January 12, 2014

Matthew 3:13-17
Acts 10:34-43

“Baptism: The Beginning of the Journey”

As most of you know, in addition to being your minister, I am a student again. I’m back in school, still quite close to the beginning of a Doctor of Ministry degree through the Toronto School of Theology. Broadly speaking, my topic is about marriage. I’m interested in ministry with couples preparing for marriage and how we do that in the Presbyterian Church. And I’m particularly interested in how clergy and congregations can support couples from different church backgrounds to participate in a church and live out their faith together either in one church or in two churches as an interchurch family.

In the Fall, I took a course on the unity of the church, and this term I am beginning a course on theologies and spiritualities of marriage. But when I was deciding on a paper topic for the Fall course, I found myself drawn to the topic of baptism. I studied the final report of the Reformed-Roman Catholic dialogue on the topic of baptism in the U.S. – a document called, “These Living Waters: Common Agreement on Mutual Recognition of Baptism.” And I found that there is a great deal of agreement between what Presbyterian and Catholic Churches teach about baptism – what we believe it means, how we do it, when we do it, and why we do it. Baptism is a point of amazing agreement between many Christian Churches, and it is a practice that can contribute to the growing unity between our churches.

A key point is that we agree that through baptism we are incorporated into the Body of Christ, the Church. We are moving away from language like “being baptized Presbyterian” or “baptized Anglican” or “baptized Catholic.” Although every person who receives the sacrament of baptism is baptized in the context of a particular congregation and a particular tradition, we understand that they are joining the one, holy, catholic church – not just a small group within that one Church of Christ.

And the fact that our churches recognize each other’s baptisms underscores this ecumenical accomplishment. We don’t re-baptize people when they move from one church tradition to another. And interchurch families understand that whether they or their children are baptized in one church or the other, they are all children of God who belong to the one church.

An important meaning of baptism that is shared by Reformed, Roman Catholic, and other Christian Churches is that “Baptism is an important source for a life of Christian faith and discipleship. For those baptized as infants, faith and discipleship are the expected fruit of baptism. For those baptized as adolescents or adults, typically faith and discipleship precede baptism. Nevertheless, both infant and adult baptism are intended to nurture Christian faith and discipleship.” (These Living Waters, p. 55.)

In other words, baptism is the beginning of something. Baptism marks the start of a journey which is not completed on the day we are baptized, but that continues through our lives as we learn, grow, and seek to love, serve, and follow Jesus Christ. Roger Nishioka, a Presbyterian minister in the U.S. and expert in youth ministry, tells a story about baptism misunderstood:

Kyle was nowhere to be found, and I missed him. In the weeks following his baptism and confirmation on Pentecost Sunday, he was noticeably missing. Several other members of the confirmation class asked about him too, as did his confirmation mentor.

Kyle and his family had come to the congregation when he was in the fifth grade. They attended sporadically, so I was more than a little surprised when I asked him and his parents if he was interested in joining the confirmation class and they responded positively. In this congregation, the confirmation class happened during the ninth-grade school year… Kyle and his parents came for the orientation meeting and agreed to the covenant to participate in two retreats, a mission activity, work with a mentor, and weekly classes for study and exploration.

Kyle was serious in attending and missed a class or event rarely. He quickly became a significant part of the group and developed some wonderful friendships with other ninth-graders who had barely known him. Since Kyle had not yet been baptized, he was not only confirmed but also baptized on Pentecost Sunday. It was a marvelous celebration for all the confirmands, their families, and their mentors.

That is pretty much where it ended. That is when I knew we had done something wrong. When I checked in with Kyle and his folks, they all seemed a little surprised that I was calling and checking up on them. I distinctly remember his mother saying, “Oh well, I guess I thought Kyle was all done. I mean, he was baptized and confirmed and everything. Isn’t he done?”

That is the problem. Despite our best intentions and despite all that we say and try to communicate, too many people seem to think that the baptism of the infant or the young adult or the adult is the culminating activity of faith, and then we are all “done.”

One of the scripture texts that we can go to in order to explore the meaning and significance of baptism is the story of Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan River. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all include Jesus’ baptism as an important moment in his life. And although Jesus wasn’t baptized as an infant (like many Presbyterians were) the story of his baptism comes pretty close to the beginning of his story. His life before baptism is a bit of a mystery… I think because the story of Jesus’ life is really about his identity as God’s beloved son and his mission arising from that identity.

