By Water and the Spirit

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Mark 1:4-11

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Good morning friends,

It is indeed a good morning, even if a particularly cold, sub-zero one here on the banks of the Charles River today. Streets are mostly cleared, the T is running on a normal schedule, and even if the sidewalks are more like tunnels and valleys through snowy mountain peaks, we are slowly returning to going about our normal business. The bombcyclone has passed, the Snow Days are over, and the city has returned to winter normalcy. For many of us in greater Boston, we observed a snow day (or two) this week, a brief moment of pause, an interruption in our normal rhythms, a time to observe, to take stock of where we are, to wonder, and to think. In the liturgical calendar, today is also something of a snow day. Yes, the wise ones have returned to their homes in the east. (Yesterday was Epiphany, that day in our calendar when we remember the adoration of the Christ-child by learned ones from afar, bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.) But as we move into a season of ordinary time, there is also a pause in the calendar (today) to remember Jesus’ baptism that provides us with the opportunity to remember our own baptism and reflect on our relationship with the divine.

Baptisms are often amusing events for a family and a whole church community.  A wily aunt takes guesses from a host of cousins about whether their new 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 off-balance attempt to take the baby turns the squirming to a wail, 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 an inflatable pool behind Marsh Chapel on a frosty Easter’s Eve?  Maybe you had water sprinkled on your head in the warmth of the church you grew up in?  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 the words of commitment in baptism 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 partner renew her baptismal vows on the nearly always balmy banks of the Jordan just a few miles north of the Dead Sea.  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.  Your baptism marked not only your commitment to God and to a community but also that community’s commitment of thoughtful support and nurturing care to you. You were submerged fully, in a swimming pool or a lake, and you confidently recited your own baptismal promises for yourself.

Churches come in all shapes and sizes, and they have different ways of doing baptism. Chances are (if you are listening to this sermon) that you will encounter or be joined to a handful or more of Christian communities in your life.  No matter what your experience or expectations about baptism, I know Marsh Chapel to be one of those places of thoughtful support and nurturing care.  While the chapel is a community of support for a university community, we understand ourselves to be in relationship with 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. 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 further cultivate their relationship with God, we are a community of support and love. If baptism is something you are interested in exploring, please speak with one of our staff after the service today or contact the chapel office by email at chapel@bu.edu or give us a call at 617-353-3560. The next regular opportunity for adult baptism will be at the Easter Vigil service.

In the liturgical calendar, much like the gospel of Mark, we fast forward through Jesus’ childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, and find him standing at the edge of the river Jordan about to begin a season of ministry teaching and healing.

Jesus’ childhood is largely absent from the Gospel accounts.  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.  Jesus 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.  Mark tells us that 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.  This joins us with Christians all over the world and welcomes us into God’s family; we are not only children of God but we are adopted into a global family of sisters and brothers in Christ. 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. Baptism, like communion, is “an outward sign of inward grace, and a means whereby we receive the same.” God pursues us for relationship relentlessly, and God loves us unceasingly.

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 an heir of the divine 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, a college graduation may be one of those moments that we didn’t fully comprehend as it unfolded. The Commencement ceremony might rush by in a blur – red robe, black hat, forgettable speeches, and then a 20 foot walk across a stage and a small piece of paper in hand. A small 20 foot walk doesn’t take very long, but it means something, even if we don’t recognize it in the moment.  Receiving a diploma in May but not starting the new job until August 1st might mean we don’t fully appreciate days of sleeping until 10:30 for class until we are up at 5:30 each day to beat the morning commuter rush to arrive on-time to the job we had longed for.

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.  Most weeks, you hear a member of the ministry staff share this good news saying: “If we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive our sins, and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” On Sundays when communion is celebrated we are reminded: “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 because it was the baptism of repentance of John.  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.

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. Today is a moment in the life of the church in which we are invited to be reminded of God’s real presence with us.

In a moment this morning, we will observe an order of reaffirmation of the baptismal covenant. For those who have received baptism and who wish to renew their relationship with God, you will be invited to renew the promises made at your baptism, touch the water, and remember that you are a beloved child of God in covenant relationship with God and the church. As you renew your baptismal vows today, I invite you to recommit yourself to God and to accept the presence of the Spirit in your life anew. Amen.

-The Reverend Soren Hessler, Chapel Associate for Leadership Development

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