Remember your Baptism

Scripture: Acts 10:34-43; Matthew 3:13-17

I’m so happy that today we’re talking about the baptism of Jesus, because it gives me the opportunity to tell you one of my favorite baptism stories.

It comes by way of one of my pastor friends, who I will leave anonymous to protect the innocent.

To understand this story, you first need to know that the tradition in her church, as it is in many churches, including, possibly this one, for after an infant is baptized for the pastor to walk around the church while holding the baby to show the child to everyone.

Well, this story concerns young woman in my friend’s church, who was in middle school. She was a faithful attendee of the church, active in Youth Group, did bible readings during worship, and she was all set to begin confirmation the next year.

Both my friend and the young woman’s mom thought this would be an easy win. She was involved, loved the church, her friends, and helping out. At first, this seemed the way it would go. In their conversations, the young woman seemed ok with everything.

There was one small hurdle though, her mom explained to her.  She had never been baptized. I believe this was one of those families that believed that their children should wait to make their own religious choices. OK.

But at the mention of this, the young lady started to look a little bit nervous.

No problem, her mom explained.  She already talked to the pastor, and there would be no problem.  She could go through confirmation class with everyone else, and the day of the confirmation service in church, she could be baptized and then confirmed one after another.  Easy Peasy.

At this point, the young woman looked horrified. She starts getting anxious and biting her nails. She starts pacing up and down the living room floor. “What’s wrong?” her mother asked, worried and confused.

Turns out the young woman is absolutely scandalized, in the way that only tweens can be scandalized, and not by the baptism.  She was quite ok with baptism. 

No, she was horrified because she thought that after being baptized, the pastor would have to pick her up, sling her over the pastor’s shoulder, and march her around the church, like they do for babies to show her off.

The moral of this story: for those of you who were baptized as babies: Remember your baptism and be grateful. All kidding aside, as we did our reaffirmation of baptism this morning, that phrase kept coming up.

It’s a call for us to remember the promises that we, or our parents or godparents, probably made during our own baptisms.  To reject sin, to profess faith in Christ Jesus, to confess the faith of the church, to be Christ’s disciple, to follow in the way of our Savior, to resist oppression and evil, to show love and justice, and to witness to the work and word of Jesus Christ as best we are able.

It’s a call for us to remember what baptism is, an outward sign, of the grace of God that we usually only feel on the inside. It’s a reminder that our baptisms are less about us choosing God, and much more about God choosing us, with the baptism as a visible and public sign of the sovereignty of God.

That is to say, God is not constrained by any rules other than God’s own sense of right and wrong, which we call righteousness.

We’ve emphasized the power of God to choose us, over our own choices for God.  This is what separates us from Baptists and Anabaptists, who emphasize the individual’s heart and places us with most of the rest of the Christian Church worldwide including the Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and Methodists, and reformed and congregational churches like ours.

But let’s back up just a minute. Baptism is one of those things that comes up that deserves our full attention.

The first person to baptize people was, as we heard in our Gospel reading, John, who we usually call John the Baptist or John the Baptizer, or as one of my textbooks called him, JBap.

Baptism, the proclamation of the forgiveness of sins through ritual bathing with water, comes from the Mikveh, a Jewish ritual bath used to cleanse people before they approached the Jewish temple for sacrifices.

So the people who John was baptizing down by the river Jordan were probably all Jewish. In reading the Gospels, we get the sense that John had his own religious sect within Judaism, probably similar to what Jesus would initially build. 

We also get the sense that many, but not necessarily all, of John’s followers would eventually become followers of Jesus too. John started his work earlier than Jesus, and was working quite successfully when Jesus bursts on the scene.

The Gospel of Luke tells us that Jesus and John are second cousins, as Elizabeth and Mary are cousins, but in our scripture reading today from the Gospel of Matthew, there’s not any sense that they actually know each other personally, at least in the flesh.

But Jesus’ does know of John’s work, for his journey to the river Jordan to be baptized is made with a purpose. And although John doesn’t seem to know Jesus as a person when he arrives, John clearly recognizes Jesus’ spiritual power and especially his authority immediately.

This is the one whose sandals he would be unworthy of tying, much less baptizing. So John is confused when Jesus asks him to perform the baptism. John thinks that Jesus should be baptizing *him*.

But baptism isn’t about the power and the authority of the person doing the baptism. It’s why, although we tend to have pastors do it whenever possible, in an emergency, all Christians is ecumenically recognized to be able to perform a baptism, and it is considered valid by most of the Christian churches as long as it’s done in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

While we don’t agree with many other churches on much of anything, we do agree with churches all across the diversity of Christianity on the formula for baptism, and we respect each other’s baptismal rites, not re-baptizing Christians when they change churches.

No, that’s because we believe that the primary actor in a baptism is not the person getting baptized, nor the person saying the words, but God.

In fact, Jesus’ baptism becomes something of a family reunion, as both the Holy Spirit, represented by a descending dove, and God the Father, as a voice from heaven, make appearances, telling the gathered crowd, “This is my Son, with whom I am well pleased.”

Unfortunately, this doesn’t happen at every baptism that happens today. Although that would be really cool.

The second thing that we need to understand what God is choosing us for. I think that there’s a misconception about what being chosen by God in the context of baptism means.

Peter, in our first reading from the Acts of the Apostles, talks a bit about that. He talks about how those who witnessed the life of Christ, death, and resurrection of Christ were called to testify and preach to the people about his life.

I believe that our baptisms, especially after they have been reaffirmed through lives of faith in the context of a community, make us into witnesses of the life of Christ.

We in the church have been chosen by God, blessed by God with the opportunity to testify about his good works. Being chosen by God doesn’t mean that we are magically better than we were beforehand.

Even Jesus, with the dove and voice of God thing going on, didn’t magically change at his baptism- he was the Son of God beforehand and would continue to be so after he was baptized.

And neither are we.  Baptism will not make you smarter, stronger, wealthier, or necessarily more faithful.  It will not make you a better person than non-Christians.  It does make you someone who has seen God’s light and truth, however. Indeed, it will certainly, if you take your baptismal promises seriously, make your life much harder.

After all, Peter, the apostle who preached this little sermon in the book of Acts about being chosen by God to witness to the life of Christ did not end up retiring to Florida.  He did not see his investments multiply 7 fold through his faith.

No, Peter ended up being executed, crucified upside down in the city of Rome by the Roman Imperial authorities. The Apostle Paul, our most prolific author in the New Testament, and prolific church planter, died in prison.

This is a pattern that stretches back throughout the Bible.  Moses certainly didn’t want to be chosen by God to lead the Hebrews out of Egypt.  Moses died before ever reaching the promised land at all. Jeremiah struggled with being a prophet in the depths of his soul. But yet they still witnessed to the power of God against the odds.

They did so because as people who have the privilege of experiencing God, they had a duty and obligation to do so.  This is our same duty to preach the good news of Jesus Christ.

Our baptismal promises are reminders of that duty. They remind us that we have a duty to reject sin, to profess faith in Christ Jesus, to confess the faith of the church, to be Christ’s disciple, to follow in the way of our Savior, to resist oppression and evil, to show love and justice, and to witness to the work and word of Jesus Christ as best we are able.

To witness to the world about the word of Jesus Christ as best as we are able doesn’t mean remaking the world in our image.  It’s not about making sure that everyone is just like us.  It’s about reminding the world that we were made in God’s image. 

It’s about reminding folks about a God who is love who came to save the world, not to condemn it.  A god who is lovingkindness and mercy but who hates cruelty and the harm we do to one another.

If that isn’t worth being reminded about every once and a while, I don’t know what is.