12 January 2014

When New Life Springs Forth

Isaiah 42: 1-9 & Matthew 3: 1-13

Baptism of the Lord/ 12th January 2014

The reformer Martin Luther (1483-1546) believed that baptism is an once-in-a-lifetime experience that takes a lifetime to fulfill. 

My guess is that many think it happens once, is experienced once, and that’s it.  It’s true that we Protestants baptize a child or adult only once.  If you were baptized in the Roman Catholic Church, for example, we did not baptize you again when you became a Presbyterian.  Still, it’s easy to think of baptism as a singular event, a specific act, and that once it’s “done” you’re “in” and then “home free;” when the time comes for you to die you’ll go straight to heaven without any detours.  This thinking is so prevalent in the Church, Protestant and Catholic alike, which makes it difficult to fathom what Luther was getting act. 

            For example. True story.  Years ago, serving the First Presbyterian Church in Mendham, New Jersey, I was asked to do a funeral for a person I didn’t know.  The local funeral director needed a Protestant pastor to conduct the service.  When the service in the funeral home was over, family and friends were dismissed in order to prepare the casket for burial.  As I was leaving the room the nephew of the deceased came up to me, just as the casket was about to be closed, and said with a troubled voice, “I don’t think my uncle was baptized.  Could you baptize him now?”  I was a little shocked to hear that—actually, more than a little.  I didn’t know what to do.  It caught me off-guard.  This scenario was never covered at Princeton Seminar (!).  So I kicked into action and did what a lot of pastors do: one part of my brain was trying to process all the assumptions the nephew was making about the meaning of baptism; one part of my brain was trying to assess my pastoral responsibilities to the grieving nephew; and another part of my brain was wrestling with the dozen or so theological issues, including several heresies, contained in his question.  All this was happening at the same time.  I don’t exactly remember what I said; I eventually mumbled out something that probably wasn’t all that helpful. I basically assured him that it wasn’t going to mean a lot to your uncle now.  (This scenario was later used as an exam question for a Presbyterian polity course taught at the Theological School at Drew University in Madison, NJ.)   

You see, baptism is a once-in-a lifetime experience that takes an entire lifetime to fulfill.  Gregory of Nyssa (335-394) speaking on the mystery contained here said that baptism is “a slight thing but the source of great possessions.”[1]  What’s promised and affirmed in baptism, either for us by our parents and/or by us as adults, takes a lifetime to fathom and to live out.  We don’t understand it or embrace it overnight, even after years of church school and confirmation.  The meaning and implications of baptism doesn’t really come into focus until one matures in the faith.

Why does it take so much time to fulfill, to live into what is affirmed and promised in this rite?  One reason, I think, is because baptism is ultimately about identity: who we are and whose we are.  And, as we know, identity takes time to form.

Consider Jesus’ baptism.  He allowed himself to undergo the same process that all the others called out to the River Jordan experienced, he identified with those who are separated from God, in need of washing, in need of being cleansed.  When Jesus came up out of the water something new was offered.  The Spirit of God descended upon him and then he heard the voice:  “This is my Son, the Beloved; with who I am well pleased.”  What springs forth from the waters is Jesus with a new, fuller sense of who he is, his core identity.  He hears who he is, he knows his connection with his Father; he knows who he is and we know too.  Here is the Beloved of God—in the flesh. This experience then shapes the rest of Jesus’ life and ministry as she struggled to be faithful to his identity and his calling.

This must mean, then, that all those who follow this Jesus are baptized into him, into his life.  This means that somehow, some way we share this same identity with Christ, or, better said: when we are in Christ we discover who we really are.  In fact, at the risk of sounding blasphemous, I believe there is room in our theology to hear God saying to us in our own baptism: “You are my son.  You are my daughter, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.”

What’s declared in our baptism is our true identity:  Child of God.  Beloved.  Well-pleasing to God.  This is who we are.  That’s what Jesus was born to show us.  So then the shape of the Christian life becomes the journey of living into this identity, living into this reality, this life, this identification, getting comfortable with these names.

            But is this how you see yourself, really?  When you look in the mirror in the morning, is this how you feel about yourself?  Child of God?  Beloved of God?  Well-pleasing to God? 

If yes, then, give praise and thanks to God, because you’re farther along the journey than most. 

If not,…then can you see why it takes a lifetime to live into what God is already claiming for us in the waters of baptism? 

So, how do we get there?  We don’t earn our way there through acts of charity or goodwill or simply being nice.  And it’s not a matter of willpower, of willing our way into believing this; neither is it an issue for psychotherapy—as beneficial as all of these are.  Instead, it’s a matter of becoming who you are—already.  It’s about coming to see ourselves the way God already sees us, now: as God’s children, beloved, worthy of love, pleasing to God. Arriving at an accurate self-image doesn’t happen in a moment (although it could), but it takes a lifetime of walking with Christ and praying in and with and through Christ, and discovering through the power and presence of the Spirit, that we are infinitely more than we think we are, sinners that we are—yes—yet precious in the eyes of God.

