So when we tell the story of the baptism of Jesus, we can’t just gloss over the baptism part. Even if we are part of that fond memory, meaningful part of our history group, what does it mean for us now, beyond the nostalgia? What doesbaptism mean? Does it mean the same thing for us that it did for Jesus when he waded into the Jordan? Jesus wasn’t joining a church, right? He wasn’t securing hisown salvation, or accepting himself into his own heart, was he? So what is really at work when we talk about baptism? Let me explain.
The English word baptism is derived indirectly through Latin from the Greek noun baptismawhich is a neologism in the New Testament derived from the masculine Greek noun baptismos, a term for ritual washing in Greek language texts of Hellenistic Judaism during the Second Temple period, such as the Septuagint. Great, everyone clear now? No? How about we unpack this a bit more?
In orthodox, ancient Judaism, there existed a ritual called tevilah,which was the purification of a person via full body immersion in a pool of water. Such a ritual bath is called a mikveh, and Tulsa has one at B’Nai Emunah. One of the oldest ones in town is no longer in use but resides in the basement of what is now the Tulsa Garden Center on Peoria, formerly the Travis residence, a Jewishfamily. Tevilahwas a repeatable event, whereas Christians often think of baptism as a singular event, though maybe we ought to reconsider…more on that later. These ritual baths are all over Israel and ritual bathing was apparently used routinely by a Jewish sect called the Essenes, who lived in the desert outside of Jerusalem in a place called Qumran where the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls was made in the late 1940s. The scrolls revealed much about this community that stood outside of mainstream temple Judaism at the time and from which, it is speculated, John the Baptist might have come.
For the Essenes, the ritual bath seemed to be about not only purification, but also transformation. The Baptist’s not-so-subtle phrasing in the prior verses to the people who have come to the riverside is, “You children of snakes! Who warned you to escape from the angry judgment that is coming soon? Produce fruit that shows you have changed your hearts and lives.” Inexplicably, John still draws a crowd, maybe not because of his charm, but because he offers this transformation through this act of repentance which means, in Greek, to turn around. Who doesn’t want a second chance? Who doesn’t know and feel the sting of the things that we’d like to take back, or the ways that we know we fall short of the mark that we set for ourselves? One of the trademarks of the many “anonymous” groups that meet over in our main building each week is a contention with this very issue, a realization that we have faults and weaknesses and, ultimately, we are powerless to control our lives so much that we achieve perfection. So, the “big book” says, we surrender to our higher power, we release, we repent and turn around and do it over and over. By the way, that’s what our “big book” says, too.
In the act of baptism we get what John does not offer with his words…Grace. And once we get that Grace into us, it can grow and mature and build so that we learn to come back to it again and again, using it not as a crutch, but as a foundation.
So let’s stop right there and notice that John himself, the origin of the baptism ritual, suggests that there is more than one baptism. There’s the water one and then this other one. He says that we baptizes with water, but Jesus will come to baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. The word in Greek is puri, and while it does mean “fire,” it also is the root for purify, meaning that something about the baptism with the Spirit has a distilling effect on us, making us better. And apparently we need this baptism just like the water one. Remember the Acts passage read first this morning which says, The two went down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit (for as yet the Spirit had not come upon any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus). That descriptor, baptized only in the name of the Lord Jesus, might very well apply to us, right? That’s the ritual we all went through, as an act of church membership most likely, and often with a strong overtone of salvation.
The community described the the Book of Acts, which we have been studying in the Sunday morning Bible study (at 9:30am in classroom one in the main building, everyone is welcome) gives us the reality of this two-fold baptism, and suggests that one isn’t enough. Sometimes, Acts says, people have this “Holy Spirit” baptism and then get baptized in water, other times it is the reverse, but one won’t cut it. It’s like you have to have both the transformational event AND THEN the transformation. We have to accept the premise, that we need to turn around, and then we to accept the thing that helps the turning, inviting the Spirit in to keep that process going, infusing Grace into our lives until the “turn around” is how we live. The Spirit, particularly in Acts, comes to knock us off our pedestals, to re-wire our outlook and tear down all of our carefully constructed walls. Just read Acts and you’ll see people selling all their stuff to give it to the poor, the healing of the chronically sick, every boundary being busted in the name of a God who says “Yes” to everyone, making the apostles deeply question all of their assumptions. Is that what we expect out of our baptisms? Is that what you were told when you got baptized, that it would tear your world apart and change everything completely? I suspect not.
Baptism is a big deal in the Christian community. It’s a church-fracturing, denomination-generating big deal. How you baptize seems far more important to us than why we baptize, or the implicationsof our baptism. Maybe that’s because it’s easier to focus on the details than it is to recognize that this ritual is really meant to transform us, to change us in ways that the very language used to describe the ritual calls a reversal…a complete 180, as we might say. It does so, the tradition also tells us, because it is the indwelling of the Spirit in us, God working on our lives, not just our New Year’s resolution willpower writ large, but rather the direct impact of God’s love and light changing us from the inside out. It’s not something that we wield, like a super power, but something that wields us, something we are subject TO as we make our way through life, being refined, sharpened, shaped by the Spirit that has descended on us as well. Baptism is about our identity.
The identity that baptism conveys has nothing to do with our worthiness, our success or our failure. It is Grace-driven mark on us, identifying us as God’s beloved, just as God said to Jesus in the Jordan. No matter how often we fall short or fail, nothing that we do, or fail to do, can remove the identity that God conveys as a gracious gift. We can neglect this relationship, we can deny it, run away from it, ignore it, but we cannot destroy it, for God loves us too deeply and completely to ever let us go.
That identity, that baptism identity, is precisely what Jesus and the tradition call on us to remember, not just as a ritual or a mark on the calendar, but as a way of making sure, of remembering, who we are and whosewe are. Only when we accept God’s Grace and Love are we able to consistently give that same grace and love out to others. Such a Grace speaks to our deepest longings, our cravings to find meaning and stability in a world chaotic and cynical. Now, in our times, when we are slowly finding more space and honesty to discover who we are as human beings, who we love, how we present and live and identify, our baptism can also remind us of a deeper identity, a foundational identity as – God’s beloved children.
As we remember the baptism of Jesus today, we also remember our own. As you leave, the baptismal font at the front of the church is filled, as is a special font setup on your way out. If you wish, dip your fingers in the water, touch your forehead, a wrist, a hand, and remember…let that water remind your soul of the claim that is on you, of your identity as God’s beloved child. If you have never been baptized, if you want to be baptized in a way that you can remember, talk to me. Let’s talk about how we can shape that and what it might mean for you. Baptism is not about membership here at Fellowship, it is about foundation, about transformation, about identity. It’s not about joining this family, but accepting that you already are (and always were) part of God’s family. This is as close as I get to an altar call, so if you want to talk with me about ritualizing that acceptance of the Spirit into your heart, we’ll find some time to grab a coffee and talk about baptism.
For now, know this, and remember it each time that water contacts your skin – with every washing of your hands, every shower, every bath, every drink on a hot day. You are God’s beloved child, in you God is well-pleased. Amen.