Once John had consented to baptize Jesus, the story of the event itself is quite short. John didn’t begin with a blessing of the water or introductory words about the meaning of baptism. There weren’t any formal prayers or readings to be done as we tend to do in our churches today. In fact, the story doesn’t even include a description of exactly what John did to Jesus.

Presumably, John dunked him in the water and brought him back up again. The author of Matthew’s Gospel writes: “And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’”

There are two things that stand out strongly in that description of baptism: the gift of God’s Spirit, and the assurance of an identity as God’s beloved child. That’s what happened to Jesus when he was baptized, and Christians believe that those things happen to us when we are baptized as well: we receive the gift of the Spirit, and we are assured of our identity as beloved children of God.

But that wasn’t the culmination of Jesus’ story, it was just the beginning. And the same is true for us whether we were baptized as infants or as adults. What happened after Jesus’ baptism? His ministry happened, right? Preaching, teaching, healing, helping, blessing, warning, giving, dying, and rising.

What happens for us after baptism? Well, hopefully it’s not the end of our story either. Hopefully it’s not the end of a process of preparation for baptism or for affirmation of baptism, followed by a kind of “graduation” from church. Because what is supposed to happen next is ministry.

One Presbyterian Church in Canada document refers to baptism as a kind of “ordination for lay people” because it is a way that God blesses, empowers, and sends all God’s people out in ministry and mission. Roger Nishioka suggests that churches should stop just doing “confirmation” services, but they should do “confirmation and commissioning” services to help everyone understand that baptism, confirmation (or affirmation of baptism) is just the beginning of the Christian journey – the beginning of the life of discipleship.

Today’s passage from the Book of Acts is very fitting. It’s a story from the beginning of the church and from the beginning of the Christian lives of a group of people. Following the conversion of a Gentile named Cornelius, the Apostle Peter began to understand that God shows no partiality and that the good news of Jesus Christ is meant for all people – Jew and Gentile, rich and poor, men and women.

And so Peter begins to preach and share the gospel with a group of Gentiles for the first time. As he explains in brief outline the way that God came into our world in Jesus Christ, he mentions the day that Jesus was baptized. Peter explains: “Beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced… God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power… he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.”

In his baptism, God anointed Jesus with the Holy Spirit and with power, and then he went about doing good, for God was with him. Indeed, as Christians we believe that God was with Jesus, God was in Jesus… in faith we even say that Jesus somehow WAS God.

We might get into a tricky theological debate if we start discussing what exactly changed in Jesus on the day he was baptized. Wasn’t he God’s son before that day? Wasn’t God with him and in him from the beginning? These are interesting questions, and worthy of a good discussion.

But what became clear to Jesus on that day, and maybe to those present with him, and certainly to those who read his story later, was that he was filled with the Spirit of God and given power to embody God’s presence and love in the world. And that’s what our baptism is about also. It’s about the assurance that we also are God’s beloved children. It’s about the gift of God’s Holy Spirit being poured out into our lives. It’s about knowing that we also have the power we need to embody God’s presence and love in the world.

Earlier this week, I shared with the elders of our church about the particularly challenging day that I had just had. I was called to be present with two different people who were coming very close to the end of their lives, and with another who was very seriously injured. I was very aware of the fact that I was not alone when I walked into those situations, because on my own I don’t know what I would have said, or done, or how I would have handled what was happening.

I believe that it was the Spirit of God that helped me – that gave me words to say, that helped me as I prayed, and encouraged me to stay quiet and just be present at times also. Gaining more pastoral experience in these situations can be helpful, that’s true, but I don’t think I could do it without the Spirit’s help and guidance in my life – without the assurance that God is with me.

I wonder what you will be called to do this week. I wonder where you will be called to go in God’s name. Maybe it will be a call to be present with someone who is suffering with illness or struggling with life. Maybe it will be a call to face something in your own life head-on – to reconcile a relationship, to make a change, to make a new start, or to let something go. Maybe it will be a call to serve God in a new way – a bigger way, a more committed way, or just a different way that you haven’t before.

Because of our baptism, there are two things that we can be sure of… One is that God will be calling us to new things. God will be calling us to deeper reflection and greater understanding of Jesus’ way. God will be calling us to follow Jesus more closely and to watch where he’s leading us each new day. God will be calling us to give our gifts and our lives for his purposes, to grow in generosity and learn to risk and to sacrifice as Jesus did.

And the second thing that we can be sure of is that God will be with us. God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the gift of the Holy Spirit, and we are filled with the Spirit and empowered to do all that God is calling us to do.

Thanks be to God for the gift of baptism that we share. Amen.