“Waters of Grace: Celebrating Baptism”
Rev. Kate Hurst Floyd
Holy Covenant UMC, January 10, 2010
The heavens are breaking open. Breaking wide open.
Can you hear the voice of God?
Imagine with me that we are part of the crowd, gathered around the Jordan River, witnessing the baptism of Jesus. Witnessing the heavens opening…
We’re expectant…filled with great expectations of what might be happening. We’ve been following John the Baptist, this wild and woolly prophet who promises us better days ahead. Who assures us that God is with us and we will be saved.
We’re tired of the government…the government who uses violence and militarism against its own people; abuses us with taxes; discriminates based on religious belief.
We are in desperate need of salvation….not some kind of salvation that only comes to us when we die, but salvation in the here and the now…some hope that we can be saved from tyranny and oppression and find a new way of life.
So we are attracted to John the Baptist, and hope that he might be the one to save us. But he surprises us, by announcing that he is not the Messiah…no someone more powerful than he is coming, and this person won’t baptize us with water, but with the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit? We don’t even know what that means. We can see and touch this water—we bathe in it and drink from it–but we can’t even conceive of the Spirit. We can’t see or smell or taste or touch the spirit of God. How can we be baptized with it? And he will also baptize with fire…what on earth could that mean? And who, we wonder, could be greater than John?
We’re expectant and anxious and we need salvation, to be saved from our lives as they are.
And just when we think things can’t get any worse for us, suddenly our prophet, our leader, John the Baptist is taken away from us. Herod, the evil ruler, who abuses everyone and does everything to keep his power intact, has John arrested. John had been speaking the truth about his abuse of power, and Herod didn’t like it, so he throws John in prison.
Something serious and powerful is happening…dangerous, even, to those in authority.
We hover on the banks of the Jordan, without a prophet, afraid that we might be next, in need of salvation. In need of heaven to break in and shake things up on earth.
We need this too, don’t we? For heaven to break in, for God to reach out to us and speak? To save us from fear and loneliness and grief. From unemployment and cancer and domestic violence. From infertility and isolation and discrimination. From a future without hope.
We stand on the banks of the river, wondering if we should wade in those waters, watching for what will save us.
Well, it turns out that John really is a prophet—really did speak of a hope that came. Promise a Messiah who shows up. For as we linger on the riverside, becoming more thirsty, our skin getting drier and throats more parched, Jesus enters the water. Jesus, who was born in a manger as a baby, whose birth was marked by a star and angels, has come to us all grown up…Up until now he has had no public act of ministry, hasn’t taught or healed or fed or told a single story yet. This is his first public appearance, and what happens?
Jesus is baptized too, with water. And then he prays. We’re praying too, down on our knees with others in the crowd, praying for hope, praying for John who is in prison, praying to be saved, wondering who this Jesus is who just entered our midst….and suddenly the heavens break open, and the Holy Spirit descends in bodily form like a dove, above this Jesus; and a voice, a voice from heaven, God’s voice proclaims: “You are my beloved, with you I am well pleased”
And all of us in the crowd are shocked and stunned and jump up from our knees saying to one another:
Look, Look! The heavens are breaking wide open…can you hear God’s voice? It says: “You are my beloved”
Jesus is baptized, the Holy Spirit has come to earth, there’s an opening in the heavens, and everything, everything, has changed.
At least, the crowd hoped it changed. We hope life has changed.
Is this the Messiah? The savior of the world? What does this baptism mean, we wonder? Will our lives change, and how?
This is the question before us this morning, the same question asked by those crowds gathered 2,000 years ago on the edge of the water, wondering if they should jump in. Every year, on the 2nd Sunday of January, churches all over the world, from many different denominations, celebrate the Baptism of our Lord. We remember Jesus’ baptism, the dove descending, the Holy Spirit breaking forth, the voice from the sky. As we do so, we remember our own baptisms, and today do more than remember, we participate again in the ritual act of being claimed by God and sharing an identity with Christ. So the question is before us, as it is before many Christians on this Sunday: What does baptism mean for us? Does it really change the world? What’s different because of baptism?
There were two friends, a Baptist and a Methodist, arguing about baptism: should adults be baptized, when they are ready to claim their faith themselves, or should infants be baptized, initiating them into God’s story from the very beginning? The Baptist looks at his friend the Methodist and says: You don’t really believe in infant baptism, do you? And the Methodist says: Believe in it? Hell, I’ve seen it done!
In The United Methodist Church, we baptize infants.
This means that it can be easy for us to sentimentalize baptism…We marvel at babies, beautiful and adorable in long white gowns, or brand new outfits with bonnets and smiling parents, doting grandparents. We sing sweet songs and eat cake afterwards, sharing gifts, perhaps gifts of more cute outfits.
