Baptism by Fire

Scripture:  Acts 8:14-17

In 1919 shortly after the end of World War I the army commissioned the Cross Country Motor Transport Train.  The mission was to take a convoy of military vehicles across the country from New York City to San Francisco.   The mission was two-fold.  First it was an endurance stress test for the army vehicles.  Second, the route wove through many small towns so the mission was something of an extended military parade.   The route utilized the Lincoln Highway, the only Network of roads that spanned the country.   Calling this a highway was a lose term, it was a cobbled together path that utilized connecting roads to get across the country, many of these roads were not paved and were in fact poorly kept dirt roads.  On more than one occasion, the convoy had to stop and the engineers had to actually build a bridge because the rickety wooden one in place would not hold the army’s trucks.  All told in 1919 this cross country journey took right at two months to go coast to coast by road.

The journey was longer and harder than anyone had anticipated.  The trials and difficulties of this long trek made a lasting impression on one of the officers assigned to the mission.   He was a captain at the time, but forty some years later he had achieved the rank of Commander in Chief.   Because of his cross country trek, Dwight D. Eisenhower strongly championed the creation of a national Interstate system.  This started to become a reality in 1956 with the passing of the Federal Aid Highway Act.  Over the next several decades, the country undertook a truly impressive engineering feat and managed to build a cross country, interconnected, interstate highway system.   The cross country journey that took Eisenhower two months to complete can now be done in five days.

An act of congress created the Interstate system in 1956, but the system was not declared complete until 1992.   Of course, we know the truth:  It is never really finished.  I am fairly confident that for my entire life some section of I-65 in Indiana has been under construction.   It sometimes like they start projects because it is easier to move those orange cones than it is just to put them away.

The Interstate system was created at a set point but as long as it is exist it will never have a true ending point.   In a lot of ways this parallels the life of a Christian.  Our journey with God begins with our baptism, but baptism was never meant to be the end goal.   Once a life of faith has begun, then like the Interstate system it is constantly under construction and renovation as that life becomes more Christ like.   This morning’s scripture reveals a key aspect of how that happens.

Much like the old Lincoln Highway one’s understanding of baptism can feel like a cobbled together set of pathways.  Baptism is a fundamental part of the Christian faith.  Jesus himself was baptized, in the great commission Jesus told his followers to make disciples by baptizing them, and this morning’s scripture is just one of several from Acts that have baptism front and center.  Baptism has been part of the Christian experience from the very beginning, and perhaps because of that it is also one of the areas where various Christian groups can find the most disagreement.  From the very beginning Baptism has been a complex rite deeply tied to grace, forgiveness, new life, and as this morning’s scripture points the Holy Spirit.  There is a lot of depth to the sacrament of baptism and often the disagreements are less sharp disagreements and more emphasizing different aspects of this spiritually meaningful act.   Baptism is the beginning of our faith journey and one of the better ways can gain more clarity on this beginning is by examining why there is contention about what baptism is in two specific areas.

The first of these areas of contention is how to baptize.   There are some branches of Christianity that insist a baptism only counts if it is by full immersion into water.  This emphasis comes from the fact that immersion baptisms are the only kind explicitly mentioned in scripture.   In the Methodist tradition we recognize immersion but also sprinkling or pouring as proper ways to administer the sacrament of baptism.   The practice of doing baptism by other means emerged out of practical means.   Christianity started in Israel and first spread around the Middle East, which has a temperate Mediterranean climate.  Even in the height of winter, cold is not really that cold and full immersion baptisms are doable.  As Christianity spread to cooler European climates this is not true anymore.  A Baptism by immersion in northern England or Norway in the middle of January in the 1200s for instance, would not have been possible.  It was too cold outside and running water was not a thing.   Thus, new methods emerged.

Again from the Methodist perspective, we do not have issues with using methods other than immersion because the how of baptism is not as important as the why of baptism.  The water used and the way it is administered is not magic.  It is not like doing a baptism the wrong way messes it up.  We believe that baptism is a means of grace that means that while the water is not magical it is a powerful and special symbol.  That through God’s blessing, the physical act of the element can and does convey God’s grace and love.  A document called By Water and the Spirit details the Methodist perspective of baptism, and it explains it this way: “The sacraments do not convey grace either magically or irrevocably, but they are powerful channels through which God has chosen to make grace available to us.”  Full immersion may feel more meaningful to an individual, and that is perfectly fine.  However, it is our stance that God is present in baptisms done through other means.  The water is a means of grace, it is an outward symbol that conveys the inward change that grace can have on the life of an individual.  As the water washes over us God’s grace also cleanses us of our sins.  This is a truth no matter how much or how little water is used.

