By Water and the Spirit

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

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Good morning.

 

Let me first begin by thanking Bob Hill for the opportunity to be with you today as your preacher.  The dean is away this week, and I pray for traveling mercies as he returns for the first Sunday of the new academic term next week.

 

Today, in Luke’s gospel we hear the story of Jesus’ baptism in the river Jordan by his cousin John, and we are called to remember our own baptism.  Like Jesus, we are baptized by water and the Spirit.  The ordinariness of the water is an outward sign of the extraordinary inward working of God in each of our lives.  In hearing and recalling Christ’s baptism, we recall our own baptism and seek renewed relationship with God.

 

Students, staff, and especially faculty are well aware that this week marks the beginning of the Spring term of the academic calendar here at Boston University.  To all of you, welcome back from break and welcome back to school.  However, you may not be aware that tomorrow also marks the beginning of a new season of the church’s liturgical calendar: “ordinary time.”  Rarely do the rhythms of academic life and liturgical life align, but today we celebrate Jesus’ baptism and with it comes the end of the church’s celebration of the Christmas season.  To those still recovering from Christmas, welcome back to ordinary time.  We celebrated Jesus’ birth less than three weeks ago, and tomorrow the church returns to “ordinary time” to focus on Jesus’ life in ministry.  Reflection on Jesus’ first thirty years is condensed to just three short weeks in the church calendar.  Jesus’ birth, the visitation by the magi, and his baptism as an adult, which we celebrate today, are all part of the Christmas season.  Next week, our weekly lectionary gospel texts return to attestations of the signs and miracles of Jesus’ ministry.  Soon, we will remember Jesus turning water into wine at a wedding feast in Cana at the behest of his mother.  However, this month-long period of remembering the signs of Jesus’ ministry is just a brief interlude before the beginning of Lent on Ash Wednesday, in mid-February, or in academic lingo, mid-terms, followed by an all-too quick lead up to finals.

 

As we transition from the Christmas season into ordinary time, we change our vestments from the white and gold of the Christmas celebration to the more plain, green vestments.  Certainly there is nothing commonplace about the miracles recounted in the gospels, but the church recognizes that there is something especially special about the miracle of Jesus’ baptism, which we mark today.

 

Just as the church keeps the celebratory vestments of the Christmas season out for this Sunday which celebrates Jesus’ baptism, we are called to remember that our own baptism is significant and special.  Sometimes, however, the church does not do a good job of communicating the specialness of the sacrament, the fact that we are baptized by both water and the Spirit.

 

This past week my wife and I had the opportunity to vacation in Puerto Rico, and spent most of the week in Old San Juan.  The walled city is 500 years old, and has a particular affinity for the Epiphany, the visitation of the magi to the young Jesus, perhaps in part because the city was spared an English invasion on that feast day more than 200 years ago.  By January 1st, US retailers remove their Christmas regalia and Christmas music disappears from the airwaves.  The Christmas season is over, as far as the American retailer is concerned.  But in the church calendar it is still Christmastide, and in San Juan, Christmas is still in full swing.  Christmas lights are everywhere, and the Spanish-English radio stations favored by our taxi drivers are still delivering a variety of Christmas music.  Instead of milk and cookies, children leave grass for the pack animals of the magi in hopes of receiving presents from the three kings on Epiphany.  The familiar, bearded Santa Claus who poses for pictures with children is replaced by three bearded men in royal attire.  This Christmas season fervor culminates on the Epiphany last Sunday with an island-wide party; many businesses are closed, and the Monday following is a state holiday.  Yes, it seems that another religious holiday is commercialized in Puerto Rico, but in Puerto Rico, this special emphasis on the Epiphany makes it readily apparent that we, and the church, remain in the spirit of the Christmas feast through this week.  Your tree might have dried out weeks ago and you might have put it out for pick up on December 26, but how can we as the church here in the US mark the fullness of the Christmas season and mark the transition back into ordinary time on this feast of the baptism of our Lord?