We also sentimentalize baptism by thinking that it’s an individual act…the moment when a child or adult is called God’s beloved, calls a person’s name, and that child experiences the sweet moment when it is loved by God.
At Baptism God’s voice does call out: You are my beloved, with you I am well pleased.
But let me be very clear: Baptism doesn’t magically turn us into God’s beloved children. We are born as God’s beloved. God the creator created each one of us…God knows our names before we are born and the count of all the hairs on our heads. Whether you were baptized as an infant, a child, an adult, or never baptized at all, you ARE God’s beloved. You are God’s child. That was always true and will always be true, by virtue of being created by God, and the act of baptism doesn’t change this. Nothing can make you God’s beloved or take away God’s love from you: it is always there.
So what is baptism then? Baptism isn’t a sentimental ritual, an excuse to see cute babies in worship, neither is it an individual act….Baptism is a radical ritual that initiates us into the Christian story and fundamentally changes our identity. For in the receiving of the water, the anointing in the name of the God who creates, redeems, and sustains, the one baptized is physically and spiritually marked as one whose identity is as a Christian. Whose primary identity is in Christ.
In the act of receiving that grace, as part of a community, we no longer have an individual identity. We are not first and foremost our own individual self, we are now first and foremost part of the body of Christ. The child’s name is no longer just their given name, but their given name, sister of Christ, brother of Christ.
And there is nothing sentimental about that.
It’s a radical act to attach your identity purposefully to something beyond yourself and to do this for the children in your life; to attach yourself to the community and the common good. Especially today, in our hyper-individualistic culture, it’s radical to mark on our bodies that we belong to something beyond ourselves—that we belong to God.
Does this mean that after baptism our lives will now be perfect? Free from sin or heartache or tragedy? No.
We rejoin that crowd witnessing the baptism of Jesus, hoping desperately that salvation would come in the here and now….When the dove descended, Did it mean that everything was ok? Was the government still abusive? Are governments today still abusive? Their day to day problems didn’t disappear.
And neither do ours, upon baptism.
But through baptism, we face our problems, and our lives, as those who are forever changed. Who have a different outlook, new attachments, and new commitments.
Our identity, and the identity of the community, changes forever.
Through baptism, we are saved. Not saved in the sense that those who are baptized are going to heaven and those who aren’t are going to hell. No, saved right now, in this life and in the life to come. For through the gift of the Holy Spirit, through our initiation into the Christian community, we participate in the salvation that Jesus brings.
For in his baptism the heavens broke open and they’ve never closed back up. Through Jesus, the lines between God and humanity are forever broken, and we get glimpses of God’s work, God’s desire, God’s kingdom each and every day on earth. Because Jesus teaches us what God’s kingdom looks like, and we are empowered with the gift of the Holy Spirit, that lives and reigns with us, on earth, to live it out. The Spirit empowered Jesus, and empowers us, to transform the world.
When we are part of the Christian community, when we dare to tie our identities to Christ, we will encounter problems…in fact, we will walk through fire. Jesus came to baptize us with fire. Baptism is a political act…for it means radically reorienting our lives to speak up and out, to live and love, in ways that will change the world. It won’t always be easy—look at John the Baptist…for tying his identity to Christ, he was imprisoned and later beheaded. Being a Christian can upset the powers that be.
But it’s a risk worth taking, because we experience salvation here and now: we are saved from violence to peace; from despair to hope; hatred to compassion; and death to life. It’s not fully realized yet…we’re not living entirely in heaven, but we’re part of a story that is still going, and we glimpse heaven more and more…because we’re moving towards a day when earth and heaven will be one, where justice will flow down like waters and righteousness like an everflowing stream.
This is our hope, this is our call…to live each day helping to bring heaven to earth.
If you haven’t been baptized, you are just as much God’s beloved as everybody else. But I invite you to be in prayer, and consider if you’re feeling that call on your life to join the Christian community publically, physically, and spiritually. To join your identity with this community and with Christ, to bring about transformation in the world. To claim God’s radical grace. (I’d be happy to talk with you more about this if you are feeling this call on your life).
I challenge all of us, as we celebrate the baptism of Jesus, as we give thanks for the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives and in lives to come, to listen for God’s call on our lives. For baptism is a gift of grace, but also a gift of responsibility: we are responsible for helping to bring about heaven on earth. To transform the world by walking through fire: speaking truth to power, bringing healing, practicing peace, turning the other cheek, modeling forgiveness, working for justice, and spreading grace and love. We do all this, not alone, but empowered by the gift of the Holy Spirit
As we celebrate baptism, what is God calling you to do? What is your responsibility? What do you see in the world that you can help transform?
For the heavens are breaking open, wide open.
Can you hear the voice of God?