By Water and The Spirit

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Mark 1: 4-11

Good morning.

It is a wonderful honor to address you from this pulpit.  I share my sincere thanks to Dean Hill for the opportunity.

Baptisms are often amusing events for a family and a whole church community.  A wily uncle takes guesses from a host of cousins about whether their baby cousin will squeal when the pastor pours water on her head.  A congregation quietly wonders if the new pastor has the touch to hold a squirmy child and pour water at the same time.  When the pastor’s less than motherly touch turns the squirming to a whimper, congregants smile and whisper to one another that the young pastor will improve when he has children himself someday.  And for that young pastor, the terror of attempting to hold a squirming infant, recite a prayer, and sprinkle water all at the same time soon gives way to shared smiles with the child’s family when the fantastic juggling act is over.  The sight of a child’s baptism is sure to bring a smile or two, if only for the odd spectacle of the occasion.

Do you remember your baptism?  Do you remember being thrust underwater in a baptismal font, a community pool, maybe a local river or lake?  Maybe you had water sprinkled on your head?  Perhaps all you remember is water.  But that occasion was about a whole lot more than water.  The place may or may not have been familiar, but certainly the people surrounding you on that special occasion were: a parent, god-parents, an aunt, a grandparent, close friends.

However, for many of us, our memories of baptism are not our own.  We were baptized as infants.  Our parents or other special people in our lives made a commitment to God and to the church to nurture us.  They promised that through their teaching and example in our lives we might be guided to accept God’s grace for ourselves and profess our own faith openly.

Perhaps these words of commitment are familiar to you as you shared in the joy of the baptism of a loved one.  Your memories of baptism may come from hearing a crying infant alarmed by the surprising sprinkling of water on the forehead or through seeing a young person emerge astonished from the water of a family swimming pool.  Perhaps you, yourself, have committed to nurture a child in the church so that by your teaching and example they may be guided to accept God’s grace for themselves and to profess their faith openly.

Or perhaps you are able to recall your own baptism:  You freely elected to accept a special relationship with God and the church universal.  You entered into a covenant.  You assented to a series of questions that sounded something like these:

“Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness,
Reject the evil powers of this world,
And repent of your sin?”

“I do.”

“Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you
To resist evil, injustice, and oppression
In whatever forms they present themselves?”

“I do.”

“Do you confess Jesus Christ as your savior,
Put your whole trust in his grace,
And promise to serve him as your Lord,
In union with the church which Christ has opened
to people of all ages, nations, and races?”

“I do.”

“According to the grace given to you,
Will you remain a faithful member of Christ’s holy Church
And serve as Christ’s representative in the world?”

“I will.”

But you were likely not the only one asked a question by the officiant.  The community gathered around was probably asked a question or two:

“Do you, as Christ’s body, the Church,
Reaffirm both your rejection of sin
And your commitment to Christ?”

And they responded, “We do.”

“Will you nurture one another in the Christian faith and life
And include this person now before you in your care
And surround this person with a community of love and forgiveness?”

And they responded, “We will.”

Your baptism marked not only your commitment to God and to the church community but also that community’s commitment to you.   Churches come in all shapes and sizes, and chances are that you will encounter and be joined to a handful or more in your life.  I know Marsh Chapel to be one of those places.  Marsh Chapel sees itself as a particular community of support for a particular demographic of persons (students) but also offers it support to the wider community and to anyone who is seeking authentic Christian community.  I say this by way of invitation, especially to those listening on the radio or via the internet; we, at Marsh Chapel, are delighted to be in relationship with you by phone or email or in physical presence as the Spirit allows. Whether you entered into the sacrament as an infant, a young person, or an adult, baptism binds you to God in love through mutual commitment.  We here at Marsh Chapel affirm that relationship and seek to support your spiritual journey.  And for those who wish to learn more about the sacrament and a relationship with God, we are a community of support and love.

Baptism is more than a simple dedication of one’s life to God; in baptism God offers the gift of God’s unfailing grace for us to accept.

