Scripture: Acts 19:1-7
We tend to think of traditions as practices that are set in stone and have been around forever. Many of these traditions are so ingrained in us, we don’t even question when they began or why we do them. We just assume it has always been done that way. A good example of this is the song Happy Birthday. It feels like it has always been the tradition to sing that song to celebrate someone’s birthday, because that is something that most of us have experienced our entire lives. However, the song is not even that old. In fact it did not enter the public domain until 2016, and the tradition it of singing it to people on their birthday has been a widespread practice for less than 100 years. The song’s tune did not exist until the 1890’s, when it was created as a song for teachers to use called “Good morning to you”. The version that we best know today with “happy birthday” lyrics did not exist until the 1920’s, and the song did not get widespread popularity until Western Union started offering singing telegrams in the 1930’s. One of the standard singing telegrams offered, was “happy birthday” and it was the most popular option. From there over the course of the next several years it became more and more common to sing happy birthday, and now it is what we have always done.
It is this way with all traditions. Anthropologists claim that a behavior or practice has to be transmitted twice across three generations in order to be considered traditional. I find cultural traditions fascinating. It Interests me to no end to consider how these practices emerge and evolve-slowly changing over time or adapting to a new cultural context. I also find it remarkable that while some cultural traditions can be incredibly old, all of them have a starting point. Every single cultural tradition and practice has a starting point, and goes through a process where it morphs from being something new to something that “has always been done that way.” Even though we worship an eternal God, this is just as true for our Christian traditions. This morning’s scripture shows just how true it is for one of our oldest traditions which is baptism. In this morning’s scripture Christian baptism was still a new idea, and as the scripture show there was not much of any kind of standard or tradition to it at this point. While baptism is one of our longest Christian traditions, this morning’s scripture also gives a glimpse that baptism is more than just a time-honored practice. Baptism is an act of God that can have a profound impact in the life of the baptized.
From the very beginning baptism has been a part of the Christian faith. All four gospels make reference to the fact that Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist. Baptism is embedded deep in the Christian tradition, but it has Jewish roots. In the ancient Jewish tradition immersion in water was common place. 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 added something new to the tradition. The baptism of John the Baptist was not just a ritual washing to represent cleanliness, it was a baptism for the repentance of sins. It represented the start of a new life.
It appears that this baptism of repentance is something that took off, because in this morning’s scripture Paul is in Ephesus which is along the coast of modern day Turkey and a long way from the Jordan River. This scripture also indicates that baptism was at the very beginning of Christianity, but there was not agreement about how baptism was supposed to work. The scripture states that the people Paul ran into were “disciples” so they were followers of Jesus, and as part of following Jesus they underwent a baptism for the repentance of sins. They called this John’s baptism, but this was different that Paul’s approach to baptism which was baptizing someone in Jesus’ name.
Baptizing someone in Jesus’ name, or more specifically in the name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit, is what did emerge as the dominant Christian tradition. In the Christian tradition, the sacrament of baptism is a complex one. It is immersed in deep symbolism and shrouded by denominational differences. This is because over time the tradition of baptism continued to evolve. At one point, it was not uncommon for people to wait until they were close to their deathbed before they would seek to be baptized. As Christianity became established and become culturally dominant, it became culturally important for people to be raised Christian from the beginning and infant baptism became a more common practice. Likewise, as Christianity spread to new lands and to new people groups it became impractical to baptize people by immersion in bodies of water. For instance, no one wanted to be immersed for Baptism in Scotland or Norway in the middle of December. This led to the tradition adapting to a new environment, and baptismal fonts that allowed for a small amount of water to be held inside became more common. Then late in the protestant reformation, some believers in an earnest attempt to reclaim what they believed to be “biblical Christianity”, moved away from the common practices of infant baptisms and baptismal fonts to insist only upon believer’s baptisms and baptism through immersion. Baptism is a long standing Christian tradition, but the form of baptism, the physical way we undergo the sacrament, has changed and evolved over time. Today we have a variety of ways that baptism is practiced, and often those who hold these different variants also believe that this is the way we’ve always done it.
