Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Baptisms are important to me. Throughout the course of my pastoral ministry, I have performed hundreds of baptisms. Now I wish I could say that I can remember every man, woman and child whom I have baptized, but that would be a lie. There are, however, some baptisms that I remember with clarity and fondness, and others I remember for my own human error. As a missionary pastor in Riga, Latvia I had several embarrassing moments. When my wife and I first arrived in Riga in 1992, we didn’t have a baptismal font in the church. Truthfully, we didn’t have anything in the church. During the years of Soviet occupation, every religious adornment had been removed from our 150 year old sanctuary. Even the name had been changed. The former Anglican Church of St. Saviour’s was known affectionately to the majority of the students in the city as the Anglican Disco. The cross and altar, benches and stained glass windows, as well as the organ were all gone. Each Sunday, as we slowly renewed the church and congregation, we added a worship item as it was needed, but I wasn’t prepared for the first baptism. On that cold, Sunday in January, one of our worshipers brought a pyrex chaffing dish used for baking casseroles. That became our baptismal bowl, and it was never used for casseroles again. In the church in Riga, we had no hot water, so during the winter months we had to heat the water for baptism in a coffee pot- after all we didn’t want to freeze a poor child. One Sunday morning, the church assistant left the baptismal water on a little too long. As I poured the water, I could see steam rising from the bowl. There wasn’t much to do, but to add a few more prayers to the liturgy and hope that the water would cool down. Well, they don’t use the chaffing dish in Riga anymore. His Royal Highness King Charles, when he was still a prince, once visited and presented the congregation with a proper silver baptismal bowl. The chaffing dish was ceremoniously retired.
Of course, there were individual baptisms that I do remember. Yes, I do remember the baptism of our two sons Vitali and Alexei. They were four and six years old. They were a bit disappointed. Somehow they expected that baptism meant a public shampooing of their hair- and there was neither soap nor warm water. One son was also convinced that water was poured over his head only two times. One Pentecost Sunday, I baptized a Chinese scientist who was dying from cancer. He had chosen the day to be baptized himself and it was according the Chinese tradition to be closest to his birthday. He wasn’t strong enough to stand during the worship service and sat in a chair, but when it was time for the baptism, he stood boldly and proudly at the baptismal font as I poured the water over his head, in the name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit. With the assurance and strength of the Christian faith, and with the promises of Christ in baptism, he died peacefully a week later.
In comparison, to Jesus’ baptism at the River Jordan, our baptisms at Lake of the Isles seem rather quaint and simple. Seldom do I hear the voice of the Father tearing apart the heavens and boasting, “This is my beloved son,” nor do I see the Holy Spirit descending upon them like a dove. Jesus’ baptism was filled with wonder and mystery revealing for the first time majestic Holy Trinoty, Father, Son and Holy Spirit which for the Orthodox Church is the great Theophany. No baptism could ever compare to Jesus’ baptism. Yet at the end of his earthly ministry, Jesus himself commanded his followers to make disciples of all nations through baptism. There was something essential about baptism, but what was it?
From the very first days of the Church, perspectives on baptism have evolved and changed. The early church fathers focused on baptism as an act of repentance including a symbolic cleansing which leads to God’s grace and forgiveness. Early mystics, taught that baptism was a means of grace by which believers were woven into the body of Christ. Martin Luther wrote that it was the new beginning of life which opened the doors to freedom and salvation. Some scholars wrote of baptism as a death of the old self and the rising into a new life filled with the breath of the Holy Spirit. Surprisingly, all of these perspectives can be true. For, even John the Baptist acknowledged that there are two different baptisms. “I have baptized you with water, but the one more powerful, than I will baptize you with the holy Spirit.” Jesus’ baptism would lead to discipleship. And so we read that at the end of his ministry, Jesus said to his disciples, “The baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized.”
My friends, this morning I would us to meditate on the mystery and ordinariness of baptism. For I am convinced the two, the mystery of Jesus’ baptism and ordinariness John’s baptism for repentance, must go hand in hand. Together however, they help us glimpse the importance of baptism.
