11 January 2010

Remember Who You Are

Isaiah 43: 1-7 & Luke 3: 15-17, 21-22
Baptism of the Lord/ 10th January 2010

What’s the appropriate place for the baptismal font in the church? Where should it be placed? In some of the oldest cathedrals of Europe, the font – often large, stone, eight-sided, supported by one pedestal or four – is found at the entrance of the sanctuary, what we might think of as the back of the church (if the front is where the pulpit and table or altar might be located). The location of the font says something about how we view baptism. Placing it at the entrance of the church suggests that it is through or because of one’s baptism that one enters the church community. Baptism is then primarily understood as a sacrament of initiation. It’s what is required in order to be a member of a church, to be a Christian. Placing it at the entrance of the church is a constant remember to everyone who enters a church how one “gets in,” as it were.

At some of the oldest churches in Italy, the font is in a baptistery, a massive, free-standing structure built in front of the duomo or cathedral, but not connected to the church. Baptism takes place outside the church and only then is one permitted to enter into the life of the church. Once again, baptism is viewed as an act of initiation and incorporation into the church. The location of the font says something about how a church views baptism.

It’s very rare to find a baptismal font at the entrance of a Presbyterian church (Woods Memorial Presbyterian Church in Severna Park, MD, is one possible exception). There’s a part of me that would love to have the font at the entrance of our sanctuary, but we have two ways into the sanctuary and we can’t have two fonts (at least I don’t think we can).

Yes, Presbyterians believe that baptism is about incorporation into the church, becoming part of the body of Christ. There is even the suggestion that one must be baptized in order to be a member of a church. Many view baptism primarily as a kind of initiation into the community of Christians – and it is this, to be sure. But there are other views. Some hold the view that if you’re baptized, it means you’re “in” – you’re in the church, you’re “safe” in God, you’re a Christian, your eternal destiny secure in heaven. If not, well, you’re not marked by Christ.

One time I was asked to do a funeral service for someone I had never met. The funeral home in Mendham, NJ, was a few doors from the church I served there and we were often the place to go when a family was looking for a generic, Protestant service. The service was at the funeral home. Friends and then family said their last good-byes and left the room. The nephew of the deceased, one of a few surviving relatives, approached me in a panic just before the casket was closed. “My uncle had never been baptized,” he said, “Do you think we can baptize him now?” That was a startling moment! The Book of Order doesn’t allow for that, nor should it. Princeton Seminary didn’t prepare me for that question either. The question and the possible act were loaded with all kinds of theological and pastoral implications (in fact, this scenario was later used on a polity exam for Presbyterians at a local divinity school in NJ) – just the thought of it, I was sure, was bordering on all kinds of heresies (although at the moment I couldn’t say what they were)! I didn’t baptize his uncle. We talked about it. But it spoke volumes about how the nephew understood the meaning of baptism and Christianity for that matter.

What does the font mean? What does baptism mean? At the Mendham church, the wooden font was kept tucked away in the corner of the sanctuary, out of view. It only came out when we had a baptism. That always bothered me. So, when I became the interim/acting head of staff, I moved the font out and kept it front and center for every service and we talked about why this matters.

Does the font have only an occasional meaning for us? Is it secondary to the table? Do we pull it out only when we need it? Does it only matter when someone is being baptized? What purpose does it play on Sundays when we don’t have a baptism? Should it only have water it in on Sundays when we baptize? Why don’t we have water in it all the time? I would love to have water in it all the time. This could conceivably drive the worship committee mad. How do we keep the water clean? This font isn’t easy to empty once it’s filled with water. I knew of a minister in the Church of Scotland who kept the font at her church filled with water every week – and stocked it with gold fish! Something about the waters of creation connecting with the waters of new creation in baptism. The same water was then used for baptisms. Needless to say, she didn’t stay long in parish ministry.

What does the font mean for us? There are Christians who don’t understand why we have font instead of a pool. The earliest churches had deep baptismal pools, often in the shape of the cross. You stepped down into the pool on one said and, after being completely immersed, you stepped up out of the pool into the new life in Christ. Down, buried under the water in a kind of death, a watery grave; up, out of the water in a kind of resurrection. Down and up. Death and resurrection. Transformation. Change. That’s what baptism meant for the first Christians – and for many Christians today. Less about incorporation into the church, less about becoming a member of the church; more about identification into the life of Christ, more about becoming a child of God and stepping out into the new life given to us in Christ.

What I’m trying to do this morning is to get us to think of baptism as less an act of initiation into the church (which it is, of course), and more as an act of identification. In other words, I want us to keep the baptismal font front and center – both literally and metaphorically (at least for today) – and not brought out only when we’re baptizing an infant or adult. I want us to remember our baptism. I want us to remember who we are because we are baptized. I want us to claim for ourselves who we are because of our baptisms, to see baptism as something that doesn’t happen once and then we forget about it, but something we remember and claim and continually live from, discovering ever new dimensions to what it means to be a son or daughter of God. To see baptism less as a one-time event, but more of an event and a process that we continually live into and realize. To see the Christian life as ongoing, where we’re continually living into the full implications of what it actually means for us to say we’re baptize in Christ, of living into our baptism. To see the Christian life as an ongoing unfolding of what it means to be claimed by God’s grace and then living out that claim in our lives, in our relationships, in service to the world.

It is identification – identity – that stands at the center of Jesus’ baptism, not entrance into the church, and certainly Jesus didn’t become a Christian when he was baptized. Baptism for him meant identifying himself, his life, with God, with God’s life, with God’s vision and purpose for his life. Baptism, from baptizo, means “to immerse,” and in Jesus’ time referred to a bath or a kind of washing. It was used as an act of purification to prepare one for an encounter with God. It’s an act of cleansing to prepare one to receive a word from God, to experience God’s coming, God’s presence.

It’s interesting that Luke tells us that when all the people were baptized, and after Jesus had been baptized, Jesus was in a state of prayer. He was praying – he was waiting, listening, talking, relating, engaging God, opening himself up to God’s presence, God’s will, God’s direction, God’s direction. It was after he had been baptized and while he was praying that the heavens opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon him and a voice was heard, “This is my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” Identity. This is who you are, Jesus, the voice says. This is who you are: Son of God. Beloved of God. The object of God’s pleasure and delight. And then in the next verse, we find Jesus beginning his ministry at about thirty years of age. In knowing who he is and whose he is, Jesus is then free to live the life he was born to experience.

If that’s what baptism meant for Jesus and if we are in Christ (and we are) and Christ is within us (and he is), then is this not also, to some degree, what baptism can mean for us? Christ is not some distant, historical figure about whom we have a certain set of beliefs that we are asked to confess. Christ is a present person, a present reality, alive here and how, who invites us into an experience of God through him. Jesus’ life reveals the mystery of God’s love and grace and included in this love and grace is the capacity for us claim the same truth in ourselves and all of creation. Jesus is the “microcosm of the macrocosm.” (1) What we see in him and discover through him, we need to see and discover within ourselves. This is, in part, what it means to follow him.

Contemporary writer, Richard Rohr, offers in a recent book, suggests this Christian axiom for us – I can really resonate with this. See how it sits with you. It goes like this; it has two parts: “1. All statements and beliefs about Jesus are also statements about the journey of the soul (birth, choseness, ordinary life, initiation, career, misunderstanding and opposition, failure, death in several forms, resurrection, return to God). 2. All statements about “the Christ” are statements about the “Body” of Christ, too.” We are not the historical Jesus, but we are the Body of Christ. “Christ” is not Jesus’ last name (of course), but the “field of communion,” and to be “in Christ” includes all of us with him. (2) We are not asked to simply “believe” a certain set of doctrines about Christ; but we know them to be true, because we know Christ. We know them through our own realizations and personal life experiences. You know them because you go on the journey Christ calls you to.