Even though the who, where, when, and how of baptism has changed and evolved over the generations, the why of baptism has remained remarkably consistent. It does not matter though if one was baptized as an infant and then confirmed later in life or if one was dedicated as infant and baptized as a believer, the consistent variable is that we are all baptized in the name of Jesus. We are all baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
That really brings to the forefront the question of “what does it mean to be baptized in the name of Jesus?” That question can be answered by considering the other context we might see or hear something being done “in the name” of someone. Perhaps the most common way we see that phrase show up today is in memorial donations. It is common for donations to be given in the name of someone one, and what that means is that the giver does not want the credit. The credit belongs to the person who the donation has been made in the name of. In the same way, it is Jesus that gets the credit for baptism. The document that most clearly defines the United Methodist understanding of Baptism is called By Water and The Spirit, and that document also agrees where the credit goes. It states, “Baptism is grounded in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ; the grace which baptism makes available is that of the atonement of Christ which makes possible our reconciliation with God. Baptism involves dying to sin, newness of life, union with Christ, receiving the Holy Spirit, and incorporation into Christ’s Church.”
The second context we might see something being done in “in the name” of someone is a bit more archaic. To claim something in the name of someone is to call dibs, it is to assert that it belongs to the individual whose name it was claimed in. This concept applies to baptism because when we are baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is an acknowledgement that we belong to God. This is the key difference that we see in this morning’s scripture. Paul pointed out that following Jesus was not just knowing his teaching, it was not just repenting, it was belonging to Christ. It is the belonging that made the difference. Again, this viewpoint is affirmed in the document By Water and The Spirit which states, “Baptism brings us into union with Christ, with each other, and with the Church in every time and place. Through this sign and seal of our common discipleship, our equality in Christ is made manifest.”
In baptism we acknowledge God over our lives, we acknowledge that God wants us to be part of God’s forever family. In baptism it is declared that the grace of God is present in our lives and it is proclaimed that it is only this grace that has the power to change us and transform us so that we can live as the new creations in Christ that God intends for us to be. As the baptized we are supposed to live differently. We are to live as the ones who know that Jesus is the beloved son of God. Baptism is an outward symbol that marks an inward change. We are to live as people who have been changed; people who have been changed by the love of God, the forgiveness of Christ, and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit. This is not a theoretical. As the baptized we are supposed to more willing to love, quicker to forgive, kinder, gentler, and more patient than those who have not been baptized. We are meant to be this way because through baptism we are new creations in Christ Jesus. We put off the old robes of sin and death and we are now clothed in Christ. It does not matter how long ago you were baptized, we all can joyfully claim life as a new creation, remember our baptism and be thankful.
We need to remember our baptism. We need to remember that we belong to God because God wants us, and we need to remember that grace of God has the power to change us. Remembering is important. There is an old Methodist tradition that affirms this. It came to be known as a watch night service, but it was a tradition instituted by John Wesley himself in 1755 in Spitalfields, England. Wesley, relying on an older written work he cherished, shared with the Methodist society there a covenant renewal prayer. According to Wesley’s account, upon reading the line “I will be no longer mine own but give up myself to thy will in all things” 1,800 gathered Methodists, moved by the Holy Spirit stood up in a “testimony of assent.” Wesley soon formalized the covenant renewal service in a pamphlet and he considered it best practice for the people called Methodists to renew their covenant with God once a year. After Wesley’s time it became tradition to do this covenant renewal on New Year’s Day right at midnight and that became watch night.
We need to regularly remember our baptisms, because there are days where our actions seem to imply that we forget we are baptized. There will be days where we lose our temper, where we say unkind words, where we think hateful thoughts, where we fail to be an obedient church and we do not hear the cries of the needy. Those days do not define us. What defines us are we are the baptized, we are the ones redeemed by God, clothed in Christ, and full of the Holy Spirit. When we have a day, a week, a month or even a year where we fall short of that, we can remember our baptism. We can remember that we are baptized in the name o, and of the Son, and of Holy Spirit. That the Holy Spirit will work within us and that being born through water and the Spirit we can be a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ. We remember that we are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever. Because of that we can let our light shine that other, seeing our good works, may glorify our Father in heaven.
As Christians, baptism is one of our oldest traditions. Some of us were baptized as infants in the United Methodist church and others us came to be baptized from other traditions. Perhaps some here today, are still anticipating their baptisms. No matter which it is, we can all celebrate that through baptism we are incorporated into the body of Christ, and the grace of God is proclaimed over us and for us. So if you have been baptized, may you remember your baptism and be thankful. May you remember your baptism and commit to living as the baptized, as a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