By Water and Spirit

Scripture:  Matthew 3:13-17

It was the summer of 2014, and I was fairly excited because I was going to get to perform a baptism in an actual river.  At that point, the only baptisms I had been a part of were sprinkling baptisms.  I looked up videos and read tips on the proper way to dunk someone, but that is not what happened.   Unfortunately, a week before the scheduled Sunday there was a tragic accident on the river just downstream from the baptism site.  On the day of the baptism, the water, while not dangerous, was still a little high.  This combined to make the young woman who was to be baptized a little nervous so she opted to forgo an immersion baptism.  Instead we used pouring, the little known third recognized method of baptism.  We were still in the river, and a lot of water was still used, it was just poured over her head instead of being submersed in it.  So to this day, I have yet to have to have the privilege to be part of an immersion baptism.

Perhaps it is for the best though.  A full immersion baptism, especially in an outdoor, natural setting is one that is full of potential pitfalls.  There are too many variables to account for and a wide variety of potential mishaps can happen.  One of my favorite stories of a baptism gone sideways comes from California pastor Barry Wignet.   He was serving a church in Santa Cruz, and being close to the beach it was not uncommon to do a beach baptism.  Years ago he wrote about what happened once, and this story is shared with permission.  The congregation gathered on a stretch of beach that was particularly quiet.  This particular day was also true.  Other than some surfers further out, the beach and the shallows were empty besides those gathered for the baptism.  In retrospect Wignet wrote this should have been his first clue. There is a reason why it was empty.  You see this particular stretch of beach would occasionally have large waves, but they’re not the kind that you see coming for a long time.  Often the water was fairly quiet but every now and then a large wave would come up quickly and crash angrily into the sand.  As the congregation gathered, and Pastor Wignet began an opening prayer and pronouncements the water was still.  He and the person to be baptized entered the water, and turned to face the congregation.  He began the official baptism liturgy when a large shadow enveloping him from behind.  This was followed by a loud crash, rushing water, and wild ride that ended being deposited drenched and disheveled on the beach at the feet of the laughing congregation.   As they stood, the person being baptized exclaimed, “Wow!  Was that it?!?”

Baptism is one of the oldest Christian traditions.    The book of Acts as well as Paul’s letters mention the importance of baptism as a way of signifying faith and a new life.  There is an ancient Christian document called the Didache.  This document dates all the way back to the first century and contains a baptism liturgy in it.   Baptism is part of all Christian traditions, it should be a unifying force among us.  Unfortunately different understandings of baptism are at the heart of some of our denominational divides.  However, no matter what difference we might have in our understanding of baptism, there are some consistent beliefs.  Across the board, baptism is a powerful display of God’s love and grace.  Also, it does not matter when or how long ago we were baptized, our baptism should always be a powerful reminder to whom our heart and soul belong.

For as long as our faith has existed, baptism has been part of it.  We often trace this back to the fact that Jesus was baptized, and his disciples went on to baptize.  From a Christian perspective baptism begins with John the Baptist, but baptism was not a new idea that John created.   The idea of being ritually clean is one that has deep Jewish roots.   The Old Testament law mentions specifically that the Levites or priests had to regularly immerse themselves to maintain ritual purity.   By the first century, this practice had become widely adopted.   In the Jewish law there are several things that can make someone ceremonially unclean.  Immersion was a physical act to symbolically show cleanliness.   In ancient Judaism this was done through a ritual bath called a mikveh.  In Jerusalem, outside of the ancient temple steps, there are the remains of several of these mikvehs.  When the Israelites would go to the temple, they would first bathe in one of these as an act of worship to present themselves clean and unblemished before God.  A mikveh has steps that lead down into the bath, and there is a clear division on the steps indicating two sides.   A person would walk down on one side, unclean, immerse themselves in the waters and come up the other side clean.   The water was a symbol that was meant to mark a spiritual change within a person.    It is out of this tradition, that John the Baptist did his ministry.   The ritual bath of the Mikveh was to wash away the imperfections that made someone unclean, John’s tweak to this formula was repentance.    The message of John the Baptist was “Repent, the kingdom of heaven has come near.”   Repentance means to turn around completely, it is a true 180.   John’s message was an invitation to re-focus on God because God’s kingdom was coming.   Those that came to John the Baptist wanted a fresh start, they came too baptized to acknowledge their need for repentance.    They entered the water as people who had moved away from God and they emerged as people with hearts, minds, and souls reoriented to their creator.   The baptisms that John preformed signified a change in the baptized, the beginning of a new life, a life that is based in being oriented towards God and God’s mission.