Now apply this to the way we view baptism. In knowing who he is and whose he is, Jesus was free to live the life he was born to experience. In knowing who we are and whose we are, we are then free to live the life we were born to experience. Jesus’ baptism, what he experienced tells us something about what it means to be human in relationship with God, what’s available to us in the relationship with God.

It’s about identity. Who am I? What am I? Why am I here? That’s the “great puzzle.” From the moment consciousness emerges as a child through adolescence into adulthood, these are questions that plague us, haunt us, and inspire us. The answers we provide shape and inform us, define us. In many ways, these are the questions that permeate every moment of our existence, from our first breath to our last. They don’t sound like religious questions, but oh they are. They’re human questions – everyone is asking them, wrestling with them, coming up with all of responses to them (some meaningful, others not). The Christian experience says these are not only human questions, they are divine questions, they are theological questions because God is committed to our humanity; they are theological questions that are answered within the context of one’s relationship with God, in prayer. Jesus, as the fully-human one, in prayer, discovers who he is. Just as Jesus came to know who he was and whose he was in that moment of grace, so too, in our baptism – and when we remember that we are baptized – we come to know who we are and whose we.

Who am I? Who are you? Who are we? The beloved of God. Whose am I? Whose are we? The sons and daughters of God – in whom God is well pleased. That’s what, I believe, Jesus wants us to know about ourselves – not in an ego-centric or narcissistic way – but in a way that affirms who we are. Why is this so important? Because so many suffer daily, suffer a lifetime because they don’t really know who they are. So many suffer daily, even a lifetime because they believe a false narrative about themselves, they tell a story about themselves that cannot affirm, only judge and condemn and condemn.

Baptism is given as a sign that Christ has changed the narrative of our lives, he has changed how we view ourselves. It might sound blasphemous but I think Jesus’ baptism, what was offered to him in the voice from heaven, was also meant for us to hear and know at some level about ourselves. To claim our baptism, to remember our baptism, to remember who we are, what we discover and know about ourselves is of utmost critical importance. Think of the people who live their lives without believing, without really knowing they are the beloved of God. Didn’t Jesus come to show us that? To tell us this? So that we know it deep within the depths of our souls? Think of the people who do not know where they belong or to whom, who wonder aimlessly, lost, confused, fascinated and seduced by every whim and fad, but never really seeing themselves as a son of God, a daughter of God, a child of God. Yet, this is the good news. We can see ourselves as one in whom God is well pleased – now, not in some future, not when we get our life together (whenever that is), not when we become more moral, more ethical, more “Christian,” but now, through grace, now – this the good news that is offered to us in Christ, in our baptism. Can you see why such an insight, such a truth, such a claim requires an entire life to fathom and fully live into?

Do you see yourself as God’s beloved? When you look at yourself in the mirror to do you see someone in whom God takes immense delight?

When I look in the mirror I need to be reminded, because it’s so easy to forget. It’s why we all need to be reminded, almost daily. It’s so easy to forget. We need to remind ourselves and our children growing up in the church, saying: This is who you are; this is whose you are. It’s probably the greatest gift we can give to a child, to a teenager, to an adult: You are the beloved of God and belong to God. That’s why we can’t push the font out of the way. It’s why I need to see it, with water in it. To feel the water. The font reminds me: Remember your baptism. Remember who you are.

Then we can leave here better equipped to live the lives we were created by God to live.

Image: Baptistery, Ravenna, Italy.

1.Richard Rohr, The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See (New York: Crossroad Book, 2009), 147.
2.Rohr, 147-148.
3.Cf. the quote for the day from the worship bulletin: “Let me think: was I the same when I got up this morning? I almost think I remember feeling a little different. But if I’m not the same, the next question is, who in the world am I? Ah, that’s the great puzzle.” Lewis Carroll (1832-1898), Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland (1865).

1 comment:

kirsten said...

I am afraid my comments fall not at all in the same vein as Anonymous.

I did, however, want to register my profound appreciation of the introduction via Lewis Carroll, and of the ideas following. It was a sermon that altered in significant & powerful ways how I might map my identity. Thanks.