            There’s something to be said for the fact that Jesus was baptized in a flowing river.  Not in a lake or a pool or in stagnant water, but in flowing water.  Baptism is a way of saying that when we are in Christ our lives are being caught up in the free-flowing current of God’s grace carrying us along to where we need to go.  To be baptized, like Jesus, means we have jumped into the flow of God’s grace. And out of the depths of the water we surge forth into a new life.  We might say that baptism is a rite of passage.  Presbyterians generally don’t refer to it as a rite; we call it a sacrament, a visible sign of an invisible grace, as Augustine (354-430) said.  But it is a religious ritual.  As ritual there are at least two ways to view it: either something done by rote, with little thought, something that’s done simply because everyone is doing it or something that is sacramental, that is holy.  When a ritual is approached correctly it becomes an entrĂ©e into something truly profound.  Through ritual, David Tacey suggests, “we enter into the flow of the universe and something ancient is released in us."[2] The word ritual comes from the Latin “ritus” meaning “to flow”; the word river has the same root. A ritual symbolizes that we are participants in a divine drama, each with significant parts in a cosmic play of redemption.

            To be baptized in Christ means we have jumped into the ongoing flow of God’s grace.  We are moving, flowing toward our true identity—getting to know the person we already are by grace—growing ever deeper into our knowledge of God. This means our lives as Christians can never, ever be static. Grace calls us to flow.  It’s a process.  We are slowly discovering who we are and whose we are.  New life surges within us. As this happens we gradually discover that we do not belong to ourselves but to God.  We steadily live into and from an image of ourselves given by Christ: Child of God.  Beloved of God.  Well-pleasing to God.

            And we discover these things together.  We can’t get there on our own.  We need community.  In fact, this is one essential aspect of the church’s ministry and we promise it to everyone baptized here: We will remind you who you are and whose you are. 

But it’s so easy to forget these things.  Right?  There are so many voices and experiences that are trying to tell us we’re someone else, that we don’t matter, that we are not who we know we are by God’s grace. Against the many competing voices telling us otherwise we need to hear the voice of truth, the only voice that matters, and to hear it again and again. That’s why we need reminders, people who remind you who you are.  On good days, that’s what the church is supposed to do and does.  When the church fails to do this, then who offers that reminder to you?  Who reminds you that right now you are already connected with Christ?  You are my Son, with you I am well-pleased. You are my daughter, the Beloved.  That’s what we need to hear whispered into our ears whenever we approach a baptismal font, whether here or elsewhere.

            When St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) had a vision of Christ and heard a call to enter a world of poverty and to care for the poor, his father, Pietro, a wealthy man and leading figure in Assisi, was furious.  His father shamed Francis in the town square because Francis shamed his father.  Undeterred from his calling, Francis lived in a small hut in the plains below the town.  Whenever Francis had to walk up the hill to town he was deeply fearful of meeting his father in the streets. Pietro would often hurls curses at Francis and reject him again as his son.  Francis carried a lot of guilt about this and the relationship with his father remained broken for the rest of his life.  One day Francis had to go up to into town and, feeling fearful, invited a beggar from the streets to join him, to walk by his side and protect him.  Francis instructed him, “When my father hurls curses and abuses at me, I will hear them painfully in one ear, but I ask you to walk on my other side, and whisper God’s favor into my other ear, [saying,] ‘Francis, you are my beloved son.  You are a son of heaven and a son of God.’ Just keep repeating it until I can believe it again.”

As we approach the baptismal font this morning, reaffirming our baptismal vows, claiming a shell from the font as a reminder of our baptism, perhaps we can hear that voice whispering in our ears.  The voice we need to hear again and again.  You are my beloved.  We need to hear it not once, but for a lifetime, until we believe it and trust it.  When that happens, whenever it happens, we will be free to go where God’s voice wants to send us, caught up in the ongoing flow of God’s grace.   

[Later in the service the members of the congregation reaffirmed their baptismal vows.  Individuals made their way down the center aisle to the font, but were asked to first pause to allow the person standing behind them to whisper in an ear:  You are a beloved son/daughter of God. Then they proceeded to the font full of water to choose a shell.]

[1]Gregory of Nyssa, Catechesis Magna, 36, cited in Hugo Rahner, Greek Myths and Christian Mystery (New York: Harper & Row, 1963), 73.
[2]David Tacey, How to Read Jung (New York: W. W. Norton & Co), 91.

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