First Sunday after Epiphany: Why Baptism?

I had a sense of foreboding about this sermon and whole service.  I worries that people would not be interested in the issues and that the sermon lacked a clear thread.  But it came off well and seemed to be well received.  Go figure. 

Psalm 29 (call to worship)

Exodus 14:21-29

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Why baptism? Do you ever wonder why we pour water on the heads of newborns or new adult Christians? We should wonder about it. Baptism isn’t something you should just do. It should become a starting point for our thoughtful reflection. But when we reflect, we might find ourselves alienated from our rituals and sacraments, including baptism; we find them strange, and at best accept them as an irrational thing that we just do. I suspect that we find sacraments like baptism strange because we tend to think of faith in terms of our personal and private interiority; we err on the side of making faith too individualistic, too much of the heart or mind. And if faith is all in here, what can possibly be the relevance to my private, interior relationship with God if someone pours water on my outside, or gives me bread and wine to drink? No one else can intervene between me and God, right? And material things like water or bread can’t possibly touch this deep interior place of my heart and soul, can they?

If we are ready to nod our heads in agreement with all that, then I hate to break it to us, since I can even feel my own neck muscles wanting to flex, but we are testifying to how badly our faith is scarred by confusion and obscurity. We have faith. But so many intellectual influences have nicked and gouged us that we move in our faith only with great discomfort. Our medieval Catholic ancestors contributed to these problems by misusing the sacraments as means of social control and church power. But, though I love them so, our Protestant ancestors are at least as much to blame. The Reformation scholar Carlos Eire traces how our 16th century Reformed ancestors, beginning with Erasmus, assumed that the spirit is divine and the body is beastly. Faith can thus never be something of the body, only of the spirit. This denigration of the body is one link in the fence that now hems us in, cutting us off not only from the sacraments, but from our corporate bond with each other in a social ‘body,’ and from the rest of creation as God’s realm. I’ll try to explain all of that later.

Fortunately this mistaken belief about body and spirit is not found in the Bible. In the Bible, faith isn’t something that is inside and not outside, private but not public, spiritual but not bodily. It is all of these. And likewise God doesn’t work only in our souls. God works through water, as in the crossing of the Red Sea. And why not—water was there at the very beginning of creation.

We need not fear allowing God to speak and work through material means, through water and bread, so long as we recall a lesson from last week: that God always remains beyond the confines of any of God’s revelation, always remains Absolute and infinite, even as God is present in the revelation. We talk about God’s presence, but we don’t really know what that means. Look at Jesus’ baptism: God is present as Jesus, and yet God descends as the Holy Spirit dove, and yet again God is the absent, invisible presence of a voice from heaven. Suffice it to say, God reveals while remaining unknown.

Once we get over our squeamishness about God acting and being revealed in material things, we can appreciate afresh the advantages of material sacraments over just words alone. I am very grateful that we have sacraments as part of our common life, rather than just getting together to listen to me talk. (Uckh.) So while none of the sacraments is strictly and purely material—they all involve words and actions along with water, bread, wine—their materiality brings many benefits.

To begin, the fact that sacraments come to us as water, as bread and wine, is a helpful reminder that God’s grace always precedes our acceptance of it by faith. God’s grace is always already there, like water in the basin or bread on the table, before I understand it and make it my own. Before Israel did much of anything but complain to God, God delivered her from Egyptian slavery. Before we proclaim our faith or do any good deed, Jesus already accomplished in his person a perfection of humanity, finalized in his crucifixion and resurrection. And before he even made any disciples, Jesus was already living out a human life before God the way it was meant to be, beginning with his baptism and temptation in the wilderness. Grace—the act of divine acceptance and empowerment—comes before I do anything to make myself worthy of it, or more likely, unworthy of it. /

My Disciples tradition gives preference to adult baptism, and there are some good reasons for that. But some in my and other traditions believe you first have to come to a conscious decision of faith and maybe have a born again experience of God; afterwards, you confirm and proclaim your faith publicly by baptism. I don’t buy that. That line of thinking assumes that my personal decision and my inner experiences must come first. But God’s acts always take precedence over ours. And sacraments are about what God has already done for us in Jesus, not about our sometimes confused apprehension of those acts. Salvation comes upon us as infants when all we can do in response is cry and wet ourselves. So what! if you don’t remember your baptism because you were a baby at the time. None of us remembers God’s acts in Jesus as a personal experience—we are always only looking back and trying to understand more and more deeply./ And when we eat of the bread and drink of the cup we are reminded that faith doesn’t start on the inside and work its way out. It works mostly from the outside in, from Word, church, and sacrament, and we are as dependent on all of those for God’s grace as we are on food for our life. That is an important reminder in our culture, since we so love to celebrate the inner spark of genius and creativity, as if every great thing arises spontaneously from within the hidden wellsprings of whiz kids like Steve Jobs or whoever.

So besides serving as an effective means to convey the precedence of God’s grace to our interiority and decisions, the materiality of sacraments, especially the water of baptism, works in a wonderous way on us that teaching by words cannot. When we talk, we generally want to lay things out using clear and distinct steps. We like to think that words really get to the bottom of things, and when we can articulate something we feel confident and powerful, and perhaps now we can out-argue our opponents. We are tempted with words to distinguish ourselves, to say this is what I believe or we believe, in contrast to those misguided beliefs of others. We like to use words to make creeds, mission statements, and marketing campaigns so we can stand out among all of our competitors; but that desire to distinguish ourselves, while sometimes necessary, is dubious.

