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Wading into the waters of baptism is no simple matter for a progressive Christian. Once you leave the myth of perfection in some distant garden back there in the mists of time, reject the notion of humanity’s fall from grace as a result of original sin, and give up worshipping the sadistic image of a god who demands a blood sacrifice, it’s difficult to navigate the waters of baptism without spouting notions that the institutional church condemns as heresy. But today is the day when the church celebrates the baptism of Jesus and the stories about the baptism of Jesus that have been handed down to us by our ancestors suggest that on this day of all days, we should have the courage to follow Jesus into the river of life even if it does challenge some of our long held assumptions about what it means to be a child of God.
I venture into these troubled waters as someone who treasures the sacrament of baptism. Long before I ever entertained the idea that I might one day respond to the call to become a baptizer, I became a lover of this particular sacrament of the church. I am now, and I have always been one of those people who find it almost impossible not to shed a tear or two at baptisms. The beauty of all that hope and expectation all wrapped up in the guise of a tiny little human has a way of generating in me a watery contribution as my tears join the sprinkling to wet the babies head. When the baptized is an adult my tears flow even more bountifully. Let’s face it folks these days the reality is that infant baptisms are rare enough. Adult baptisms, especially in mainline churches are so rare that the nostalgia alone is enough to send us into spasms of uncontrollable weeping for seer joy at the thought that it is even remotely possible that someone has been able to see beyond the church’s doctrine long enough to embrace the amazing possibilities of the sacrament to provide any benefit in this the twenty-first century.
When we look back to the stories told in the synoptic gospels about the baptism of Jesus we are sometimes so distracted by the opening of the heavens, the descent of the dove and the voice of God declaring Jesus to be the beloved, that we miss an important detail of the way in which the early followers of the Way chose to tell the story of Jesus public coming out party. New Testament scholars remind us that the stories told by the writers of the gospels were written at the end of the first century; a time when it would have been clear to all those who had ears to hear, that by going down to the river Jordan to be baptized by John would have stirred up the political and religious waters. John the Baptist was a revolutionary who made no bones about the fact that the religious authorities and the political rulers were leading the people down the wrong path. John’s shouting in the wilderness was his way of warning the people to repent; to literally turn around and follow a different path. John was doing far more than ranting when he condemned the religious authorities as a brood of vipers; he was calling on the people to reject the teachings of the authorities. John’s insistence on repentance was a call to revolution, a revolution designed to overthrow the status quo. John was out there in the wilderness because it wasn’t safe for him to spout his own particular brand of incendiary fire and brimstone rhetoric within earshot of the authorities. By going down to the River Jordon and submitting to John’s baptism of repentance Jesus was choosing to identify himself with a political revolutionary.
That the writers of the gospels chose to tell there story in ways that see the God of Israel give Jesus a shout out, and the very spirit of God descending like a dove onto the shoulders of Jesus, turns John’s baptism of repentance into a kind of passing of the torch from one revolutionary to the next. Yet, despite the gospel-writers having cast Jesus into the role of revolutionary torchbearer none of the gospel writers shows Jesus following the ways of his predecessor John. There is no record of Jesus calling people to repent nor is there any record of Jesus ever having baptized anyone. All we have is Jesus “Great Commission” which if New Testament scholars are to be believed, Jesus probably never even said, “go therefore and baptize them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Yes, it’s true, most preachers, dare I say modern-day baptizers, learned in seminary that rather than being an instruction given by Jesus the Great Commission was actually added to the story by the early followers of Jesus. But I digress, the point I’d like to emphasize about Jesus’ trip down to the waters of the Jordan, is that by choosing to publicly submit to John’s baptism, Jesus was making an important statement about his own public ministry. For just like John, Jesus intended to challenge the religious and political authorities.
That the gospel writers have Jesus head off into the wilderness to find his own way prepares us to follow Jesus down a completely different path than the one his predecessor John pointed toward.
So on a day, when the church looks back upon the baptism of Jesus, surely we can take courage from Jesus’ example of wandering off into the wilderness to find our own way of challenging the religious authorities of our day.
For centuries the Lutheran church has taught that baptism is a sacrament because it meets the two criteria set by the church for sacraments: one it was commanded by Jesus and two it uses ordinary stuff to make God’s grace visible and tangible. In the Lutheran church only baptism and communion meet these two criteria; other denominations like the Roman Catholic’s define sacraments differently and so some have more than just two sacraments. We have only the two, baptism: which combines Jesus’ Great Commission and ordinary water as the means to make God’s grace visible and tangible and communion which combines Jesus command to “do this in remembrance of me” with ordinary bread and wine to make God’s grace visible and tangible.
