January 11, 2015
Last week we got to participate in one of the coolest things the church gets to do—we got to be part of Emilia Foster’s baptism. Baptisms are great, not just because they often involve cute babies, but also because they remind us that the church goes on beyond us, after us. They shine as reminders that new birth is always refreshing the family of God. It’s wonderful!
Which may make you wonder why my first response to people want a family member baptized is to ask, “WHY?” Maybe that doesn’t sound very pastoral. Isn’t my job just to say, “Yes! What weekend works for you?” But I don’t take baptism lightly. I want to know what people think they are getting into, and clarify what it is that we Lutherans claim about the benefits and meaning of baptism.
“What is baptism, and what does it do?” Is baptism a ritual that is supposed to wash us clean from our sinfulness? If that’s the case, then why in the world would Jesus—whom we call sinless—need to be baptized? Is baptism an amulet of protection to ward off evil spirits, or a box to check off to keep us safe? It can’t be, given how many people who have been baptized have also suffered and died. Perhaps the need for baptism is not about individual sin or personal demons. Perhaps it is not about warding off threats, including the threat of hell.
I think we’d all agree that every child is born into a sinful world, despite the fact that there is great joy and beauty in it. Despite this being God’s imaginative creation, terrible things happen here. The coffee we drink, the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the cell phones we use sometimes come to us cheaply because other people have endured horrendous working conditions and slave wages to get them to us.
Our nation has recently been reminded of how deeply fractured we are along racial lines, not to mention class lines. Globally, we’ve been horrified by recent expressions of intolerance, including this week’s horrible slaughter of French journalists in the name of God—though such actions seems unceasing in the Middle East. Not to mention the very earth and water that sustain us are being exploited for profit and poisoned with toxic chemicals and waste. The church’s repeated failure to act out against this kind of sin and corruption is silent assent to it.
That’s not even counting the kinds of things we do and say to hurt people we encounter every day—our families, co-workers, and friends. Some of the terrible things that happen in our lives, in our world, are things we ourselves set in motion, deliberately or inadvertently. How many of us have already broken our New Year’s Resolutions? How many of us didn’t even pretend we were going to try to change a destructive habit or add a healthy one? Even when we don’t mean to, we find ourselves participating in sin, because sin is the tendency to curve inwards on ourselves, neglecting the needs and best interests of others. There is not one person in this room whose record is spotless. We are and will always be like Lady MacBeth, scrubbing and scrubbing at the blood on our hands, wishing it away, but finding the stain is still there.
THIS is what baptism is for! It’s not a good luck charm. It’s not a golden ticket into heaven. It is a pathway to living in a messed up world. It is precisely because of our own inability to wash ourselves clean, to make ourselves good and pure, that God steps into our lives. And God doesn’t come with a scythe to cut us down, but with cleansing water and words of forgiveness and renewal.
In our Lutheran tradition, unlike some other faith communities, we do not come to the font for baptism when we feel we are ready to do so. We do not seek baptism to show that we are repentant and need to be refreshed by God. No, it’s quite the opposite. In the Lutheran tradition there is one baptism, and in it we believe that it is not our intention, but God’s intention, that is at work. That’s why we often baptize infants like Emilia who are too young to think or speak for themselves. In such instances we are reminded that in baptism is God who is the primary actor, and we the recipients of grace. Parents and sponsors and the
church at large take responsibility for teaching the newly baptized about God’s work in us and for us.
Adults or older children who are considering baptism sometimes express concern that they are not worthy to receive it. But that’s just the point. Baptism is God’s gift—and gifts don’t have to be deserved. And really, who would qualify for baptism if we needed to deserve it? It has been my experience—and maybe some of you can relate—that the times when I really need to know that God cares for me and that I am included in God’s family, I haven’t been in any kind of shape to ask for it.
I still don’t know why Jesus needed to be baptized. Maybe Jesus, like all of us, needed to hear God’s voice bellowing over the universe, “This is my Beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” at the start of his ministry so that later, when things got really tough, he could hear the echoes of his true identity over all the noise. We all need that sometimes, don’t we?
John the Baptist expected the Messiah to come with fire, and maybe Jesus did too. In the moment of his baptism, the Gospel writer says the heavens were ripped opened, the division between the secular and the holy rent assunder, but what came down was not a torrent of flames, but God’s affirming voice. Jesus wasn’t a leader who ruled by force and violence, but a king kneeling at the feet of his subjects, washing their feet. The God whose Spirit hovered over the chaos of creation has come down inside of it. The open heavens have never closed up. And the presence of God among us is not a threatening presence—though I hasten to point out it isn’t a flimsy, namby-pamby presence either. The presence of God is a quiet strength, the rock-solid promise of solidarity with those who need God most. God has come into our world on the wings of a dove, in the shape of a mortal, full of love, to stand next to those who feel loved the least.
And we who know the story are witnesses to what he said and did on this earth. We know that Jesus was indeed God’s beloved child. We know how the story turns out! And we trust that Jesus will return someday to wipe away all the tears that remain on this earth. To bring forth justice for the oppressed, to open the eyes of the blind, to
release the prisoners from their dungeons. This is the God who has named us and claimed us as God’s own in our baptisms, empowers us to respond to the call to follow Jesus, to act and to testify to what we have heard and experienced and believe.
Maybe some of you think that’s what you hire a pastor to do. But the truth is, when the waters of baptism were poured over your heads, you were commissioned to be a minister. What’s more—you received all the grace and authority you need to testify to the Light, just as John the Baptist did. That may scare you. You may feel inadequate and unprepared. That’s OK. It’s ok to be nervous. Just know that you have all you need. Even at our most fragile, the waters of baptism bear us up. Even if we feel like we’re falling apart, we are God’s own beloved children, and we are not in this alone. Whenever we get discouraged or panicky about what God is calling us to do, hear God call you by name again, saying, “You are my beloved child. With you I am well pleased.”
100% of the time, that move happens at God’s initiative, not ours.
Thanks be to God!