January 23, 2014

The Baptism Connection


Today’s gospel provides us the opportunity to reflect upon many different things.  We could take this time to think about the dual nature of Jesus, where he is both divine and human and how his baptism affected or changed that nature.  We could continue to explore the intricate relationship between John the Baptist and Jesus; what do their words and actions have to say to us today about repentance.  We could also see what part this passage plays in the larger narrative of the gospel.  Instead I want to take this time to reflect upon the nature of baptism as it is found in the text and as it is practiced today.

Although John’s baptism was intended for repentance Jesus clearly had no need to repent of his sins.  The Greek word metanoia used in verse 11 to explain what is happening in John’s baptism, suggests transformation and turning rather than simple repentance for sins, as the Greek is often translated.  The baptism we read about in Matthew does suggest a transformation as Jesus is now turning from his life, as he was living it in Nazareth, to a new way of life walking through the country proclaiming the good news of God’s love for us all.  For Jesus the transformation that occurs is not an ontological change, a change in his being or acting, instead it is purely physical in the sense that this event marks the beginning of his ministry.

For John, Jesus’ baptism is an aspect of discipleship.  John is to baptize Jesus as an act of submission and obedience to God.  Before this event John was foretelling the coming of Christ and the kingdom of righteousness that will follow.  He preached repentance for the hour had come when all would be judged.  He was a leader gathering people to him, but through Jesus’ baptism John has been transformed as well.  He turns from leader to follower.  In doing this, John not only participates in God’s unfolding purpose for Jesus, but he also behaviorally testifies to the coming of God’s kingdom.[1]

While both Jesus and John were changed through baptism, the question becomes what does this mean for us?  Matthew’s account of Jesus’ baptism is presented as a righteous act of solidarity with those to whom and for whom he has come.  The one who is now being baptized, is also the one who will usher in God’s kingdom and bring the good news of forgiveness to those same human hands.[2]  In a way Jesus’ baptism is for us.  It is the means by which we are transformed.

Jesus didn’t speak in the ways people expected him to speak.  He told stories in which the heroes were Samaritans rather than Jews, publicans rather than Pharisees, sinners and outcasts rather than priests and teachers of the law.  In the kingdom that he was bringing into the world, the first would be last and the last first, and the greatest would be the servant of all.[3] This is the Kingdom of God that Jesus talks about in the Sermon on the Mount.  It is a radical reordering of the world, where the emphasis is not on power, authority, and control, instead in the kingdom the emphasis is on love and the fulfillment of the will of God for all people.  This is the kingdom that will be ushered into reality by Christ.  Jesus’ baptism marks the beginning of making the idea of that kingdom a reality.  But he is not the only who will work to achieve this because we too are called by God through Christ to participate God’s redemptive work.

To begin to understand this we can look to our own baptism and the covenant we made with God and the community.  By the waters of our baptism we have undergone a transformation.  We have been created a new being in Christ, a changed nature.  Each and every one of us is now called to live a life of discipleship.  Within these walls we are a community that forms people to witness God’s truth in the world.  Our mission is to bring about unity; unity with God and unity with each other.  How doe we do this?  How do we, a small parish in a relatively quiet residential neighborhood, become the kind of community that forms others?

As Episcopalians we look for direction in scripture; we examine it through the lens of the rich heritage of our tradition.  Through scripture we remember the ways in which God has worked and revealed himself throughout history.  Through scripture we see how God is speaking to us today.  We not only look to scripture for direction, but find it also through the sacraments of the Church.  The sacraments touch our humanity in ways that correspond to human experience.  In our physical humanity you and I understand what it is to wash and become clean; we understand what it is to eat and drink and so sustain our lives.  The whole sacramental system of the Church is built upon that foundation in our humanity.[4]  When we actively engage in the ritualistic actions of our sacraments we are continually caught up into God’s redemptive work in the history of salvation.  We see this in the weekly participation in the Eucharist where we receive strength and renewal, but our baptism and the witnessing of other being baptized is also when we experience that renewal.