Words and articulation have their place; I am a scholar at heart, you know. But the mysteries of God remain impenetrable to our understanding, just as water is its own thing, whatever name we put on it. Water runs deeper than words. So I think churches that attempt to rule out the legitimacy of other churches’ sacraments, to say “your communion is not valid” or “we don’t recognize your baptism,” are making the mistake of putting their own rulings and definitions before God’s surprising power. The sacraments should serve as a badly needed point of unity amid a very divided, and also multi-lingual, Christian world.

The limits of words also hits home for congregational churches like ours. The fact that we’re congregational and we can write our own by-laws and liturgies and faith statements doesn’t mean, in truth, that we can do whatever we want and be whoever we want to be. Before God it means this: we have no higher-ups to hide behind, no one else to bear responsibility for us; instead, we are directly accountable to God. Lord, have mercy on us. Surely it is safer to identify ourselves with God’s universal sacraments than with our own attempts to state the truth in words.

Water runs deeper than words. Water carries within it layer upon layer of connotation; it is a symbol saturated with meanings in a way that exceeds the capacity of our intellect to separate them all out and keep them in line. If we know the rich story of the Bible, we cannot think about the water Jesus was baptized in—the Jordan waters—without thinking about all the ways water played into God’s mighty acts with Israel. God parts the waters of the Red Sea in the decisive act of liberation of Israel from bondage. And by their passage through that watery birth canal, the people Israel arrived on the far shore as a reborn people, ready to begin their wilderness wanderings toward maturity as a people of the covenant. At the other end of that journey, as reported in the book of Joshua, the waters of the Jordan will miraculously part again so that Israel can now cross into the promise and responsibility of God’s gift of a land to call their own.

And so when, 1000 years later, John the Baptist called the people out of Jerusalem, the supposedly holy city of God, and back into the Jordan, he was in many ways calling them back into the wilderness of their youth, washing away their false pretenses to maturity and preparing them to become again like children before God. Jesus after being baptized is likewise sent into the wilderness, experiencing as did Israel hunger and temptation. Do you see how the layers pile up?

And if you know your Bible, you cannot think of the dividing of the Red Sea without recalling the dividing of the waters at the beginning of creation: “Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” Both here and in the creation Psalms, water represents a chaotic and dangerous element that God’s order tames in order to allow life to flourish. Thus our call to worship proclaimed, “The Lord sits enthroned over the flood.” That God is a king over the waters means God reigns over death and chaos. God brings landed life by parting and leading us through the waters of death. And so the Exodus through the Red Sea is a new take on creation. And baptism is a new take on both Exodus and creation. To use the favorite word of the second-century theologian Irenaeus, every act of God is a “recapitulation,” a kind of “do-over” of God’s acts from the beginning.

I could sit here and try to read all those stories to you, if we had time. But they still wouldn’t be as potently present and concisely contained as they are in the very presence of water, which wonderfully dissolves all those stories of God’s acts into itself and holds them like so many solids in solution, which are ready to crystallize out when the time is right. (That allusion was for my fellow chemistry dorks out there.) And the better you know Scripture, the more of its precious salt you can taste suspended in this baptismal water. Because of the water at its source, baptism can take on one or many meanings as the Spirit deems appropriate: liberation, new life, washing, refreshment, dying to our self in repentance, rebirth, and more.   Please don’t try to say, “The meaning of baptism is” X. If that were true, we would just replace the sacraments with clear declarations. And if clarity and precision were all we ever needed, we’d get rid of poetry. But like poetry, the sacraments are there to evoke multiple meanings that speak silently to us on a deeply personal level.

The water of baptism, then, immerses us in a biblical past too rich to explain and narrate. The sacraments transcend time and space. That makes them essential to making a people of God that is both local and universal. There is so much animosity today against institutions, including the church. And we deserve a lot of it. But the idea that human beings can be whole and satisfied with only instant and temporary bonds, with flash mobs and one-night stands, with online hookups and virtual community, is a fad that I believe time will prove either empty or disastrous. People need deep roots and fundamental connections; we need this, whether or not we feel like we want it. The sacraments, grounded in the fundamental stuff of elemental reality, received bodily, physically, rather through a click on a screen, root us in a people. While they hopefully affect us in a deeply personal way, they also make our faith public and shared. Notice that Luke doesn’t just mention Jesus’ baptism: he notes that “When all the people were baptized, and Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heave was opened…” The first act worth noting about this new humanity called Jesus is a not a secret act between him and God, but a public act. He joined a movement.

Thank God that in order to be a genuine, corporate people, we don’t have to define ourselves from scratch. We instead take as our source the waters of baptism that flow from the very beginning of creation, through the Red Sea and the Jordan River, trickling down from Jesus’ hair and beard and out of his side, and down through the centuries of Christian fidelity. Thank God we can lose ourselves in this deep pool of water, and upon emerging can begin afresh to seek who we are to become.

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