January 13, 2019 sermon

Posted by on Jan 13, 2019 in Uncategorized | 0 comments

January 13, 2019

Baptism is an important part of our Christian faith. Some would say that unless people are baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, they are not truly Christian. Yet, various denominations of Christian churches have differing practices around baptism. Some insist on a full-body immersion while others are comfortable with the practice of simply putting water on the head of a person. Some practice infant baptism while others wait until a person is of a discerning age for baptism. And it goes on and on with various churches all insisting that their practices regarding baptism are what the Bible teaches. In my opinion, these discussions or differences over the Ordinance or Sacrament of Baptism only get in the way of the real meaning of Christian baptism.

If we go back to the roots of Christian baptism, it began with the story of John the Baptist offering baptism to his fellow Jews, including the Jewish man, Jesus. When I did some research on the Jewish practice of baptism, one article claimed that “The Jewish mikva, or ceremonial bath, is the origin of the Christian baptism. (Jewish Origin of Baptism) Another article says, “The liturgical use of water was common in the Jewish world. The Law of Moses required washings on the part of priests following certain sacrifices and on certain individuals who were unclean because of an infectious disease. (Baptism: A Pre-Christian History)

That same article says, “When John the Baptist came on the scene in the first century Jewish world, his teaching included the necessity of baptism. The people of his day were familiar with the act or practice of baptism. However, John’s baptism was not based on or authorized by the Jewish law or pagan religious customs and traditions. John was called to preach by God, armed only with the Word of God. It was the first time in human history in which a person had the opportunity to be baptized for the remission of his or her sins. A necessary refinement in the administration of baptism had to be made following the death of Jesus, however. Rather than submitting to the baptism of John, which was a baptism of repentance, we can now be baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus.”

All of this background information into the roots of Pagan and Jewish baptism practices is meant to clarify that when Jesus was baptised by John the Baptist, the author of the Gospel of Luke attempts to make it clear that Jesus’ baptism opened the door to another type of baptism – one in which a person is immersed not only in water but in the very Spirit of God. Later Christian texts also declare that one baptism in the Holy Spirit is all that is required. A person does not need to be baptized again and again as a way of washing away the stain of sin or to be part of the Christian church.

In today’s Gospel reading the author describes how this Holy Spirit presented itself to Jesus when he was baptized by John. It says that, “when Jesus was baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove.”(Luke 3:21-22) Whether we understand this to be a literal dove or a metaphorical dove is not as important as what it means. An article by Thought Company says, “The dove symbolizes peace between God and human beings, going back to the time when Noah sent a dove out of his ark to see if the water that God had used to flood the Earth had receded. The dove brought back an olive leaf, showing Noah that dry land suitable for life to flourish again had appeared on Earth. Ever since, the dove has been a symbol of peace. Here, the Holy Spirit appears as a dove at Jesus’ baptism to show that, through Jesus, humanity could enjoy ultimate peace with God.”

So, what does all of this mean for us today? The Christian church still practices baptism and considers it to be a very important part of the church’s rituals. Many Christians believe that baptism is essential if a person hopes to enjoy life with God beyond this earth. Other Christians do not hold to that belief. Yet even those who do not consider baptism essential continue to find the practice meaningful and important. I think that might be due to the history of baptism and the connection of water to cleansing. Because we all make mistakes at times, which some would describe as sin, we also feel the need or desire to be forgiven or washed clean of those sins or mistakes. Even those people with no faith in a God or higher being or presence often seek forgiveness from those people they have hurt so they can heal inside. Something in our human psyche causes us to experience guilt and pain when we do harm to others or the world we rely on for life. The suffering we experience at times can be minimal or very great, depending on the harm we have done and our own sense of right and wrong. When we suffer we want that pain to lessen or be taken away. Forgiveness can help that to happen. Forgiveness from those we have hurt but also from God or the Divine Creator if we believe in such a Being or Energy.

So, why do I continue to believe baptism is important in our Christian tradition? It is not so much about my fear that if a person is not baptized that they will not be welcomed into God’s eternal care. It is not about being afraid of God’s judgement and wrath. If baptism is about fear of God, we are missing the point! The Christian scriptures time after time tell us that God is Love and that when or where there is perfect love there is no fear. Well, if God is perfect love, as we Christians claim, then God will never act in a way that is the result of fear, which has to do with punishment and anger. I urge you to put aside any belief you may have that God will punish someone who is not baptized. Instead, hold on to the belief that God loves us because God can only love us.