Baptism is not just a one-time experience.  It is true that we physically participate in the ritual act of baptism once.  It is also true that through that participation we have been given the gift of the Spirit that dwells within in us and works through us.  But the transformation that occurs in baptism is a continuous and life-long endeavor.  Every time a person is baptized in the midst of our community we reaffirm the covenant with God made on our behalf.  We remind ourselves of what we are committing our lives to.  We remind ourselves that through these promises we continue the mission of Jesus Christ.

Because of our participation in the remembrance of the baptism of Christ, in a few moments we will again reaffirm our covenant with God.  We will once again stand together and with one voice we will again affirm our faith and commit ourselves to a certain way of life.  But before we do that though, do we really know what we are committing ourselves to?  We reaffirm these vows several times a year so we know them, we are familiar with them, the words roll off our tongues, but do we really know what we are saying?  More importantly, do we really mean what we are saying?  In an address to an ecumenical meeting of Christian liturgists David Batchelder, a prominent Presbyterian pastor and liturgist writes,

I worry that our communities have learned to practice a way of speaking ritually that not only permits false witness at the font, but establishes it as a norm.  We make claims concerning sin and evil, but often live as if we have not really considered the implications.  Sometimes I wonder where the church believes there are any serious implications at all.  Ritual practice can give the appearance that accountability is fulfilled simply by one’s participation in the rites with the moral weight residing in the rhetoric.[5]

What Pastor Batchelder is writing about is the fear of when meaning becomes divorced from the ritual acts in which we engage.  The sacramentality of the rite is lost as we engage in ritualistic actions that are purely just actions.  The sacrament no longer serves as the means by which we connect with God.  So then what is it that we are promising?  What is that we are saying about ourselves and the way we live our lives outside these walls?  What are we saying about our relationship with God?

The baptismal covenant that we find our prayer book is a new addition, when set in the context of our almost five hundred year history.  While this idea of an affirmation of faith has been an integral part of the baptismal rite, the idea of a covenant had not been explicitly stated until the 1979 prayer book.

The covenant begins with the traditional proclamation of the Apostle’s Creed in response to the threefold questions, “Do you believe in God the Father?..Son?...and Holy Spirit?”  This affirmation of faith in the Triune God is the first and foundational part of the Baptismal Covenant.  The Creed is followed by five questions:

  • Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and in the prayer?
  • Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to   the Lord?
  • Will you proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ?
  • Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?
  • Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?

The intention of the questions asked of us is that the authors of the prayer book felt that it was necessary and pastorally useful to spell our the implications of keeping God’s holy will and commandments.  The Baptismal Covenant has become a constant basis for reflection and a reference point for catechetical instruction.  The ultimate goal of the Covenant is to enable us to reflect on the meaning of our faith and to connect faith in Jesus Christ with the realities of our daily lives.  The fruit of this is the continual opportunity to enter more deeply into the symbols of our redemption, baptism and the eucharist, which form the central meaning of the sacramental life we are called to by the life and witness of Jesus Christ.

Therefore I challenge each and every one of us to think more deeply about what it is we are saying when we reaffirm our Baptismal Covenant with God.  I challenge us to reflect upon how we live out these sacred promises in our daily lives.  Do we continue in the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, break bread, and pray?  Do we resist evil and when we sin do we repent and return to God?  Do we proclaim by word and example the good news?  Do we seek and serve Christ in all persons?  Do we strive for justice and peace?  Perhaps most importantly do we as a community of faith support one another in living out these tenets of our faith?  Are we bringing about the kingdom in the here and now?  If we take these promises seriously and find ways to intentionally act upon them then we will indeed be transformed.  We will be actively engaging in the mission of the church while holding true to the teachings of Christ.  I pray that in our reaffirmation of the Baptismal Covenant we find meaning and strength, and a renewal of our commitment to one another and to Christ.