First of all, for Jesus ad the John the Baptist, baptism meant decision. I know that this is not a very popular word in Lutheran circles. We’re often so caught up in the semantics of words and our theology, that we even disagree with fellow Christians simply for the sake of the proper use of language. The question which this morning’s gospel should raise is not “have you been baptized,” but “are you baptized?” It happens only once but finds it fulfillment in death.
Two words should always be tied to this understanding of baptism: repentance and belief. Repentance properly understood is actually a statement that “I can’t” do this on my own, If repentance is promising God, “I can do better,” we really don’t need a gracious God, only a patient One who will wait long enough for us to do it. But when you come before God confessing, “I can’t do better,” then you are truly pleading to God, to change me. Believing in the Gospel is trusting that God can do this over and over again. Personal decision is the intentional acknowledgement that you are powerless, and that God is all powerful.
Second, for Jesus, the occasion of John the Baptist’s baptism for repentance was also a moment of identification. Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River was a selfless act. He did not need to repent from sin; there was no sin to be forgiven. But here was a movement of humanity turning back to God, and Jesus desired to identify himself with that movement. hat Jesus was walking in solidarity identifying himself with the very men and women he came to save. At his baptism, Jesus decided to forego the work and identity of a carpenter’s son and to embrace the ministry and challenges to which he had been called.
In baptism, you and I have been set free to enjoy a new relationship and identity with God and with our neighbors. Throughout life, we often ask ourselves, “What would I like to do with my life?” And as graduates of liberal arts schools, we often answer, “I’m keeping all my options open.” But in baptism, there is a new identity. You begin to yourself, “What would God like me to do with my life?”
Third, for Jesus, John’s baptism also meant approval. As Jesus was leaving his quiet Galilean home and entering the ministry of his heavenly Father, he was waiting for a word of approval. Unlike the other gospels, in Mark’s gospel, it is only Jesus himself who sees the heavens open and it is Jesus alone who hears the voice of God, “You are my only Son, in you I am well pleased.” That is an important witness to each one of us. You do not always receive the public affirmation and approval for our work. Like Jesus, you too will need to rely on the approval of faith. It is the approval which is found in the promises of baptism. “Child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the Cross of Christ forever.”
And finally, for Jesus, baptism was the equipping of the Holy Spirit. As Jesus ascended from the waters of the Jordan, the power of the Holy Spirit descended upon him like a dove. The symbolism could not be more clear. The dove was the symbol of gentleness. Jesus would accomplish his ministry through gentle perseverance and love. That is true for all God’s baptized. They are equipped with the gifts of the Holy Spirit for the journey ahead.
In Bible Study, a faithful church member who had been baptized as a small infant told me, “As far as I’m concerned, nothing happened.” I had to differ. She did not have any memory of it, of course, but something dramatic happened, and her subsequent life as a Christian was proof of it. In comparison to Jesus’ baptism in the River Jordan, your baptism may seem like small splash of water, but believe me, it marks the beginning of a whole new life — of forgiveness, of the presence of God’s Spirit, of our union with Jesus, and our becoming part of the global, world-wide church.
My friends, baptism is important to me. It is about decision, identification, approval and empowerment for the work as a disciple in this world. But I think in my most honest moments, baptism is about the wonder and mystery of salvation. I recall as a child when I heard the organ in the church playing the familiar hymn, All Who Believe and Are Baptized, and I saw the parents coming forward to the baptismal font with a child in their arms, I knew something wonderful was going to happen. Even then, I knew that this was not water only, but it was water and the Word together doing a marvelous thing. In the Small Catechism, Luther wrote, “Through baptism God bestows the forgiveness of sins, delivers from death and the devil, and grants eternal salvation to all those who believe.” The words of the hymn echoed that teaching- “Through Christ’s redemption they will stand among the glorious heav’nly band of every tribe and nation.” It is that divine promise of salvation, that we glimpse Jesus’ own baptism. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.