January 13, 2013

Isaiah 43:1-7
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

“The Meaning of Baptism”

Have any of you been baptized? How many of you were baptized when you were infants or young children? How many of you were baptized as teenagers or adults? How many of you were baptized with water being sprinkled or poured on your head? How many of you were baptized by immersion in a pool or lake or river? How many of you have brought your own children for baptism? How many of you can remember witnessing a baptism and welcoming a child, or young person, or adult into the church community? Well, there is certainly a lot of experience of baptism here in our church today!

Although we don’t have a baptism to administer today, we are celebrating the Sunday called, “Baptism of the Lord,” remembering Jesus’ own baptism by John in the Jordan River, and thinking about the meaning and significance of our own baptism.

Baptism is a very important practice in our Christian Faith, one of two sacraments that we celebrate – Baptism and Holy Communion. In the order of sacraments, baptism is first. It is the sacrament of initiation – a rite that marks our entrance into the Christian community. If you go to Europe and take note of many of the historic churches, they often have baptisteries – smaller buildings just outside the churches – where new Christians would have been baptized. Baptisms took place outside the churches, and then the newly initiated were welcomed into the churches to join in the worshiping community and the Sacrament of the Eucharist. Some churches still keep their baptismal fonts at the back of the church near the entrance, a sign that baptism is the beginning of our Christian life.

When I meet with parents who are thinking about having their child baptized, or with adults who themselves want to be baptized, we talk about the many meanings of baptism. When I say that baptism has many meanings, I don’t mean that it means different things to different people, and all those meanings are valid. I mean that baptism signifies several different things, and all these meanings are operative in every baptism.

The one I usually start with is initiation into the church. Baptism is our rite of initiation. It happens once and only once, whether we were baptized as little children or later in life, we are baptized once. Baptism assures us that we are loved, that we belong to God, and that we are a part of the Body of Christ – the Church. When Jesus was baptized, a voice came from heaven. God said, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Although we may not hear God’s voice out loud, our baptisms give us that same assurance. We are loved by God, and we are welcomed into the family of God – into the church. Our baptismal liturgies include the congregation welcoming the newly baptized person into the church community – both into the local congregation and into the worldwide family of the Christian Church.

The baptisms that we administer here in our church are not Presbyterian baptisms, just as others do not receive Anglican or Catholic or Lutheran baptisms. We are baptized into the Christian Church and welcomed into the Christian Church. Because our different churches perform baptisms in very similar ways, using water and in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, we recognize the baptisms performed in other churches and we avoid baptizing people again as if their earlier baptism did not count.

When John the Baptist was baptizing people in the Jordan River so long ago, his was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, and our baptism involves repentance and forgiveness as well. Adults being baptized and parents bringing their children for baptism make promises as they do so. They promise to turn away from sin and towards Christ. They promise to do their best to follow the way of Jesus – to worship God, to celebrate the Sacrament of Holy Communion, to participate in God’s mission to the world. And when it is a child being baptized, they promise to raise their child within the family of the church – to share their faith and teach the child about God’s love in Jesus Christ.

Repentance simply means turning. And when we are baptized, we are turning our lives towards the way of Jesus. Then, as we are immersed in the water, or as the water is poured over our heads, we are cleansed by the power of God. We are washed in the water. We are forgiven. Of course we’ll make mistakes and do wrong things again, but we can turn again to God and God will forgive us again. There is no need to be baptized again because we already belong to God, and we have already received the gift of God’s Holy Spirit.

At the conclusion of the Gospel of Matthew, just before Jesus ascends into heaven, he gives some final instructions to his apostles. He sends them out into the world to make disciples and baptize everyone in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Although John baptized with water and gave the people an opportunity to be forgiven and turn their lives towards the way of God, something new happened when Jesus was baptized.

His baptism was not just a symbolic action with the purpose of reorienting people towards God’s loving ways. Instead, God was doing something when Jesus was baptized. Jesus prayed, and God gave him the gift of the Holy Spirit. Luke’s Gospel describes the event like this: “Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove.”

And that’s what we believe happens to us in our baptism as well. We are certainly involved in what is happening: We repent, we profess our faith, we commit to following Jesus in the community of the church, and we pray. But baptism is primarily God’s action. God is pouring out the Spirit into our lives. God is blessing us. God is claiming us as God’s beloved sons and daughters and equipping us for mission and ministry in the world.

