January 13, 2019
© the Rev. Dr. James Campbell
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.”
Congregationalism is a religion of the people. The people run the church. The people raise the budget and decide how it is spent. The people vote on important issues like purchasing property and calling a minister. And because this is a church of the people, it’s in our DNA to think of ourselves as a community of equals. And so we are – kind of. Even in our religion of the people, some things are reserved solely for the clergy. There are certain priestly functions that only the ordained can do. According to the faith and order of the United Church of Christ, of which we are a proud part, only ordained ministers can bless the bread and cup for a service of Holy Communion. And only ordained ministers are authorized to baptize people into the household of God.
These two acts - baptism and communion – we call sacraments. And while our Catholics sisters and brother have seven of these sacraments, we Protestants only have these two. There are lots of historical reasons for that, but primary among them is the both of these acts can be tied back directly to the life of Jesus Christ. Baptism and Communion are both things that Jesus himself did. And because Jesus did them, and because we are disciples of Jesus, these things are holy, set-apart, sacred.
Today is set-aside in the liturgical calendar as the Baptism of Christ Sunday. And that information is usually met with one of two responses. The first one is: “Who cares?” What on earth does the baptism of Jesus have to do with life in 2019. For second response to the baptism of Jesus is: “uh oh.” Why “uh oh?” Well, think about it. What have we been taught about baptism? Isn’t it about sin and redemption? Aren’t there notions of being washed clean? Isn’t there something in there about that perplexing idea of original sin? But the Scripture says that Christ was without sin. So, what on earth was he doing in the muddy Jordan that day?
To make things more complicated, Jesus was baptized by his cousin John. And in the ancient world, to be baptized by someone meant to submit to their authority; to be their disciple. But the New Testament is rather clear that Jesus Christ is Lord of all, including John the Baptist.
And the Gospel of Luke presents a third rather embarrassing problem with the Baptism of Jesus. Luke claims that when Jesus was baptized, John was already in prison awaiting execution. That’s embarrassing. So which was it: John was in prison or John baptized Jesus?
So to celebrate the Baptism of Christ is complicated. And these contradictions make us nervous. But I think we’re nervous because we’re trying to make Scripture fit into neat theological equations. We already know what we believe and we don’t want the Bible to get in the way. And so we push and shove these stories through the pigeonholes of doctrine and church history, trying to tie up all the loose ends. But it has been my experience that grace – sometimes amazing grace - is often found in the questions and contradictions and loose ends.
John the Baptist was preaching repentance out on the banks of the Jordan River. To repent simply means to turn and walk in a new direction. And who doesn’t need to do that? It was a popular message and people thronged the banks of the Jordan. One day, Jesus happened along and decided that he should be baptized too. And John saw the contradictions and protested. But Jesus was undeterred and John finally relented. When Christ came up out of the water, the spirit of God came down like a dove, and a voice announced: "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."
In Luke, this story is told simply – he gives it all of half a sentence. And notice what is not present in this story or in any of the other Gospel’s accounts. There is no talk of original sin being washed away; no ordained priest or pastor there to administer the sacrament; no holy water; no sacred space; no special clothing: just some people down by a riverside, under an open sky, wanting a new life; and longing to know that they mattered. And there was Jesus among them, using what was there - common water - to help remember what is true.
To remember what is true – we all need that. And so, we take pictures to capture a beautiful moment. We keep journals to remember beautiful thoughts. We hug our friends and lovers to remember their bodies. These are outward and visible symbols of an inwards and spiritual grace – sacraments if you will.
Once a month, we gather around this table to eat bread and drink cup in order to recall, with our bodies, the Last Supper of Jesus. There is something holy about the physicality of it. But the challenge of baptism is that most of us have absolutely no memory of it. We don’t recreate it with our bodies. And that, it seems to me, is to our detriment.
The great Protestant reformer Martin Luther needed reminders of his baptism. Like so many other great spiritual leaders, Luther was constantly plagued doubt and despair. To drive back those demons, he kept an inscription over his desk that simply read, "Remember, you have been baptized." And when that inscription alone was not enough, he would touch his own forehead and say out loud: "Martin, you have been baptized."
My mentor in ministry, the Rev. George Bailey, had his own way to remember his baptism. George was a character; a fresh and original thinker, very often misunderstood. But what he was was a mystic. I will never forget his sermon in which he encouraged us to use our morning showers as a way to celebrate and remember our baptisms. “That’s what I do,” he said. Each day as the waters poured down on his head and body; George Bailey remembered that grace and love and mercy were poured out upon him day after day after day. And then he stunned us all into silence when he declared, in no uncertain terms, that his morning shower wasa sacrament - an outward and physical reminder of an inward and spiritual reality.
The physical world connects with the spiritual world. And once you understand that, then the simplest gifts of life aremeans of grace. And could it be that that was why Jesus was baptized? Do you think it’s possible that before he began his three intensive and difficult years of ministry that he wanted to feel, on his own skin, the abundant grace and love of God?
At the conclusion of this sermon, and as the choir sings, Alison and I invite any of you who so desire to come forward and remember your baptism. We will stand at the head of these two aisle. You will receive some simple water on your forehead, and when you do, we will say: “Remember your baptism and be thankful.”
These waters are not magic, but they are powerful. They are powerful because they help us remember, with our bodies, those things thing we long to be true but often forget: that the grace of God is deeper than the oceans; that the love of God is an ever-flowing river; that the forgiveness of God washes us clean and gives us a fresh start – not just today, but every day.