This first Sunday following the Epiphany has historically been used by the church to reflect upon the great gift of grace we received in Christ’s birth.  The angels of our gospel lessons only two weeks ago have return to their heavenly abode.  The shepherds have returned to the fields to tend their sheep.  The wise men have presented their gifts, mounted their animals and begun the long sojourn back East.  And now the liturgical calendar condenses Jesus’ first thirty years of life into a week.  Jesus’ childhood is largely absent from the Gospel accounts.  In the gospel of Mark, we fast forward through Jesus’ childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood and find him standing at the edge of the river Jordan.

We know very little about Jesus’ first thirty years of life, and we know even less about the community which supported Jesus during those thirty years.  But we know there were people who surrounded him, shared happy occasions with him, and who grieved with him.  He was formed by a community, Mary, Joseph, and many, many others.  And it was that community of support which helped prepare him to head to the Jordan.  We too need a community of support to prepare us and form us for the journey of life.

In Mark’s account, John the Baptist serves as herald for Jesus, his ministry, and the great gift he offers humanity.  John the Baptist, the wild man living in the desert, wearing animal skin and eating locusts, was proclaiming Good News to all of Israel, inviting them to repentance of sins and foretelling of the gift of God’s real presence with us in the Holy Spirit.  Mark writes of John the Baptist’s description of Jesus: “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.”  But soon the one about whom John was proclaiming appeared on the river’s edge to greet John and to be baptized.

This powerful prophet, divine healer, the one about whom John had been preaching was coming to John to be baptized.  The perfect, most-powerful son of God did not have any need to repent of anything and be baptized.  Rather, he asked for baptism for the sake of others.  Jesus took part in John’s baptism by water to be united with all people who earnestly seek to be in relationship with God.

In Jesus’ baptism, God acted in a very powerful, very visible way.  The heavens were torn apart and the Spirit of God descended like a dove and rested on Jesus.  This visible sign of the Spirit’s presence with Jesus in his baptism is part of God’s promise of the Spirit’s presence with us in baptism.  In the sacrament of baptism, we remember Jesus’ own baptism.  We are baptized by water for repentance of sins and baptized by the spirit in covenant relationship with God.  In trust of God’s continued covenant with all baptized persons we baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, acknowledging in the sacrament that the individual being baptized accepts a special relationship with the divine and desires God’s already present grace.  While we may not see the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending in baptism, we know and trust that God is fully present in the sacrament and in the lives of all people.

John Wesley taught that in baptism a person was cleansed of the guilt of original sin, initiated in to the covenant with God, admitted into the church, made an heir of the divine kingdom, and spiritually born anew.  A lot is going on in the few moments of baptism.  Sometimes we don’t realize the full wonder and mystery of the moment.  Perhaps that has been our own experience of baptism.  Have we felt the full wonder of the miracle of the sacrament?  Have we felt cleansed? Initiated into covenant with God?  Received into the church?  Made heirs of the kingdom?  Born anew?

Sometimes as we go through life, we don’t always recognize the gravity and magnitude of the events unfolding around us until after they have happened.  For many in this nave college graduation might be one of those moments that we didn’t fully comprehend as it unfolded.  A young man received a diploma last May.  But it wasn’t until August 1st and a new job that he fully appreciated days of sleeping until 10:30 for class.

Now baptism is certainly a more deeply transformational experience than a college graduation, but perhaps you are still contemplating its meaning in your life, whether you were baptized last Easter or decades ago as an infant.  Baptism is more than our pledge and dedication to God and to the church, it is our acceptance of God’s grace – the opportunity to be in communion with the divine, to experience forgiveness and reconciliation, to fellowship in and with the Holy Spirit.

