Living Our Baptism

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Isaiah 43:1-7

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Good morning! What a pleasure it is to share the Good News of Jesus Christ with you on this first Sunday after the Epiphany! Now, I know that as we emerge from our holiday season and back into the reality of our everyday lives, the transition can be a rough one. Last Sunday, we heard the story of the Wise Men’s arrival at the manger, and Rev. Gaskell’s explanation of the subject of hospitality. However, there was also something else that happened on the “epiphany” that gave it its name. Namely, the wise men shared in a moment of joy when they reached the manger indicated by a star overhead. This was the wise men’s epiphany – the “aha” moment that helped them realize the presence of God in Jesus’ birth. In the church, the season of Epiphany contains scripture readings from the beginning of Jesus’ life and ministry. In everyday use, an epiphany usually refers to that “aha” moment when we realize something, or make a connection, that we hadn’t before. Similarly, in the church, throughout these weeks following the wise men’s own “aha” moment, we continue to explore what Jesus’ ministry means to the world and what affect it has on our own understandings of what it means to be Christian.

Today we celebrate Jesus’ baptism and the ritual of baptism as a sacrament of our church. Our Gospel reading today places us in a scene of John the Baptist explaining that he is not the Messiah, and that his acts of baptism are insignificant in comparison with the Messiah’s baptism. Jesus then comes to be baptized along with others in the Jordan. There is no mention that John is the one who actually performs the baptism. In fact, in the verses left out of our gospel reading today, John is actually imprisoned by Herod. The baptism of the others and of Jesus are just said to have happened.  The focus in Jesus’ baptism is on God’s actions and words after the baptism. In Jesus’ baptism, we see a sign of God’s presence through the descent of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove and God naming Jesus as the beloved, with whom God is well pleased. Talk about an “aha” moment – the voice of God speaking to those gathered and the figure of a dove descending from the sky must have been a sight to see! The act of submersion in the water and God’s declaration and presence makes Jesus’ baptism an act of significance. It affirms that Jesus is the one that John has been telling the people about. Jesus is the one who comes to baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire.

Martin Luther wrote that “It is of the greatest importance that we regard baptism as excellent, glorious, and exalted…To be baptized in God’s name is to be baptized not by human beings but by God himself.” Baptism reinforces the relationship that God shares with God’s people. It is an indication of the unconditional love and grace that God extends. However, we must understand that this external act only represents what is eternal in God. It is important for baptism, this ritual, to be performed in a physical way because it helps us understand through our senses what God offers to us in a relationship of faith. Luther, again, writes in the Large Catechism that the act of “[baptism] must be external so that it can be perceived and grasped by the senses and thus brought into the heart.” Baptism helps us to further understand the grace of God in ways that we can touch, see, and hear.

I bet most of us did not have the same baptismal moment as Jesus. I bet many of us do not even remember our baptisms, as we may have been infants or small children at the time. I don’t remember the actual day of my baptism, some almost 36 years ago in my father’s church in Pennsylvania. Sure, I have tokens of remembrance from the day – in fact my mom just sent me some pictures of the baptismal candle they lit that day, a white taper candle with a silver “A” for Alpha near the top, and a blue triangle of wax with a white dove super-imposed on it. Having grown up in the church as a Pastor’s kid, I remember many infant baptisms. Beyond the act of the baptism itself, it served as a way for the congregation to welcome a new member into the community. In particular, what sticks out in my mind is the presentation of the newly baptized babies to the congregation. I can remember my father (my pastor) addressing the congregation by saying “I present to you, your new brother or sister in Christ…” and the child’s name. My dad would walk up and down the aisles of the church with the little ones in tow, so that the congregation members could see and greet their new family member in the body of Christ. While I can’t remember this from my own baptism, being reminded of what probably happened at my baptism through observing others gave me a sense of how I also belonged to the community. We also might have photos, a baptismal certificate, or even just stories of the day we were baptized that remind us it happened if we were too young to remember. Beyond that day, those who sponsored us, or our parents, made promises to remind us of our baptism and what it means to be entered into the community of Christians.