This is why Jesus sought out being baptized by John.   It was not that Jesus needed to repent.   John the Baptist even knew this was the case which is why he was confused and at first insisted that it was not right for him to baptize Jesus.    Jesus declared though “Let it be so now it is right for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.”   Jesus was not baptized because he needed to repent and turn back towards God, but Jesus was baptized as a way to symbolically show that he was beginning something new.  Baptism symbolically shows a change in a person.  Up until this point of his life, Jesus had lived as the son of Mary and Joseph.   Yet, when Jesus emerged from the water he embraced his identity as the Messiah, the son of God.  This is fully confirmed as the Holy Spirit descends and God the father declares “this is my son whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”   Jesus’ baptism marks the beginning of his public ministry, it marks the beginning of Jesus fulfilling all righteousness by starting the path that enables us all to live righteously in right relationship with God.

Very quickly in the Christian tradition, Baptism took on more meaning.   In the book of Acts we see that Baptism was also the way that new believers were accepted in to the Christian community.    In Romans and elsewhere Paul adds new meaning to the symbolic act of baptism.  In Romans 6:4 Paul wrote, “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.”  Jesus emerged from the waters of Baptism embracing the mission and ministry that had been set in motion at his birth.    For us baptism is a symbolic act where we die to ourselves and emerge as a new creation in Christ.   Our Baptism liturgy summarizes this beautifully and it states, “Brothers and sisters in Christ: Through the sacrament of Baptism we are initiated into Christ Holy church.  We are incorporated into God’s mighty acts of salvation and given new birth through the water and the Spirit.  All this is God’s gift offered to us without price.”

In Jesus’ time a large aspect of baptism was that the water was an exterior symbol that signified an interior change.  That is still true today, the baptismal waters signify that we are new creations in Christ Jesus.    That is why for centuries Christians have been instructed to “remember your baptism and be thankful.”   At this, there are some who can get a bit cynical.  I for instance, cannot remember my baptism.  I have heard the stories, I have seen the pictures, but I was an infant.   I have no memory of the event.   However, if I dwell on that fact I miss the point.   Remember your baptism is not about remembering the circumstances your baptism, it is about remembering that you are baptized.   It is about remembering that you have been claimed by God.   It is about remembering that we are incorporated into God’s mighty acts of salvation.   It is about remembering that God’s love and forgiveness is greater than all of our shortcomings and failures.    It is about remembering that we are a new creation in Christ.

This is true even if you were baptized as an infant.   Because I was baptized I was initiated into a church that loved and cared for me.  From a young age I was taught about the love of God by faithful Disciples of Christ.  Even when I had turned my back on God, the church did not turn its back on me.  The people of God still faithfully did all they did to communicate the great care and compassion that the Creator has for me.   When I was an infant I was baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  It was proclaimed that God’s love marked my life, and promises were made by my family and by the church to prove and provide that love.   Water was sprinkled on my head and I became new creation in Christ, because I can promise you my life, would be radically different if I were not baptized.  Because I was baptized I was initiated into a church where the people cared for me and took the time to show me what it means to be incorporated into the mighty acts of salvation.   I am here today because I was baptized.   The fact that I was baptized and because of that was raised in an environment where God’s love was proclaimed and made known is a fact for which I am eternally thankful.

Even if we can not remember the physical act of our baptism, we can remember it’s impact and be thankful.  Martin Luther, the great catalyst that started the protestant reformation, had a strong emphasis on remembering our baptism.    When he would wash his face, he would look in the mirror and tell himself, “Remember, you are baptized.”   In fact, when he was discouraged or afraid he would splash water on himself and say, “But I am baptized!”    If you are a baptized believer, then we have to regularly and daily remind ourselves that we are baptized; That we have been claimed for and by God’s love.   We have to remind ourselves that our imperfections, our flaws, and failures do not define us because we have been baptized and through God’s mighty work he envisions us as a new creation, in Christ Jesus.   We have to remind ourselves that we belong to God and not to the world.     We have to remind ourselves of this so that we can be who we are meant to be.   We have to remind ourselves so that like Christ, the lives we live, we live to God.   As a practical discipleship practice, I encourage you to remember your baptism daily.   Every day as you go through your morning “get ready ritual” as you wash your face or turn the shower on, may you like Martin Luther remember your baptism, and be thankful.

If you are not baptized, then may you anticipate your baptism. If you are not baptized, and you are ready to declare God’s love over your life, if you are ready to die to yourself and begin to become a new creation in Christ, then let’s have that conversation.  If you are baptized, then may you know are a new creation in Christ.  Or perhaps the more accurate way to say it is you are becoming a new creation in Christ.   The work of the Holy Spirit to transform us is not done.   From the youngest to the oldest of the baptized among us, God is still at work in our lives, molding us, shaping us, and making us more Christ like.    At our baptism it is proclaimed that Christ is savior, and his saving grace is more powerful than any temptation, any addiction, or any sin.   Our baptism is a proclamation that nothing can ever, ever separate us from the love of God.   May we spend the rest of our life living that reality out.  May we live as those who have emerged from the waters a new creation, and may we declare with our words and action about the Lord and Savior that has washed away our sins.   May we remember our baptism and be thankful.

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