The Sounds of Baptismal Waters
December 10: The Sounds of Baptismal Water: Baptism of Our Lord
How many of you remember your baptism? What does it mean for you today, even if you don’t remember?
Baptism is generally a calm event. We slow down, act deliberately, and seek to convey the proper respect and honor to both the one being baptized and the power of God at work. Even if we are getting dunked in a river, we use calm waters. During tough times, when it seems like we are fighting to keep our heads above water, we return to the calm, cleansing waters of our baptism now flowing through the love of our fellow believers. We return to this sacred place for the comfort and care promised in our baptismal vows. We remember that when a person is baptized, we who witness it make a vow to love and support this person. In doing so, we vow to support all who have been baptized in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, even if we were not present at their baptism. Each of our baptisms, combined together as one baptized people, becomes a roaring flood of water empowered by the Holy Spirit. Together, we can do great things based on our baptism. During the ceremony, it is always meaningful to hear the water as the person is baptized, signifying the Holy Spirit at work, reminding us of our own baptism, whether we can remember it or not.
In our reading from Acts, the distinction is made between the baptism of John, and the baptism in the name of Jesus. John’s baptism was done for the forgiveness of sins, as were the ritual cleansing rites of the Jews it was based on. The main purpose of these rituals was to prepare the person to enter into the sanctuary and worship before God, but also to put the past behind and move forward into a sanctified life. This is also a part of the baptism we claim, but there is much more.
Jesus certainly didn’t need this baptism, being sinless, but He had it performed because it was part of His religious practice, to be done to “complete all righteousness.” His baptism started like all others before Him, but ended differently, with the Holy Spirit getting involved. From then on, being baptized in Christ’s name included the imparting of the Holy Spirit.
This of course means different things to folks in different traditions, just as the meaning of baptism itself varies, and is done at different points in one’s faith journey, and in different ways, but is generally considered to be a rite of passage. Some folks expect speaking in tongues and other wondrous things, some don’t. Some say baptism is required to get into Heaven, some don’t. So again, what does your baptism mean to you?
Certainly, as individuals, our baptism will mean different things. What I would like to discuss today is what baptism means as a corporate practice or rite, especially after the event itself, and what that means for us a church as we seek to be a faithful community serving Jesus into our larger community.
As mentioned before, in baptism, we promise to support each other. Baptism is a sign of our new life in Christ, and it is also a public sign of our entrance into the people of God. Through baptism, we are one people, not just here, but with all of God’s people in the various church traditions. Certainly this can be achieved without baptism, but baptism is our formal rite signifying our belonging to the Church. Baptism also signifies our obtaining of all the benefits of belonging to God’s people, including the presence of the Holy Spirit within each of us. We are unified in Jesus, in the Spirit, and in the Father, and through baptism we join together as one holy people.
As the Spirit came down on Jesus at His baptism, the power of the Spirit is also passed on to us through faith in Jesus. As the Church is the Body of Christ, the Church is His hand at work in our world, the visible manifestation of the Spirit in our world. The “Baptism of the Holy Spirit” means different things to different people, but we all have access to the power of the Spirit. I certainly don’t want to seem to belittle speaking in tongues and other amazing things, and I certainly believe in them even though they are not common in our branch of the church, but I do feel the need to point our that the Spirit works in smaller, less obvious ways, too.
The Spirit is present with us as we go about our daily lives, enabling all of us to do mighty things we otherwise would not do: such as sharing a kind word, helping someone in need, things that after a while we do more out of habit perhaps but still based on our faith in Jesus. Most of these things may go unnoticed if we are not paying attention. The Spirit binds us together in love, giving us comfort and guidance, filling us with joy and peace. The Spirit also gives all of us the means to join in the ministry of the Church.
But too many people these days fail to accept the role given to all believers in participating in the mighty works of the Spirit being performed through the Church. Too many come to church, but don’t join in the ministries of the church. For too long, ministry has been the area of the clergy, and most church members have been reduced to mere bystanders and observers. But the same Spirit is active in each of us, giving us the power to mighty things for Jesus. As Paul says:
Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. (1 Cor. 12:4–6)
We are all different, but we were created to work together for the same mission. Each person is created to be incomplete so we can complete each other. When we may think that we don’t have gifts or talents or opportunities, the Spirit provides what we need when we act in faith. When we can’t do something on our own, we join together with someone who can, perhaps even with another church. Where people fail is when they start to compare themselves to others, not seeing their own abilities, feeling too inferior and afraid to even try. Another road to failure is trying to copy what someone else is or is doing. For us to genuinely serve Jesus, we as individuals must value who we are, as God created us, and seek to fulfill the tasks He created each of us for.
A church is not a hierarchy, with clergy at the top and everyone else at the bottom. A church is a living organism, with each of its various parts doing what it was created to do. As Martin Luther taught, we are a “Priesthood of Believers,” all called to fulfill the ministry of the Church. When you fail to do your part, the church suffers, and its mission suffers. The one who unites us, the Spirit, is the one who gives us the power to be faithful and fruitful. Each of us needs to know our place in the church; only then can we use the talents and gifts given to us by the Spirit.
Paul Stevens writes in his book Liberating the Laity, “There is a direct and living connection between the Head and every member of the body…No church leader in the New Testament is ever called the head of a local body. That title is reserved for Jesus. The head does not tell the hand to tell the foot what to do. The head is directly connected to the foot. Therefore, people find their ministries not being directed by the leaders but by being motivated and equipped by the Head.”
(Found in Ogden, G. (2010). Unfinished business: returning the ministry to the people of god. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.)