Therefore, we participate in baptism as an act of thanksgiving and the hope that thought this act of faith in God’s love and grace, we will be granted a measure of God’s presence or Holy Spirit which will help us to be filled with love and grace too. Do you see how this makes baptism such an important practice? What better gift can we be given by God than a spirit of thanksgiving, hope, joy, love and all those positive traits that will make our lives better and, in the process, help us to be loved by others as well? Even if baptism is only an act of faith, it still says a lot about the kind of people we want to be. People who are able to see the world and the people in it as people of goodness and love are more likely to live out their days well and look back on them with gratitude. We are baptized in the name of Jesus because in him we have this wonderful role model and example of how to live with peace, joy and love, and we want to be like him and experience that for ourselves so that we too might live life fully.
Now, because I know that the information I have given you so far may have left many of you bored and wondering if I’m ever going to end this sermon, I would like to use an illustration, although it is not perfect, to help explain baptism. It begins with a covenant, which is an agreement or promise between two people to be bound by the terms of the covenant. For instance, in a marriage covenant, those people being married will give a vow or promise to the other which lays out the terms of that marriage. Often the vows will include words like, “I will join with you and share all that is to come, give and receive, forgive and encourage, in joy and in sorrow, in plenty and in want, in sickness and in health. I will be faithful to you, respect and trust you, and in all of our life together, I promise to love and cherish you, with all of my being.” Of course, there are other versions of wedding vows as well but these vows illustrate what a covenant is – an agreement between two people as to what each promises to do in that marriage covenant.

In baptism, there is also an agreement made between two parties – in this case between God and the baptized person or, in the case of a baptism where the person being baptized is not able to speak for him or herself, the people presenting the person for baptism. It might be parents speaking for their infant child, or a family member speaking for an older person with dementia, or a sibling or friend speaking for someone with limited understanding. Regardless, baptism is a covenant in which God makes promises and so do those being baptized. God’s promise is both simple and profound – God promises to love that baptized person fully, without conditions, which is sometimes called Grace. What this means is that no matter what that person does or does not do, God will continue to love that person, even when that person may fail to live up to any promises he or she made in the baptismal covenant.

So, let’s look at what the baptized person or those speaking on behalf of the baptized person may promise in that covenant. It may be something like this: “I will live among God’s faithful people, participate in worship and the Lord’s Holy Supper, pray and study the Holy Scriptures, proclaim the love of Christ in word and deed, care for others and the world God has made, and work for justice and peace.” That’s quite a promise to make for oneself or on behalf of someone else. Just as in a marriage, people making such vows or promises have every intention to follow through with them and live by them. Often, we succeed amazingly well. Sometimes we do not. After all, we are only human and none of us are perfect. That’s why marriages do not always last – because we are not perfect and we make mistakes of judgement and fail to always live up to the terms of the covenant. There’s no need to dwell on that today or point fingers at anyone. Life is not always easy and people change due to any number of situations or circumstances they find themselves in. The only people who have any right to comment on or judge any marriage are the people in that marriage.

The same sort of thing can be said about baptism. Millions and millions of people have been baptized in the name of Jesus over the past two thousand years. The majority of them have been baptized as infants with their parents presenting them for baptism. But many of them have also been baptized as children or adults, both in the very first years of Christianity and now. While many of those baptized persons do their best to live up to the promises made during their sacrament of baptism, we all know that many of those baptized persons no longer participate in Christian worship or fulfill other promises made by them or on their behalf. The same thing I just said about marriage can be said about baptism. Life is not always easy, choices are made and circumstances occur that sometimes cause us to change our views and beliefs. Nobody should point fingers at someone who appears to no longer be holding up their end of the baptismal covenant or agreement. Only God and that baptized person have that right. The Good News is that God can continue to abide by the terms God made in the covenant even if the baptized person fails to. Let me remind you what God promised – to love that person, no matter what, offering forgiveness, help, and the gift of the Holy Spirit, always and forever. That is Grace at work and for anyone who is feeling abandoned, worn down by his or her choices, or simply wondering whether life is worthwhile, this Grace can be very powerful. Most of us need such Grace sometime in our lives. Do not underestimate its power or ability to heal and give meaning to life. May all of us experience God’s Grace whenever we need it. Christian baptism is one way that this can happen.