Through baptism we come to know the assurance of pardon offered in the gift of Christ’s life.  Here at Marsh we include in the liturgy an assurance of pardon as a reminder of the gift God freely gives and which we accepted in baptism.  Each week, during the service you hear a member of the ministry staff share this good news saying either: “If we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive our sins, and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” or on Sundays when communion is celebrated we hear: “Hear the Good News: Christ died for us while we were yet sinners, that proves God’s love for us.  In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven!”  This is meant to be an ongoing reminder of the gift we receive through Jesus Christ.  Indeed if we earnestly repent and accept God, we are forgiven.

Accepting God’s gift of love is at the heart of our passage from Acts today.  The disciples that Paul encounters in Ephesus had repented of their sins but had not accepted the gift of the Spirit.  Their baptism was incomplete.  They had not heard the totality of the Good News of Christ’s baptism.  Through it they could join in fellowship with the divine, be born anew, given a fresh start.  And in the sacrament of baptism, we are joined in this fellowship, born anew, and given a fresh start.

During the Christmas season, the hustle and bustle, the traveling, the visiting relatives, the special gift of God to us – that is forgiveness and fellowship – may not have been at the forefront of our minds.  Perhaps we did not think of it at all.   Perhaps in quiet and lonesome moments, we longed for fellowship and did not experience what we had hoped for.  I think that very often when we are journeying through advent in expectation of the celebration of the birth of the infant, we lose sight of the gift that the infant brings.  In Christ’s birth, life, and ministry, God does come to dwell among us to be with us.  Is God’s presence with us the gift we seek during Christmas?  I challenge you that as we begin a new liturgical season and as we begin a new year, that the gift we ought to seek is God’s true and real presence with us.

So often during the Christmas season we hear about Emanuel – “God with us” – God born into the world as a babe in a stable and laid in a manger.  Indeed, God was made flesh in Jesus and dwelt among us.  And God continues to be with us through the Holy Spirit.  In baptism, we invite God to be with us in a very special way.  We commit ourselves to God and know that God will be with us during all of life’s trials and toils.  We trust that in the Spirit, whose presence we accept in baptism, God will be our constant companion and supporter.  God does not abandon God’s covenant with us, even if we wander from it.  The Spirit remains steadfast, chasing after us as a tireless friend even when we turn away.

Perhaps you wish to renew that relationship with the Spirit today.  Perhaps you wish to think more about accepting that gift of relationship with God for the first time.  If you have not received the sacrament of baptism and feel moved to closer relationship with God through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit and seek to experience God’s grace through the sacrament, I encourage you to speak with me or another member of the chapel staff following the service or to call or email the chapel office this week and ask to speak with a member of the ministry staff about receiving the sacrament.

For those who have received baptism and who wish to renew their relationship with God, I invite you to renew your baptismal vows now, to recommit yourself to God, and to accept the presence of the Spirit in your life anew:

Brothers and sisters in Christ:
Through the Sacrament of Baptism
We are initiated into Christ’s holy Church.
We are incorporated into God’s mighty acts of salvation
And given new birth through water and the Spirit.
All this is God’s gift, offered to us without price.

Through the reaffirmation of our faith
We renew the covenant declared at our baptism,
Acknowledge what God is doing for us,
And affirm our commitment to Christ’s holy Church.

On behalf of the whole Church, I ask you:
Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness,
Reject the evil powers of this world,
And repent of your sin?

If so, please respond, “I do.”

Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you
To resist evil, injustice, and oppression
In whatever forms they present themselves?

If so, please respond, “I do.”

Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior,
Put your whole trust in his grace,
And promise to serve him as your Lord,
In union with the Church which Christ has opened
To people of all ages, nations, and races?

If so, please respond, “I do.”

According to the grace given to you,
Will you remain a faithful member of Christ’s holy Church
And serve as Christ’s representative in the world?

If so, please respond, “I will.”

We remember our baptism and are thankful.

May the Holy Spirit work within us,
That having been born through water and the Spirit,
We may live as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ
And be assured of God’s love for all people.
Amen.

~Mr. Soren Hessler
Chapel Associate for Undergraduate Ministry

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