It is not the role of the people to just come to church and be entertained. You are all vital to the health of our church and have a part to play. God created each of us as unique individuals, but He also created us to be integral parts of His people. As we remember the vows we have taken to support each other through baptism, we must always be asking ourselves if we are honoring those vows. Are we supporting each other? Are we doing our part? Are we a team, or just a bunch of individuals doing their own thing and fighting to have our own way?
Scott Peck, best known for his book “The Road Less Traveled”, tells the story of the “Rabbi’s Gift” that I think helps us understand the value that each one of us has when we are operating according to God’s design. There was a monastery out in the woods that had fallen on hard times because of secular life, and those in the monastery were getting older and older. It was dwindling, and there were only five brothers left in this monastery, all over age 70. And they were seeing that the end of their life was going to come, and so one of the brothers was sent out to talk to a local rabbi. And they were commiserating together about the secular world in which they were living in and the low state of religiosity among people. And when the monk asked the rabbi for advice, the rabbi said, “The only thing I can tell you is that one of you is the Messiah.” So the monk went back to the other brothers and reported back the commiserating that had taken place. And then the monk reported this rather strange thing that the rabbi had said, that, “One of us is the Messiah.” And they began to think about that.
In the days and weeks and months that followed, the old monks pondered this and wondered whether there was any possible significance to the Rabbi’s words. The Messiah is one of us? Could he possibly have meant one of us monks here at the monastery? If that’s the case, which one? Do you suppose he meant the Abbott? Yes, if he meant anyone, he probably meant father Abbott. He has been our leader for more than a generation. On the other hand, he might have meant brother Thomas. Certainly brother Thomas is a holy man. Everyone knows that Thomas is a man of light. Certainly he could not have meant brother Elred! Elred gets crotchety at times. But come to think of it, even though he is a thorn in people’s sides, when you look back on it, Elred is virtually always right. Often very right. Maybe the Rabbi did mean brother Elred. But surely not brother Philip. Philip is so passive, a real nobody. But then, almost mysteriously, he has a gift for somehow always being there when you need him. He just magically appears by your side. Maybe Philip is the Messiah. Of course the Rabbi didn’t mean me. He couldn’t possibly have meant me. I’m just an ordinary person. Yet supposing he did? Suppose I am the Messiah? Oh God, not me. I couldn’t be that much for you, could I?
And because of this, they started treating each other differently. “Well, maybe it’s brother Alfred, or maybe it’s brother Thomas that’s the Messiah. And if that person is the Messiah, I better be caring for them and displaying my love for them in a way that is really showing respect.” And because of that, the whole tone of the life within the monastery started to change. One of them might be the Messiah. And it lifted the whole quality of life, and as people came out to have their picnics around the monastery and get a sense for what was happening there, they felt this kind of aliveness in that monastery. There was new life that was being formed. And because of that new life being formed, the monastery started to come back to life itself just because of the way they started to treat each other because one of them might be the Messiah.
Well, of course, the translation for us is that Jesus lives in each one of us. Jesus is the church, and the Spirit is active in each of us. How do we treat each other? How do we view each other? How do we value each other? This is very important in terms of the way the church lives out its reality as being the extension of Jesus here on earth.
(Found in Ogden, G. (2014). ED201 Empowering God’s People for Ministry. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, and © 1987 M. Scott Peck and Touchstone From the prologue of The Different Drum)
All of this is formally symbolized and enabled through baptism. Baptism is a great equalizer: we come before God as equals and serve Him as equals. Is the sound of the water of baptism in you a whimper, or is it going to be a roar?
We haven’t had a baptism here for a while, so let’s review some of the key features of the ceremony. The officiant begins by saying:
Brothers and sisters in Christ: Through the Sacrament of Baptism we are initiated into Christ’s holy Church. We are incorporated into God’s mighty acts of salvation and given new birth through water and the Spirit. All this is God’s gift, offered to us without price.
All those present then renounce all the forces of evil and are asked to publicly confess, in these words:
Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as your Lord, in union with the Church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races.
In other words, baptism is the formal recognition of a person’s entering into the Church Universal, as well as membership of the particular local church. Those members of the church who are present make the following vows on behalf of the one being baptized and on behalf of all the members of God’s people:
The pastor addresses the congregation, and the congregation responds: Do you, as Christ’s body, the Church, reaffirm both your rejection of sin and your commitment to Christ? The witnesses respond: We do. Will you nurture one another in the Christian faith and life and include these persons now before you in your care?
And the witnesses respond: With God’s help we will proclaim the good news and live according to the example of Christ. We will surround these persons with a community of love and forgiveness, that they may grow in their trust of God, and be found faithful in their service to others. We will pray for them, that they may be true disciples who walk in the way that leads to life.
When all candidates have been baptized, the pastor invites the congregation to welcome them, saying together: Now it is our joy to welcome our new sisters and brothers in Christ. Through baptism you are incorporated by the Holy Spirit into God’s new creation and made to share in Christ’s royal priesthood. We are all one in Christ Jesus. With joy and thanksgiving we welcome you as members of the family of Christ.
And so, this morning, as we remember our baptism and those we have witnessed, we recommit ourselves to denouncing the forces of evil and recommitting to serve Jesus, our Lord and Savior. We recommit to accepting the Spirit into our hearts and allowing the Spirit to lead, comfort, and teach us. Let us recommit to surrounding each other with a community of love and forgiveness, recognizing that Jesus is in each of us. And let us accept our place in the Kingdom of God, and use the blessings we have been given to advance the mission of Jesus’ holy Church, proclaiming His saving grace and serving as His loving hands in service and comfort for our world.