Sometimes baptism of an infant can be thought of as a kind of a naming ceremony. It can be seen as an opportunity to celebrate the birth of a child and perhaps to introduce the baby to the wider community. And although baptism often includes that kind of celebration, celebrating or even praying for and blessing a child is not really what baptism is about.

In my reflection on the back of this morning’s bulletin, I mused that perhaps “we should baptize by full immersion more often, rather than just sprinkling or pouring the water. If someone literally pushed us down under the water, and even held us there for a moment, perhaps we would understand the risk and sacrifice to which our baptism calls us.”

You see, the final meaning of baptism is dying and rising with Christ. Baptism by immersion emphasizes this meaning much more strongly that simply pouring water on the head. The person is pushed down, completely under the water where they can’t breathe – a symbol of dying and an indication of the person’s willingness to die with Christ. And then the person is raised up from the water, just as Christ was raised from death. In baptism, we die to our old selves and we are raised to a new life in Christ.

Baptism is not just a thing that happens and then is done. Baptism is the beginning of a new life of following Jesus. And following Jesus means being willing to risk and to sacrifice for what is right and good. It means choosing to follow the path that Jesus walked – the path that led him to the cross.

Today I hope that many of you are remembering your baptism, as I am remembering mine. Your baptism is not just an event that happened many years ago when you were an infant or a child or a young adult. Your baptism is operative still today.

Perhaps today, as you remember your baptism, you need to be reminded that you truly belong to God. Remember that you were deeply loved by God on the day of your baptism, and you are deeply loved by God today. You may be struggling with challenges and frustrations in life. You may be feeling discouraged or even down on yourself. And so today, I hope that you will hear God’s voice once again – through the scriptures, through my voice, through the power of the Holy Spirit – saying to you, “You are my child, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Perhaps today, as you remember your baptism, you need to be called once again to repentance – to turn your life once again towards God’s will and God’s ways. Remembering the promises you once made at your baptism, or the promises that you made your own as a young person or adult professing your faith, you may know in your heart that your life has turned in a different direction.

Maybe you have allowed sin and selfishness to creep into your decisions and your relationships. Maybe you have let yourself be led by your desire for comfort, or pleasure, or pride. Please know that the God who cleansed you from sin in your baptism has the desire and the power to cleanse you from sin today. Turn once again in your heart towards God, and by God’s grace you will be forgiven and renewed for a life of love and faithfulness.

Perhaps today, as you remember your baptism, you are being called to join more fully in the mission and ministry of Jesus. You should be encouraged because you have received the gift of the Holy Spirit, and the Spirit will guide you and equip you to do more than you could ever do on your own.

God may be calling you to take a leadership role in one of the ministries of the church, or God may be calling you to become more intentional about living out your faith in your family, your workplace, your school, or community. Sharing your faith, practicing forgiveness, demonstrating patience, growing generosity, embodying love… These are some of the gifts of the Holy Spirit that Christians are called to enact as we seek to follow the self-giving way of Jesus.

Perhaps some of you today are just considering baptism. You may not be baptized yourself, or you may not have made a decision yet about baptizing your children. If that is the case, I would encourage you to keep thinking about it and considering whether baptism is the next step for you or your child in your journey of faith. It’s not something to be taken lightly, but it’s also not something for which we can ever be fully prepared. Though baptism calls us to make promises and to turn our lives towards Christ, it is primarily a gift from God. In baptism we are blessed, and accepted, and filled with the gift of the Holy Spirit.

As the prophet Isaiah encouraged God’s people Israel in the midst of their struggles and trials, in baptism we are assured that we belong to God, and that God will be with us and in us and around us through every trouble or challenge, as well as through every joyous celebration in our lives.

Isaiah proclaimed God’s assurance: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour.”

We are going to sing a baptism hymn together now. When we sang it at choir practice on Thursday night, someone asked, “Oh, will there be a baptism on Sunday?” No, we’re not baptizing anyone today, but we are remembering our baptism and giving thanks to God. Today, the child of promise that we sing about in this hymn is not a tiny child in a white dress. The child of promise today is you. The child of promise today is me. Let us remember our baptism and give thanks.

Hymn #521 “Child of blessing, child of promise” 1997 Book of Praise.