Lutheran’s like many denominations do not believe that God’s grace can or indeed needs to be earned but rather that God’s grace comes as a free gift; and so we baptize and commune infants. We don’t wait until they’re old enough to understand so that they can decide for themselves; grace is a free gift.
Now it wasn’t always this way. For centuries the church added all sorts of rules and regulations around who could and couldn’t be baptized and who could and couldn’t receive communion. Some churches still cling to these rules and regulations. Many of us can remember the great arguments that happened in our own lifetimes about who could and could receive the means of grace. When an institution claims the power to decide what is and isn’t a sacrament and who can and can’t receive it, that intuition is able to derive power and authority by withholding those rights.
Over the centuries baptism has suffered from some incredible abuses perpetrated by the minions of the institution. Fear was used by the powers that be to keep people in line. So over the years fear became a great motivator when it came to baptism. Indeed, a good many parents have rushed to the altar to have their babies baptized as a kind of insurance against the horrors of hell or at the very least limbo. So baptism which had become a kind of initiating rite in which people were welcomed into the Christian family became something one simply did in order to belong. So, whether or not they actually believed anything the church taught, a good many parents had their babies “done” simply as some form of cosmic insurance against come what may. But even if we put the abuses of the intuition to one side and look at what the church currently teaches about baptism, it is difficult for those of us of a progressive bent to navigate the troubled waters of baptism.
Baptism in the Lutheran church functions as an initiation into the family of God. It does so by ritually drowning the baptized. Baptism is a symbolic drowning to the old life and being born into new life in God. However symbolic this ritual drowning may be it is still aimed squarely at original sin. Original sin is the term dreamed up by the church to describe the human condition. It relies upon the notion that humans were created perfectly by God, however, somewhere along the line we managed to fall into bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves. Original sin is just one of the ways that theologians have described the human condition. It is not the only way. But over the centuries, more precisely since Anslem described his understanding of the human condition in the eleventh century, the doctrine of original sin has become the most prominent way of interpreting the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth, who has become the Saviour sent by God to die in order to save us from God’s anger over our sinfulness.
But as rational beings living the 21st and not the eleventh century we know that humanity has evolved over time. Yes we know that we are not perfect beings, as we continue to evolve we have the capacity to become better, but we also have the capacity to create havoc, we are capable of doing evil, creating harm, and bringing on great destruction. The human condition is a work in progress. We are not fallen creatures. We are evolving creatures. Jesus did not die upon the cross to save us from God’s wrath, Jesus died on the cross because he threatened the powers that be and because he was willing to live for what he believed in. Because he chose love over hate, good over evil, and refused to take up the sword, Jesus threatened the status quo and the powers that be chose to execute him. Jesus didn’t die for our sins. Jesus lived for the things he believed in. Jesus lived for love and loved so greatly that he was willing to die for that love and in dying Jesus showed us that love never dies.
Over and over and over again, the New Testament stories about Jesus tell us that we need not be afraid, that God is love. So, fear has no part in any sacrament. The very word itself, sacrament means holy and fear has no place in our sacraments.
I have long since given up the notion that baptism is a requirement for membership in the family of God. I have long since given up teaching that baptism is a sacrament because Jesus commanded us to do it. I have long since refused to believe that baptism is a ritual dying to the old life and being born again into the body of Christ. So, why you may ask do I continue to tear up at baptisms; why do I love this sacrament of the church and why, oh why do I persist in baptizing?
Well, let me begin by saying that my tears have a great deal to do with my own beliefs about baptism. Now please hear me well when I say “my own beliefs about baptism.” For what I am about to say does not represent the teaching of the Lutheran Church. Each and every one of you will, I know have your own beliefs about baptism and I encourage you to share those beliefs with one another. I know that as a community we will have to decide what it is that we want to teach here in this place about baptism. But at the risk of veering into the troubled waters of heresy, let me tell you where I find myself on the subject of baptism.
