By Larry Casey, a member of UUC who preaches from time to time.
Scripture: Psalm 29; Isaiah 42:1-9; Matthew 3:13-17
I think it’s safe to say that most everyone participating in this service today has been baptized.
Baptism is probably the earliest of Christian rituals. Depending on denomination, or tradition, baptism is performed by either aspersion, affusion or immersion. I just learned two of those words this week. They are another way of saying an individual is baptized with water by sprinkling, pouring, or dunking.
Being a multi-denominational community church, we of course, don’t have a catechism where one can look up a description of baptism or a statement of what we believe about it, as some churches have. Our bylaws mention the need for baptism but only in the context of membership. The bylaws state: “Full membership shall consist of those persons received into the church (a) by letter of transfer of membership from another church; (b) by affirmation of faith; (c) confession of faith, (and baptism unless previously baptized or exempted by reason of conviction.)” In other words, we’re flexible. We see the importance of baptism for Christian believers, but we’re not dogmatic about it.
As we heard in our Gospel reading for today, the practice of baptism is older than the Christian Church. In the Jewish tradition bathing to become ritually “clean” was common. But the baptism of John in the Jordan River was not a Jewish cleansing ritual. People came to John for the “baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.” John was preparing the way for the coming Messiah and getting the people ready for the Kingdom of God.
John told those seeking baptism to turn away from their sinful lives and, as a sign of that commitment to a new life, to be baptized in water.
Now, when Jesus comes to John asking for baptism, John initially tries to deter him. He seems to recognize Jesus as God’s chosen one and insists that Jesus should be the one baptizing him. But Jesus tells John that this baptism is proper for him to fulfill all righteousness. And then, John agreed.
“To fulfill all righteousness.” What does that mean?
Jesus did not need baptism for repentance or the remission of sin. So why did he do it?
Some theologians emphasize that Jesus and John together were fulfilling all righteousness by fulfilling prophecies found in Isaiah and Malachi about the coming Messiah. Others suggest that in submitting himself to John’s baptism Jesus was identifying himself with sinners, a foreshadowing of his identification with us when he went to the cross. Still others suggest that it was done as an example for those who would seek to follow him. This is the theory I find most useful and compelling. In his baptism, Jesus established the way for all of us who would become his disciples. His last words before his ascension as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew suggest this as he told his followers “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,”
We may not completely understand why Jesus sought baptism, but we do know from what followed, that his baptism was pleasing to God. When Jesus came up from the water the Holy Spirit descended as a dove upon him, and a voice from heaven declared “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” All four of the Gospels record this event. For Jesus, this moment marked the beginning of his public ministry.
Do you remember your baptism?
Of course, it depends on your age at the time you were baptized. If baptized as an infant, perhaps you were confirmed when you got older, and that you would remember. I do remember my baptism. Not the first one, which was by what I now have learned is called affusion – by having water poured on my head. I was an infant and have no recollection of it. I do have the certificate, so I know it happened. But then, in the mid-1980s, Jan and I felt led to seek a deeper and more meaningful relationship with God. One Sunday morning we worked up the courage—I still don’t know how—to walk into a Baptist church! It was called New Life Baptist – an American Baptist Church near Omaha, Nebraska. We were welcomed so warmly there. It was our first experience of having a church family. Within a few months we sought membership. But, for full membership you had to make a public profession of faith and be baptized by immersion. And so, one Sunday morning, we took that step.
My baptism that day was so meaningful to me, and memorable. I can still picture the scene and hear the pastor’s voice, and I remember the surprise, even though I was expecting it, of feeling myself plunged under the water and raised back up. I felt like a new person in Christ when I emerged from the waters of baptism that day.
In being baptized, each new Christian follows in the footsteps of Jesus. We are buried with him under the water and rise to a new life as new creatures. Forgiven. Reborn by the Holy Spirit in the image of the Christ we serve.
No matter our age when it happened, our baptism is not only for that moment or that day. It continues throughout our lives as we are in the process of being continually remade in the image of Christ.
When we are baptized, we promise to persist in resisting evil, to proclaim the Gospel in our words and deeds, and we commit ourselves to seeking and serving Christ in all those we encounter day by day. These promises are life-changing and could be world-changing if we really lived them out each day. The presence of Christ in our lives would be evident and the Kingdom of God would become present not just to us but to everyone. It’s the living out of these promises each day that is the challenge for me.
Jesus didn’t need to repent, but in the ritual of baptism he gave us a path to follow. At the same time, God made clear his approval of his chosen one, and gave evidence of the power of the Holy Spirit working in and through Jesus.
When we live our own baptism, we too receive the gift of the Holy Spirit and the approval of God. We, too, are called to earthly ministry and this rite of initiation into the faith marks the beginning of our new life in Christ.
In Roman Catholicism, Lutheranism and Anglicanism, the practice of renewing the baptismal promises is common and often happens at Confirmation, as well as around Easter each year. We don’t have an annual ritual like that in our church, but we can take some words of advice from Martin Luther about this. He taught that “we are to daily renew our baptism” and as such, he said, when we believers rise in the morning, we should proclaim “I am baptized into Christ” to start our day.
I will be the first to admit I don’t do that every day. But I’m going to do it at least tomorrow and maybe I can stay with it. If we believers can live our baptism each day, we can change our lives and maybe even change our community and world.
Let’s close in prayer. Loving God, we repent of our failures to follow in the way of love. Help us to become Christ to the world. Give us the strength and courage to proclaim the Gospel message of love in our words and in our deeds. Help us to live our baptism each day and be the light of Christ to our world. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen