A while back I received an email from a student who was taking a religion course. The class had been assigned to visit a place of worship in a tradition different from their own. They were to interview a religious leader, and especially pay attention to the sacred space. What was important about the building, about the structure, about the symbols?
This was not all that unusual; from time to time I will hear from a student who wants to talk to me about a religion class assignment. Students call because our church is nearby or because they want to investigate this strange group called Baptists. Well, we made arrangements and at the appointed time this young man showed up. His tradition was Roman Catholic, and he asked some good questions. I enjoyed visiting with him and we looked around the building, especially the sanctuary.
I talked a little about the New England meetinghouse style of our church building. The New England Puritans believed in a simple, unadorned worship space that was free of worldly distractions so that people might worship God. They didn’t even have crosses, they certainly wouldn’t have had banners, and they would have been absolutely mortified at the thought of pew cushions. (I didn’t mention to this student that the Puritans adopted this very plain style because they rejected anything that smacked of Catholicism).
We don’t have a lot of ornamentation in our sanctuary, no fancy stained windows, although unlike the Puritans we don’t think there is anything wrong with that. But we do have something that a person looking at the architecture of sacred spaces might be interested in: I showed him the baptistry and talked about our tradition of baptism. We have the curtains open on the baptistry today as we think about baptism – Jesus’ baptism as well as our own.
Some of you were baptized here in this church. For some, that may have been 50 years ago or more. Some of you have been here early on a Sunday morning, filling the baptistry with water. Some of you have been present to assist baptismal candidates get in and out of the water. And I imagine that a good number of you have never seen the inside of our baptistry.
We actually have a huge baptismal pool. The architect made it much larger than it would need to be – we could have big old hot tub parties in there. And all things considered, it really is a strange thing we do, baptism.
Peter Gomes was the much-loved chaplain at the Memorial Church at Harvard. He recalled the story of an undergraduate couple who approached him, asking to be baptized. He talked it over with them, they discussed what baptism meant and he said yes, he would be glad to baptize them. They wanted to be baptized by immersion, which was great. He was a Baptist - an American Baptist, at that - but they did not have a baptistry at the Memorial Church. They had a baptismal font, and it just would not do. So they had to find a place to hold the baptism.
Walden Pond was a special place for this couple, so it was decided to have the baptism there. Unfortunately, it was October, but they found a decent day and headed off to Walden Pond. Gomes said that he went into the water, the two young people followed, there were words of testimony shared, and then Gomes wrote:
I performed the deed as I was taught: down and up, down and up. As soon as I brought the woman up from the water, she being the second, there was a great burst of applause. We were not alone. We looked and found that the shore was full of people who had come out of the woods and were absolutely fascinated at this bizarre activity going on at Walden Pond. Many strange things have been seen at Walden Pond but nothing, I’m sure, quite as strange as this, and clearly some word of explanation was in order lest they call the police. I explained that this was what Christians did when they wanted to make a profession of their faith, and I quoted a little scripture. One of the fellows on the shore asked, “Do you do a lot of this sort of thing?” I replied, “Not as much as I would like, but yes, I do.” He and his friends on the shore scratched their heads and said, “Well, it looks like fun,” and off they went into the woods.It is a bit more domesticated and certainly easier when you have indoor plumbing. John and Elaine Anderson remembered breaking the ice in winter to have a baptism in northern Minnesota. But the fact is that wherever you do it, at Walden Pond or in a Minnesota creek or at First Baptist, it is still a bit odd. As a testimony to our faith in Jesus, we get dunked in a pool of water while friends and family watch in anticipation. Someone who wasn’t familiar with the idea would surely scratch their heads like those onlookers at Walden Pond and ask, “What is up with that?”
Since we are called Baptists, the rite of baptism probably deserves some thought. Why do we baptize, and what does it mean? A good place to start is Jesus’ baptism.
We have been (mostly) following the Narrative Lectionary this year. We spend the fall in the Hebrew Scriptures, with great Old Testament stories and passages from the prophets. Now we will be making our way through the gospel of Matthew, all the way through Easter.
But just to step back a bit, the very last words of the Old Testament, right before Matthew, come from the prophet Malachi: “Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.” A cheery way to end a book, right?
The gospel of Matthew begins with genealogies, the birth of Jesus, the visit of the Magi, and the flight of the Holy Family to Egypt to escape Herod. And then Matthew skips ahead in time - nothing about Jesus’ childhood or adolescence. The next thing we know, here comes John the Baptist. John fulfills the role of Elijah, who the one would be sent ahead. He is in the mold of a wild Old Testament prophet, out in the wilderness.
John does not have an especially comforting message. Like the prophets of old, he calls down judgment. “You brood of vipers! … even now the ax is lying at the root of the tree.” To be honest, this wouldn’t seem to be that popular of a message.