Baptism comes in many different shapes and forms depending on the traditions we come from. As I already mentioned, some churches believe in infant baptism; that small children should be baptized and welcomed into the Christian community based on their parents’ or other adult sponsors promises to guide and involve them in the Church. Others of us may have come from traditions that wait for children to be older or even adults before they are able to make the choice to be baptized. Some of us may have been completely immersed in water, while others just had a sprinkling of a trickle of water placed on our forehead. Our baptism may have taken place inside, at a font or in a baptistry, or outside, in a body of water like a river or a lake (or in the case of Marsh Chapel, in an inflatable children’s pool behind the building!).

Despite the many forms of Christianity that exist, we all share in the importance of baptism as an act which brings members into our communities. In an ecumenical setting, such as our interdenominational worship here at Marsh Chapel, baptism serves as a way of binding us together in our faith. The things that mattered most about all of our baptisms, despite how they were performed, was the presence of water and the words spoken, baptizing us in the name of the triune God. It is the combination of these – the water and the words – that make baptism an act which differs from regular washing.  As Luther writes in response to the question “what is baptism?” in the Large Catechism “it is not simply plain water, but water placed in the setting of God’s Word and commandment and made holy by them.” It is out of the baptismal waters that we emerge as new people who belong to God.

We tend to think of baptism as a one-time event. In a way, it is. For most mainline Protestant denominations, only one baptism is acknowledged. Some traditions, like Methodism, Lutheranism, and Anglicanism, recognize baptism as a sacrament, a means of God’s grace. The other sacrament that these traditions acknowledge is that of holy communion or the lord’s supper. These two acts remind us of the relationship and connection we have with God. However, the act of baptism only needs to occur once because we live into the relationship we name with God throughout our lives. We might be reminded of our baptism when we worship, or even reaffirm our baptism later in life, but the covenant established with God through our baptism only needs to happen once for it to extend through our whole lives. God’s grace knows no bounds. Even if we rebel and reject God, God continues to extend grace to each of us. Through faith we acknowledge this connection. Our baptism as an act need only occur once in a lifetime, but our lives are forever formed and informed by our baptism.

Baptism affords us the opportunity to be welcomed into the community of Christians who profess the same faith as us through this ritual act. The sacraments of baptism and eucharist give us tangible sign of God’s presence in the world that we can hold on to and cling to in our moments of doubt and from which our faith can grow. It causes us to come together as a community to learn and grow with one another in our individual callings as children of God and as a community of faith. We may ask, what happens if we are baptized but do not have faith in God? Our Baptism is not depended on how well we live in to our faith, the only thing that baptism is dependent upon is the Word of God. This means that if we falter, if we turn away from God, if we fail to live out our callings as Christians, God is still there for us and loves us. Human beings have no control over the extension of God’s grace to us. Our relationship with God through our baptism is eternal; the grace of God is unearned and freely given.

So what does our baptism mean for us beyond the act of baptism itself? How do we live out our baptism in our lives every day? Remember how I said that the definition of epiphany is often referred to as an “aha” moment? What if we looked at the start of this new calendar year as an “aha” moment for what our baptism means in our lives? If we took the time to really think about what it means to be in relationship with God and how we can express that in our daily lives? Do you think we may come across some “aha” moments then?

To be honest, I did not come up with connecting the “aha-ness” of epiphany with how we live out our baptism. In fact, my church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America connected the act of baptism to this time of year in a quest to better understand the forms of discipleship we are called to undertake as Christians. They connect discipleship with the words used in the affirmation of baptism found in our worship liturgy. The following question is asked of those reaffirming their commitment through their baptism:

Do you intend to continue in the covenant made with you in holy baptism:

To live among God’s faithful people

To hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s supper

To proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed

To serve all people, following the example of Jesus,

And to strive for justice and peace in all the Earth?

Those reaffirming their baptism respond with “I do, and I ask God to help and guide me.”

 

Now, I may be biased (or more accurately, I am biased), but these statements of faith lay out ways in which we can hold ourselves responsible to the promises made in our covenant. To live, to hear, to proclaim, to serve, and to strive.