 

While my wife reads four languages, Spanish is not one of them.  I took a Spanish course or two, or three, in college, but together we still sometimes had a difficult time navigating a menu or navigating the city.  Nevertheless, we managed to visit each of the historic churches in the old city, all but three are Roman Catholic.  The others are Pentecostal, Presbyterian, and Methodist.  As a United Methodist clergy couple, it was delightful to see the vibrancy of the Iglesia Metodista as the cross and flame greeted us on the side of many churches as we traveled throughout mainland Puerto Rico and the island of Culebra.  In one church in the old city, whose denominational affiliation shall remain nameless, just inside the entrance was a large, stone baptismal font.  Its mouth was over a meter wide, and it was covered in centuries-old elaborate carvings.  But inside, the font was not brimming with water but contained what appeared to be a small brown doggie dish with just a bit of water.  The grandness of the font, which was designed to remind the viewer of the importance of baptism and the presence of the Spirit, was dwarfed by the lowliness and ordinariness of what it contained.  The doggie dish did not call to mind the life-changing nature of baptism.  The majesty of the font seemed to be reduced to a few ordinary drops of water in a very ordinary container.  Now, I am not trying to enter the debate about the amount of water necessary for baptism, sprinkling or full immersion, marble font or backyard swimming pool.  This is simply to say that baptism sometimes seems to be just ordinary, just another part of ordinary time, not a part of the Christmas season.

 

And unfortunately the importance of baptism seems to be lost in many of our churches today.  This last Sunday of the Christmas season ought be a special time to remember the sacrament, an opportunity to reaffirm the vows of our baptism or the opportunity to explore receiving the sacrament for the first time.  Baptism marks a transition in the liturgical season because it is a sacrament which equips us to live our day-to-day, “ordinary” lives as Christians.  Today, I encourage you to renew your commitment to walk with God or to think about making a new commitment to living a renewed life through Jesus.

 

In Jesus’ time, there were many people preaching forgiveness of sins and baptizing people, or at least using water for ritual purification purposes, which is one possible explanation of the practices of the Qumran community.  John, himself an ordinary man, baptized a great number of ordinary, observant Jews, but in Jesus’ own baptism, as our gospel author recounts, something extraordinary happened: “the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus” and Jesus was recognized as God’s Son.  Jesus’ baptism is about much more than water and welcome into a community of faith; it is about God’s promise of the divine presence in our lives through the Holy Spirit.

 

Now I have been to a great many baptisms in my life and I have yet to see the heavens opened and a dove descend on the individual being baptized, but we, as a Christian community, have faith that in the outward sign of baptism, namely water, we are affirming God’s love for the individual and each and every one of us, and God’s promise to be with us.  John Wesley, the 18th century reformer of the Anglican Church, upon whose teachings the Methodist Church would later be founded, affirmed the Anglican sentiment that baptism, like communion, is “an outward sign of inward grace, and a means whereby we receive the same.”  John Wesley’s theological heritage lives on in countless churches and institutions in America and abroad, including here, Marsh Chapel and Boston University.  We believe that in every baptism, no matter how ordinary it seems, something extraordinary happens.  We may not see it, but we believe that the Holy Spirit is fully present with everyone baptized in the name of Jesus and that in baptism an individual is recognized as a beloved child of God.

 

In baptism, we recognize all three modes of God’s grace.  We need not see a dove descend on an infant whose head is sprinkled with water because we affirm God’s love for us and desire to be in relationship with us even before we recognize God or seek to be in relationship.  This prevenient grace is God’s presence with us, through the Holy Spirit, from our birth to our death.  Baptism itself is a means of justifying grace, a sign of new life in Christ.  It is an expression of our desire to be in relationship with God and God’s continued commitment to be in relationship with us.  Finally, baptism also invites the community of faith in which an individual is baptized to be in intentional relationship with the person as he or she is perfected in faith and perfected in love for God and one another.  Sanctifying grace is God’s transformative gift to us through which we become better people.  Baptism marks an individual’s initiation into a life-long process of sanctification, upheld by the prayers and presence of a community of believers, like this chapter community here at Marsh Chapel.   Baptism equips us for the life of faith.