The second and the biggest area of contention is who should be baptized.   There are branches of Christianity that strongly believe in believer’s baptism.  This means that only people of a certain age should be allowed to be baptism.  However, in the Methodist articles of religion, the document that contains our core beliefs, one of the things John Wesley wrote on baptism is “the baptism of young children is to be retained in the Church.”

 

The reasons why Wesley believed the baptism of young children, as young as infants, is based in several of the reasons why we baptize in the first place.  First, from the very beginning a part of baptism has been about initiation into the church.   That is illustrated in this morning’s scripture.  Peter and John journey to Samaria because people there had accepted the word of God and many Samaritans had committed to following Jesus.  As part of this they were baptized and became part of the community of faith.  Baptizing children is an incredible statement that the child is part of the church, the community of faith.  When we baptize a child we declare the child is not outside of the community of God, but is valued enough to fully include from the beginning.   The baptism of an infant especially is a beautiful theological statement.  Infants are helpless and completely dependent, yet the love of God and the grace of God is still available to them.  We believe that God’s previenent grace is present in our lives before we can ever respond to God, and the baptism of an infant is a declaration of God’s ever present love.   In the baptism of an infant the community of faith promises to be the embodiment of that grace and acceptance for the child by how the community of faith embraces the child as one of their own.

The second reason for baptizing infants is baptism is a starting point.   It is not the culmination of a faith journey, it is our first steps into a larger world of faith.   Just like the Interstate system began in 1956, baptism is meant to be the beginning of our Christian life.   For a child born into a Christian home with faithful parents who earnestly desire to share the life giving message and faith of Christ Jesus, then the starting point for experiencing and being made aware of God’s infinite love truly does start as an infant.

The idea that baptism is the starting point of our faith journey is the main message of this morning’s scripture, and that is true no matter what your faith tradition.   In this scripture the people of Samaria had been baptized.  They believed that Jesus had died for their sins, been resurrected, and freed them into the family of God.  However, baptism was only the first step.  For the people of Samaria, it was only when Peter and John laid their hands on them and prayed that they received the Holy Spirit.  The people of Samaria came to learn that baptism was not a one and done magic ritual that saved them for all time.  It was a starting point to a large world of following God.   This is true for us as well.

The sacrament of baptism has a lot incorporated into it, but as this morning’s scripture shows one of the elements that is part of baptism is recognizing the role the Holy Spirit plays.  This is demonstrated in our Baptism liturgy.  Right after the water is administered in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit the pastor then prays over the newly baptized saying, “The Holy Spirit work within you, that being born through water and the Spirit, you may be a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ. “  Baptism is the starting point in our faith journey, and it is the Holy Spirit that continues to guide us along the path.

As much as we dislike it, I think the constant construction of the highway system is a very apt analogy for our faith journey.    Just like the highway system got started by an act of congress and then will never be truly finished, our faith journey with God begins with baptism but it is never truly finished.   We are in constant need of repair and improvement.  Baptism is the starting point where we are declared to belong to God and we recognize the work of God to make us new creations in Christ.  The formal theological word for this is regeneration.  Being baptized does not prevent us from choosing sin, so just like a road needs to be repaired so does our soul.   The UMC articles of religion put it this way, “We believe, although we have experienced regeneration, it is possible to depart from grace and fall into sin; and we may even then, by the grace of God, be renewed in righteousness.”

Also just like road construction regularly switches the layout or adds new lanes in our faith we can constantly improve.   The Holy Spirit can work in our lives to improve upon the work begun in our baptism.  As we continue on our faith journey the grace of God, the love of God that was declared over us in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit can become more real to us and we can better live into it.   Through the empowerment of the Holy Spirit we can become more patient, more generous, or more loving people.  Through the empowerment of the Holy Spirit we can take steps of faith we never thought possible, we can do more than we thought possible, we can meet real needs, and we absolutely can make a real and lasting transformation in the world today.

The beginning of our baptism liturgy truly sums it all up, “Brothers and sisters in Christ:  Through the sacrament of Baptism we are initiated in to Christ’s holy church.  We are incorporated in to God’s mighty acts of salvation and given new birth through water and the Spirit.  All this is God’s gift, offered to us without price. “   If you have never formally received that gift, and are interested in saying yes to God’s yes and being baptized, then let’s please not delay and talk about it soon.   If you are among the baptized though, may you claim your baptism, no matter how long ago it was or how old you were as the starting point.   May you continually renew the covenant declared at your baptism, readily acknowledge what God is doing for you, and re-affirm your commitment to Christ’s holy church.  May you be thankful for the baptism of water that signifies God’s cleansing grace, but may you also claim the baptism of fire and be filled with the Holy Spirit.  May you allow the spirit to work in your life.   Through the power of the Holy Spirit, may the potholes and rough patches in your thoughts and actions be made smooth.  Through the Holy Spirit may you continue to become more like Jesus so that being born of water and spirit, God will use you to make a real difference in the world.

 

 

 

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