And yet, everybody wants to come out to see him. Pharisees, Saducees, members of the religious establishment, folks with power and position came for baptism – and John confronts them with judgment. But here is the thing: while John comes across as this wild-eyed prophet, wearing camel skins, eating honey and locusts, and giving these turn-or-burn sermons, his message is actually reasonable and doable. Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Righteousness is not about your identity as children of Abraham, it’s not about historical identity or group identity, but about the way you live your life in relationship to God.
The same message can be heard in two ways. A call to repentance can be heard as a harsh demand to change. (And if you are called a brood of vipers, that does add to the harshness of the message.) But a call to repentance can also be heard as an invitation. Repentance can be not just a turning away, but a turning toward. The kingdom of heaven is near. A new way is calling to us that would make us want to change. Repentance is not just leaving behind the past, it is claiming and moving toward a new future – toward God’s coming reign. Baptism is a symbol of that new life.
And then, Jesus himself comes to John for baptism. This is puzzling for John, who does not understand why Jesus would come to him for baptism. “You’re the one who should be baptizing me,” he says. But Jesus says, “It is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Jesus is baptized to show us what righteousness is like, and in his baptism he identifies completely with us in our need and in our humanity.
The passage ends not in judgment, not in fire, but with love and affirmation: “You are my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
What exactly is God pleased with? Jesus has not actually done anything, not yet. He has simply been baptized, and God says, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” Baptism has to do with who we are – with our identity as beloved children of God. Following Jesus in baptism is a choice we make, but it is not about anything that we have earned.
John’s baptism was not exactly the same as Christian baptism, but it certainly anticipates it. As practiced in the New Testament, we believe that baptism is for those who have accepted God’s gift of grace and chosen for themselves to follow Christ. As Paul describes it, it is a symbol of dying to sin and rising to new life in Christ. Many of you grew up in other traditions – some of you were baptized as infants and then at a later point professed your own faith in Christ. Either way, baptism is a sign of God’s grace and God’s claim on us as beloved daughters and sons.
Jesus’ baptism points out for us a dimension of faith that we need to take seriously, and that is, authentic, vital faith is both individual and communal. It is deeply personal, it involves our own choice and commitment, but it also happens in community and involves the community.
At his baptism, Jesus decides for himself that this is the path he will follow. And as he rises from the water, there is a voice from heaven: “this is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.”
And yet, it happens in community. Jesus doesn’t go to John after business hours, he goes like everyone else; he goes with the crowds to the Jordan River where John is doing his thing he is baptized in the midst of all of those who have come to be baptized by John.
Faith is a deeply personal for all of us. We cannot scoot by on our parents’ faith or our church’s faith or anyone else’s faith: it has to be our own. And God says to each of us, even as God said to Jesus, “You are my beloved child.” At the same time, we are baptized into the Church, into a community of faith made of those flawed, imperfect, yes, sinful people who are seeking together to follow Jesus.
The Church is a community where we encourage one another and challenge one another and support one another and teach one another, a place where we remind each other who we are – God’s beloved children.
Now, we do not believe that baptism is magic – it doesn’t transform a person just by virtue of getting wet. The faith that is present and the commitment that is made and more than that, God’s love and grace toward us are what really matters. We don’t believe that baptism saves us, not in a transactional sense. And so, why is it so important?
There is something very powerful about entering the waters of baptism as people have for hundreds of years, over the centuries, back to Jesus himself. There is something about having the waters wash over you and experiencing this very tangible sign that we have been made clean, that we have risen to new life. As we seek to follow Jesus, we follow his example in the act of baptism.
What really stands out about Jesus’ baptism is the voice from heaven – not simply speaking to Jesus but announcing to the world: “this is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.”
I happened upon a news story this week that really caught my attention. It is about a church in Oklahoma. It is a Baptist church, but then when I said it was Oklahoma that almost makes it redundant to say it was a Baptist church.
The pastor of the church, Rev. Jim Standridge, is seen in a video of a worship service telling off a member who has fallen asleep before chastising another member for missing services. He says to this second man – in a sermon – "I noticed on the calendar I’m supposed to marry you all. What makes you think I would marry you? You’re one of the sorriest church members I have. You’re not worth 15 cents.”
Well, you see why this caught my attention. This was said in a sermon, captured on video, and of course it went viral.
Now I doubt that this pastor would be interested is advice from me, but if he were, I would suggest he not post videos of his sermon on the church website.
His comments were just unfathomable. And monstrous. He later defended his words as a kind of “tough love,” but I’m not buying that. This was antithetical to the gospel and miles and miles from the spirit of Jesus.
God says to each of us, "You are my beloved child. You are of great value. You are so important and I love you so much that I took on human flesh." In Isaiah, we have God’s words, “Do not be afraid, I have called you by name, I have redeemed you, you are mine.”
Now of course, we are not perfect. Of course, we fall short, but God loves us and offers us grace and invites us to make new beginnings. God sees us as beloved children.
And that, really, is what baptism is about – following the one who loves us. Amen.