 

The last several decades have seen a revival of the sacraments and of a sacramental life among Protestants.  Here at Marsh Chapel in recent years, especially under the leadership of Dean Hill, there has been a renewal of devotion to sacramental life as well.  Baptisms have become more regular, and for several years, communion has been offered weekly while academic classes are in session.  Among the opportunities to receive communion is a 7-minute liturgy, Common Ground Communion, on Thursday afternoons at 12:20 on Marsh Plaza, which will resume this coming Thursday.  It offers an opportunity for students to receive the sacrament and tangibly experience the presence of God and God’s grace between afternoon classes.  But the opportunity is not limited to students.  The communion table here at Marsh Chapel is open to all: students, staff, faculty, people unaffiliated with the university, straight and gay, United Methodist, Presbyterian, Christian-curious, and un-churched alike.  The opportunity to experience God’s presence and grace through the sacrament of communion is always available at Marsh Chapel.  Should you wish to receive, and there is not a communion service planned, contact a chaplain or a member of the ministry staff, and we will be more than happy to provide the opportunity to receive the sacrament.

 

Unlike the sacrament of communion, which the church urges us to seek regularly, if not constantly, baptism is a one-time only occurrence.  It marks, as I said, a change in our lives, a commitment to be in relationship with God and a commitment from a faith community to be in relationship with us.  It marks a turning point in our life-journey.  For many this is a conscious decision we make as youths or adults, but for many others, baptism was a commitment made by loved ones that we would be nurtured in the church and guided to accept God’s grace for ourselves.

 

In either case, we are asked to earnestly repent of our sins and seek God’s forgiveness and the forgiveness of our neighbors.  Moreover, in baptism we commit to seek better patterns of life, that we might be closer to God and neighbor.

 

We seek a baptism by water which washes us clean of sins, a baptism by the Holy Spirit in which we commit ourselves to God and recognize God’s relationship with us, and a baptism by the fiery passion of God’s grace which frees us to new life through Jesus Christ.

 

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.  We receive absolution from sin while also committing ourselves to new relationship with God and neighbor.  Moreover, we only need to do it once.  Certainly we need to reaffirm the relationship with God we recognize in baptism, but that relationship never leaves us.

 

Sometimes we don’t realize the full wonder and mystery of the sacrament.  Sometimes we need the visual cues of the church to help us identify the importance of our actions and the stories of the scripture.  Like the etched-stone, baptismal font I encountered this week in Puerto Rico, sometimes it helps us to have a visual or tactile sign of the mystery of the sacrament.  Sometimes it helps us to identify the specialness of the sacrament and to remember the moment of our baptism to touch water or remember being enveloped in water.  This week, if you are sitting in the nave of Marsh Chapel, you see a large clear bowl filled with water sitting on small wooden table at the front of the nave.  I encourage you during our prayer time following the sermon or during the offertory to come forward and touch the water and remember your baptism.  Or perhaps you are sitting on the cape, sipping your coffee.  Later this afternoon, take a stroll on the beach, and run your hands in the water.   Perhaps you are driving home from your own Sunday morning service: I encourage you to recall the wonder of water, perhaps a beautiful beach or a wondrous waterfall.  I think of La Mina waterfall near El Yunque in Puerto Rico, where my wife and I swam in the cool mountain water as the thirty-foot, strong falls washed over us or Playa Flamenco, a horse-shoe white-sands beach with warm, gentle waves.  Remember a time when you were immersed in the wonder of water and remember that you are similarly wrapped in God’s glory and clothed in the Holy Spirit.

 

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.  The church provides opportunities for us to remember our own special relationship with God.  While I was preparing this sermon this week, my wife quipped in the Dunkin Donuts-desolate land of Old San Juan, that “American runs on Dunkin, and the Church runs on dunkin munchkins.”  Now, of course her remark was a bit tongue-in-cheek, but at the heart of the mission of the church is telling the story of Christ and offering opportunity for women and men of all ages to develop deeper relationship with God.

 

Perhaps you wish to renew that relationship with the God today.  Perhaps you wish to think more about accepting the 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 and to come and touch the water during our prayers of the people. I invite you to recommit yourself to God and to accept the presence of the Spirit in your life anew.  If you have a United Methodist Hymnal in front of you, you may wish to turn to page 34 to read the vows of baptism.

 

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.

 

 

~Soren Hessler, Chapel Associate for Leadership Development

 

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