This morning at Parkrose Community United Church of Christ our scripture readings included Isaiah 43:1-7 and Luke 3:15-17, 21-22. There is no podcast of the sermon available but my sermon notes are below.
This morning we celebrate the baptism of Jesus and in doing so we remember our own baptisms - one of the most important acts of the church and one of only two sacraments celebrated in the United Church of Christ.
The act of baptism - an act that Jesus himself underwent - is one that reminds us of what God already knows: that we are children of God, beloved by our creator, and that we are part of a larger family of people...the people of God.
What has always struck me about baptism are not the promises we make (or that our parents make on our behalf) but the promises that the congregation makes to the one about to be baptized.
These are some of the words that are spoken in our tradition:
We promise our love, support, and care.
We promise you our continuing friendship and prayers
as we share the hopes and labors
of the church of Jesus Christ.
By the power of the Holy Spirit
may we continue to grow together
in God's knowledge and love
and be witness of our risen Savior.
What I hope that we always remember about baptism is that it is an act shared by the community and that the promises made by the congregation are as serious and as important as the vows made by the one being baptized.
Think about this for a moment: how many times have we all participated in a baptism, spoken the words that I just read where we make certain promises, and then never again spoken to the one baptized or inquired about their well-being? Don't feel guilty if I'm describing something you have done. Promoting guilt is not my aim. What I hope we all feel instead of guilt is a new determination to reach out to all people in this church with the love and concern we feel for family because the people gathered here today in worship are our family.
There has always been a certain amount of controversy about the baptism of Jesus and what it meant.
Barbara Brown Taylor, in her sermon The River of Life, has spoken on this.
The Christian church has never been comfortable with the baptism of Jesus. Compare the accounts of it in each of the fours gospels and you cannot miss the un-ease of the authors. Matthew elaborates on Mark's story by adding that John tried to talk Jesus out of being baptized, and Luke will not even come out and say it was John who did it. The fourth gospel is the most ticklish of all. In it, John bears witness that he saw the Spirit descend like a dove upon Jesus, but he does not mention anything about a baptism at all. Scholars say all this embarrassment is our surest proof Jesus really was baptized by John, because when someone tells you something that it is not in his best interest for you to know, then you can be reasonably sure he his telling you the truth.
The controversy exists because if Jesus was baptized and his sins were forgiven in the act (in the way that John the Baptist understood baptism) it would mean that Jesus, the divine and perfect one, might have had sins to be forgiven and it appears that this notion of Jesus, the one who was also human, was too much for some of the authors of the Gospels to bear. So by the time we get to our account of Jesus baptism here in Luke it is unclear who baptized Jesus. Was it John? Did Jesus baptize himself? Luke doesn't tell us. But I suspect as well that John the Baptist was the one who baptized Jesus and that Jesus took his place among the other sinners who gathered around John.
Again, Barbara Brown Taylor says:
Even if (Jesus) were innocent, even if his intentions were nothing but good, it was ruinous to his reputation. Who was going to believe that he was there just because he cared about those people and refused to separate himself from them? Gossip being what it was, who was not going to think that he had just a few teeny-weeny things to get off his conscience before he went into public ministry?
You see the problem. We spend a lot of time in the Christian church talking about God's love for sinners, but we sure do go to a lot of trouble not to be mistaken for one of them. Guilt by association and all that. Only Jesus - our leader and our Lord - did not seem too concerned about that. In him, God's being-with-us included God's being in the river with us, in the flesh with us, in the sorrow of repentance and the joy of new life with us. So what if he did not have anything of his own to be sorry about?
The point to be made here is that we could be a more authentic Christian community if we opened our arms as easily to those labeled sinners as Jesus did. And we'd be a more honest community if we more freely admitted that we are sinners too and that the line between "us and them" is a false one.
In the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), a denomination that in family terms would be the first cousin to the United Church of Christ, they practice adult baptism and for many reasons adult baptism makes sense to me. Don't get me wrong - I'm not trying to diss infant baptism - but considering the complexities and the difficulty of the Christian faith...not to mention the promises we ask of those being baptized...I see the value in reserving the sacrament of baptism to those would are able to truly discern the meaning of the act about to be undertaken.
My own daughters have not been baptized. We instead brought Katherine and Frances to First Congregational United Church of Christ for a service of Thanksgiving for the birth of a child, a celebration that is similar to the act of baptism but instead of making promises of behalf of the twins we have left it up to them to make decisions at an older age. I want them to be able to fully consider the costs associated with a Christian life.
Now here is the question people always ask when I tell them this: what happens if something terrible happens to the girls and they are not baptized?
If I thought for a minute that God would reject anyone from the Kingdom of Heaven simply because they had not undergone a ceremony I'd renounce my ordination and my faith. But I believe in a God whose love for creation is simply too deep for that kind of pettiness. Want proof of God's expansive heart? Think of the baptism story of Jesus again. Remember that Jesus stood with the sinners and not apart from us. That is the God that I follow.
Whatever you decide about baptism - infant or adult - (and there is no right or wrong answer here) the importance of the act is in the relationships it builds...between us and other faithful followers of Jesus and between us and God. In baptism, we are reminded that our lives belong to God and with us God is well pleased. Our obligation in this relationship is to reach out to everyone with the same love that God has shown through the life that Jesus led. Each time that we baptize someone here in this church let the sacrament be a reminder to us of the responsibilities we have to one another and to God.
Let us pray using words from the UCC Book of Worship:
O God, we praise you for calling us to faith and for gathering us into the church, he body of Christ. We thank you for your people gathered in this local church and rejoice that you have increased our community of faith.
Together may we live in the Spirit, building one another up in love, sharing in the life and worship of the church, and serving the world for the sake of Jesus Christ.
Painting: The Baptism of Christ, Jan van Scorel