In thinking about the ways we live among God’s people, we may immediately turn to our worshipping community. Here at Marsh Chapel we are afforded with the opportunity to not only learn from members of our congregation in a shared denominational identity, but to learn from other members of our Christian community who may not come from our same tradition. Living among God’s people can also be understood as others we encounter who have come to help shape our faith or our understanding of God. We may recall a time when we felt inspired by another’s commitment to their faith, or encouragement in our own faith by a person or people within our faith community. Perhaps we find this connection through an invitation to participate in a worship service, or sing in the choir, or having a conversation after worship which leads to new ideas or new ways of thinking about the world. Living among God’s people continues to shape and form our lives in seeking out ways to deepen and enact our faith in the world.

We hear the word of God most often in a worship setting. Each week we listen as the readings and Gospel are read, and then interpreted for our lives by the preacher. We may be most acutely aware of our connection with the divine when we come together in worship, through hearing the scriptures, singing hymns, and praying together for the good of the whole world and our community. We also celebrate the Lord’s supper together as a community during worship. As I mentioned earlier, the sacrament of holy communion is another way we experience God’s grace with our senses – through hearing the Words of Institution, seeing the bread and the wine, touching and tasting it, we are reminded of God’s presence with us. Without this grounding connection, it may become easier for us to forget what our relationship with God really means to us. By worshipping with others we further the bonds of our community and come to understand the ways the scripture can shape our lives. We are fortified with the means of grace offered to us through communing with one another.

We also bring our faith outside of our worshipping community into the fullness of our lives. In proclaiming the good news of God in Christ, both in word and in deed, we demonstrate what it means to be a Christian. We might find this to be a harder facet of discipleship to take on because it requires us to be vulnerable in a larger society which may or may not share our values. It means saying things like, “As a Christian, I believe…” or “Jesus teaches us…” These may not be phrases we’re used to or comfortable with. But proclaiming our faith helps us to elucidate or explain who we are in relationship with God, which then deepens our faith. What does it mean to be a proclaimer of God’s faith in both word and deed for you? How can you share that information with others in a way that will inspire them to understand what your life of faith is like?

Being in service to others, as Jesus was in service to others, naturally evolves out of the proclamation of the good news of God in Christ because our actions in the world stem out of our faith in God. There are times, however, when this call to service creates problems for us. We are called to serve all others as Jesus exemplified for us. This means serving those who we may not agree with, those who we’d rather not acknowledge, those who are outside of our comfort zones. We must remember, though that serving others connects us with the divine through sharing God’s love explained through the gospel and shown in our actions. In service to others, we develop relationships that help strengthen our communities and create opportunities for learning and growing individually and as a community.

Finally, the last form of discipleship mentioned in the affirmation of baptism is to strive for justice and peace in all the earth. This may feel like a tall order. What does it mean to strive for justice and peace, and how can we hope to accomplish such lofty goals at a personal or even communal level? A good place to begin is in recognizing the injustices which exist in the world around us and the parts we might play, either directly or indirectly, in perpetuating them. We should also name injustices when we see them occurring and look for ways that we can prevent them from continuing. Injustice can happen at any scale, from local to global, and can affect individual people, whole communities, and even the entire Earth. We hear a lot about injustice in the world today and we may feel helpless in trying to address what seem like unsolvable problems. However, through finding our grounding in God and in our community and faith, we can find the hope that overcomes fear and let it guide us in our care and concern for the world.

Live, hear, proclaim, serve, and strive. These are all parts of our faith, grounded in our baptism, which can guide us forward in living out what it means to be a Christian in the world. In discussing baptism in the Large Catechism, Luther writes “Therefore let all Christians regard their baptism as the daily garment that they are to wear all the time…If we want to be Christians, we must practice the work that makes us Christian…” Luther reminds us that living our lives through our baptism cultivates our faith in God and recognizes the important relationship we share with God and the world. In this time after the epiphany, I invite you to share in examining what your baptism means to you and how you can more fully live it out. Ask God to help and guide you through this process. Perhaps you will surprise yourself with an “aha” moment.

–Dr. Jessica Chicka, University Chaplain for International Students

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