This is a sermon I preached three years ago, it was part of a series called Jesus Doesn’t Care! That series was sparked by a comment made by someone when they were asked at the last moment to serve communion one Sunday. She said, “But I’m wearing jeans!’ I said, “Jesus doesn’t care!” Which set me to wondering what else Jesus doesn’t care about that we as church people get hung up about too. So this was my sermon on baptism.
I spent a long time contemplating baptism and pondering:
- What does the United Church say about baptism?
- What does it mean to be baptized?
- What are the reasons people bring their children for baptism if they don’t intend to participate in the life of a faith community?
- And, of course, does Jesus care whether we are baptized or not?
The United Church has 4 understandings of baptism:
- A ritual of covenant and welcome into the faith community
- A ritual of grace
- A rite of passage
- A ritual of belonging
Parents and adults usually approach baptism through one of these understandings. When we baptize… and while I might preside over the ritual, it’s not just me who is baptizing… it is us… as a community of faith… we ALL enter into the baptism. That is why in the United Church, there are rarely good reasons to baptize in private… we recognize it as a communal ritual, done in the context of weekly worship. During Covid, in the interest of the safest practices, we have made exceptions to that.
The following information is found on the UCC website:
Baptism is a symbolic action that signifies the new life God gives us as we join the church community. Baptism uses water as a symbolic cleansing that signifies the acceptance of new life within the church family. The sacrament of baptism is the single rite of initiation into the Christian community, the church. The United Church offers baptism to all ages. We believe the gift of God’s love doesn’t depend on our ability to understand it, so we baptize people as infants right up through adulthood. During the ceremony, everyone in the congregation pledges support for the child and his or her parents. Baptism is not a requirement for God’s love. We believe people who die without baptism are in no way condemned, lost, or damned. Baptism in the United Church is recognized by all denominations of the Christian church that practice infant baptism. Similarly, if people have already been baptized in another church, the United Church recognizes their baptism and welcomes them as Christians. (united-church.ca)
The baptism of Jesus reading comes every year, so after 20 years of preaching, I wondered if there is anything new to say about it. And then of course, as soon as that thought takes place, I notice something in the both readings that I have never noticed before! But first, let’s hear Luke’s account of Jesus being baptized, it’s in the 3rd chapter:
3:15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah,
3:16 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.
3:17 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.”
3:21 Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened,
3:22 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.”
The NEW thing is this, John’s words in verse 16: “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.”
I baptize with water, I am the one who is privileged to preside over that ritual… but it’s about Jesus coming into that child/youth/adult’s life and will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire! Quite frankly, that is a bit of scary image isn’t it? Being baptized with the Holy Spirit and fire. Neither are tame and domesticated. That theme of being baptized with the Holy Spirit is picked up again in Acts 8, let’s hear those words:
8:14 Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them.
8:15 The two went down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit
8:16 (for as yet the Spirit had not come upon any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus).
8:17 Then Peter and John laid their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.
Did you notice that despite being baptized, they had not yet received the Holy Spirit? What was it about having had hands laid on them by Peter and John that enabled them to receive the Holy Spirit? I wonder if it is something like babies/children being brought for baptism, but they don’t receive the Holy Spirit until they have made the decision to follow Jesus themselves?
What if our baptism was less tame and scripted… what if it was a full immersion baptism with water splashing all over the place? What if when hands were laid upon you, you felt the Holy Spirit, not like a gentle dove, but like a wild goose! What if you felt the heat of fire in the very core of your being. Fire that burned in you for love… and justice… and mercy…
Does being baptized matter to Jesus? Well, I don’t know… I have a feeling that Jesus is more concerned with how we live than whether or not we are baptized. I have a feeling that Jesus is more concerned about loving God and neighbour than about us being baptized. I have a feeling that Jesus is more concerned about our care for those who are vulnerable than whether or not we have been marked with water.
Which is not to say that baptism doesn’t matter… because it matters to us… The sacrament of baptism is an outward sign of an invisible grace. As my colleague the Rev. Dr. Jessica Hetherington says, “Rituals are how we make meaning out of experiences.”
Being baptized as an infant or child places the onus on the parents and the faith community to create opportunities and engagement for a child to live into a baptismal faith. Being baptized as an adult is making a commitment to follow Jesus in a particular faith community. The words are the same, profession of faith and promises. We use those same words when someone confirms their faith as a teenager or adult.
I invite all of you who have been baptized in whatever denomination and those who are not to ponder the promises made at baptism:
Do you believe in God, Source of love; in Jesus Christ, God’s love made human; and in the Holy Spirit, the power of God’s love? If you feel called, claimed and committed, please respond with I do, by the grace of God.
Trusting the gracious mercy of God, will you turn from the forces of evil, and renounce their power? If you feel called, claimed and committed, please respond with I will, God being my helper.
Will you follow the way of Jesus Christ? If you feel called, claimed and committed, please respond with I will, God being my helper.
Will you join with your brothers and sisters in your community of faith to celebrate God’s presence, live with respect in creation, and love and serve others? If you feel called, claimed and committed, please respond with I will, God being my helper.
Water, in our baptismal font, is placid and calm. But for us in Nova Scotia, all of whom live within 60k of the ocean, or right next to rivers, we KNOW that water is not placid and calm. It creates its own path; it is untamed, bringing both life and death. As you pass through the ‘waters of baptism’ on your way out… remember that they are indication that you are entering into Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.
Remember these words from Father Richard Rohr from his book, The Divine Dance: “This, then, seems to be the work of the Spirit: To keep you growing is to keep you vulnerable to life and love itself. Notice the major metaphors for the Spirit are always dynamic, energetic, and moving: elusive wind, descending dove, falling fire, and flowing water. Spirit-led people never stop growing and changing and recognizing the new moment of opportunity. How strange to think that so much of religion became a worship of the status quo, until you remember that the one thing the ego hates and fears more than anything else is change. What, then, is the path to holiness? It’s the same as the path to wholeness. And we are never “there” yet. We are always just in the river. Don’t try to push the river or make the river happen; it is already happening, and you cannot stop it. All you can do it recognize it, enjoy it, and ever more fully allow it to carry you.”
Thanks be to God for the challenge and opportunity of living out our baptismal faith. Amen.
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
January 16, 2022
Stairs Memorial United Church