It does start with tears, because there is a certain sadness about giving up some long held beliefs. But those tear drops, like the drops of water that fall from the heavens, carry me away to larger waters, waters that allow me to float in a sea that gently rocks me as it carries me back into the primordial seas from which life first sprang forth. Water is an essential element in the cosmos. Without water life cannot exist. We have and we continue to search the realms of space for evidence of life beyond the Earth. Our forays into space are embodied in a tiny robot searching for signs of water on Mars because we know that where there is water there is life. Our own evolutionary history takes us back to the reality that life began in the oceans and that our reptilian ancestors dragged themselves out of the water and onto the land and the rest as they say is history. Scientists tell us that our very bodies are comprised of water; more that sixty percent of our bodies is water. We cannot survive for very many days without water. In the beginning, we float in the waters of the womb and our birth is heralded in the breaking of our mother’s waters.
Water is the very stuff of life. In addition to nurturing us water refreshes and cleanses us. Yes water is dangerous and mysterious, but I refuse to believe that any of the parents who come to us asking that we baptize their beloved children do so because they want us to ritually drown their beautiful little babies so that they can be born again into the Body of Christ. Parents bring their babies to us for all kinds of reasons; chief among them is to celebrate. A child is a miraculous gift. Who wouldn’t want to gather their friends and family around them to celebrate the birth of a child? At such a celebration who wouldn’t want to herald the name that they have so painstakingly chosen for that child? But why come to the church for such a celebration? Why not just have a party at home, and wet the baby’s head with a toast as we name the child? Surely we can develop celebrations of birth and naming rituals that do not require a church. Obviously we can and we do because fewer and fewer people are coming asking churches to help them celebrate births or name their children. So, why do we need baptism if we’re not afraid of a vengeful God? What are we doing when we baptize?
I believe that most of the parents who bring their children here to have them baptized do so because the birth of their children opens them up to the reality of the miracle of life and they are seeking some way of connecting to that which they sense is larger than themselves. They are seeking some way to say thank-you to the One the sense is the Source of Life. This public thanksgiving may also be an attempt to connect with something beyond themselves. This is where I believe the church has something to offer the world in the sacrament of baptism. For when parents bring their children to the font, they are saying they want to be connected to this story of ours. They want to be connected to the best of the Christian tradition. At the moment of baptism opportunities arise to belong to something bigger, to the best of the Christian tradition yes, but also to the future. Baptism is a beautiful welcoming moment in which the full potential of LOVE is glimpsed. All that hope all that potential, I can’t help but well up with joy at the very possibility that all the challenges that Jesus lived his life to teach us about, all the challenges to the way we are, come to us in the waters of baptism. In the waters of baptism we see beyond the drops of water to the very stuff that nourishes, grounds and sustains us in this life, and we also see the possibilities of what life might become if we love one another.
When the waters of baptism touch the head of a child, they are anointed with possibility, the possibility of love, the possibility of peace, the possibility of joy, and yes the possibility of pain.
And all that possibility comes to them in the context of a community that is both renewed by such beautiful potential and refreshed by the challenges of living into that baptism. For the Body into which we are born in the waters of baptism is the is the body of Christ, an incomplete body of imperfect people who are doing their best to follow a path toward a world in which everyone is loved; everyone has enough, and everyone can live in peace.
If such beautiful potential doesn’t bring a tear to your eyes, then perhaps this community isn’t doing our job correctly and we all need to look to our own baptism, to see the love that was showered upon us then and all the years since we were baptized, so that we can see how much love we have to give the world. Maybe it’s time for this community to change our baptismal liturgy so that it does more than parrot the traditions of our past. Maybe it’s time for this community to reform our baptismal practices so that they reflect the time in which we live and look toward the future we want to take part of creating. Maybe it’s time for this community to follow Jesus down to the river to remind us not just of his baptism, but also to remind us of our own baptism so that we might have the courage to follow Jesus into the wilderness to discover our mission to the world.
Baptism is a sacrament, a sacrament that holds so much promise not only for the future but also for today. Every time I dip my hands into the font, I remember the love that has flowed in, with, and through my life and I give things to the One who is the Source of my being for the gift of my own baptism into this amazing community we call the Body of Christ. So, I encourage all of you to dip your own hands into this font and let the waters of the earth remind you what a gift your life is, let the waters of life remind you of the love that flows in, with, through, and beyond you. Let the waters of baptism sooth you, nourish you, and sustain you for all the possibilities yet to come! For you are the beloved children of a Creator who rejoices at the mere sight of you; You beautiful beloved children of God!
If you listen closely you just might hear the flapping of the wings of a dove as the Holy Spirit alights upon you. Do not be afraid! You beautiful beloved children of God!