18 Sep Walking Wet: The Life-Giving Waters of Baptism
Walking Wet: The Life-Giving Waters of Baptism
Matthew 3:1-6, 13-17
September 15, 2019
M. Michelle Fincher
Calvary Presbyterian Church
What comes to mind when I say the word “baptism”?
Baptism is practiced by all Christian churches, but we practice it in such different ways and for different reasons and under different circumstances, that it is sometimes hard to tell what we really mean when we talk about baptism and even more importantly, what makes baptism so central to the Christian faith.
Sure, we can repeat what the Confessions and Creeds of the church teach us about baptism. First, we know that baptism is a sacrament. For Protestants, it is one of two sacraments, with communion being the other one. For Catholics, it is one of seven sacraments. According to the Westminster Confession, “Sacraments are holy signs and seals of the covenant of grace, instituted by God, to represent Christ and his benefits… as also to put a visible difference between those that belong to the church, and the rest of the world; and solemnly to engage them to the service of God in Christ, according to his Word.”
The Nicene Creed says that, “We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.”
These early statements of the church affirm the importance of repenting of our sinfulness and acknowledging our strong need for God’s grace. They codify the church’s belief that baptism is a sign of God’s gracious adoption of us into Christ’s body, the church, making us part of the community of faith. Theologian Laurence Hull Stookey writes about this relationship between the individual and the faith community, saying that “Christians have no solid identity apart from community. This does not mean that Christian identity is not personal. The gospel is always personal, yet never individualistic.”
I find that distinction profoundly helpful. Perhaps you’ve known families that had a strong identifying characteristic. Maybe every person in the family had red hair. Or they were all artistic—maybe one was a painter, another a sculptor, another a cartoonist. Or a family might be made up of gifted athletes in various sports—a tennis player, a swimmer, a marathoner. Each person in the family is known for their individual talents but their gifts taken collectively are also a mark of their family. In the Christian family, we bring our personal histories and stories of faith, but we all share an identifying characteristic—we’ve been marked by the waters of baptism. Those waters are an outward sign of being washed clean from all that separates us from God, and they are an inward sign of God’s grace at work in our lives. Saint Augustine defined baptism as a “visible sign of an invisible reality.”
Some people assume baptism became a practice during the days of John the Baptist and the early church, but actually, baptism was practiced before the time of Jesus. Pagans were baptized when they became Jews, and it was also used for repentance of sins and ritual purification. Proselyte or conversion baptisms were by immersion, preferably in a lake or river which were considered living waters. Those being brought into the Jewish faith were considered unclean, and the immersion was a ritual cleansing. In most cases, self-immersion was the normal practice, but the young or infirmed would be immersed by someone else.
In the time around Jesus’ ministry and the years following, the Jews built large pools called miqvaot, which held about 500 liters of water and were used for baptisms and rituals cleansings. There were elaborate ceremonies for washing and cleansing because the priestly codes had long lists of things that were considered unclean.
In Matthew’s Gospel, we see Jesus coming from Galilee to be baptized by John in the Jordan River. John is reluctant and says that Jesus has got this backwards; Jesus should be baptizing John, not the other way around. Jesus’ response to John holds an important clue about the motivation and importance of our own baptisms. Jesus did not need to be baptized for the forgiveness of sin, since he was without sin. Instead, he tells John, “it is proper for us [to do this] in order to fulfill all righteousness.” In this instance, “fulfill” means to “do” or to “perform” and righteousness means “doing the revealed will of God.” Thus, Jesus undergoes baptism as an act of obedience to the will of God.
Following his baptism, the heavens open, the Spirit of God appears, and a voice from heaven speaks which is reminiscent of Genesis 1 from last week, in which there is water, Spirit, and a voice, at the time of creation. Jesus’ baptism marks the beginning of the new creation that Paul writes about in 2 Corinthians: “everything old has passed away; see; everything has become new” (5:17).
At the end of Matthew’s Gospel, the last instruction Jesus gives to his followers before leaving them to carry on his work is to “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (28:19-20a). We learn how the early church implemented those instructions from the writing of Justin Martyr, 160 CE. Men and women wishing to be baptized became catechumens and participated in three years of study and preparation. After a night-long vigil of worship and prayer, their baptisms began at dawn on Easter morning, their baptism a sign of their new life in Christ’s resurrection.
As many of you know, I am a Washington Nationals baseball fan. I have a red t-shirt with Stephen Strasburg’s name and #37 on the back which I wear when I go to the ballpark. It’s a way for me to show solidarity and support for the team. But there is a big, big difference between being a fan and being one of the players. The players show up early, take batting practice, work on their fielding or throw a bullpen session, lift weights and take their treatments, go over the scouting report and prepare themselves physically and mentally for the game. They get on the field and get dirty and sweaty and exert themselves to achieve their goals while I sit on a padded chair sipping lemonade and eating a curly W pretzel in the stands.
Baptism is intended to mark that kind of difference in us, to designate us as “players” in the life of faith, not spectators. Because of our baptisms, we are to live sanctified lives. Sanctification is one of those big 50 cent theological words that really means that how we live and what we say we believe ought to match. “There can be no Christian faith without Christian action,” writes theologian Shirley Guthrie. One way of looking at the effect our baptism is to have is to remember that we are the hands, the arms, the face and the feet of Christ to this fragile world. We are to “get on the field,” so to speak, to get our hands and feet dirty as we do the work of Christ’s kingdom. We are to care for this world and every person in it because God cares about it. Our baptisms will compel us to ask, do others see Christ in our actions? Do we care about the poor? About injustice? About those who are sick, in prison, infirmed? Every time you serve another as the arms and feet of Christ, you are living out your baptism.
That brings me to one of the questions I encounter with some frequency about baptism, and that has to do with the baptism of infants. Why do some churches baptize babies and others don’t? Some denominations, like the Southern Baptists in which I grew up, adhere to what is often called “believers’ baptism” in which the person being baptized must be old enough to personally affirm his/her belief in Jesus Christ as Savior. In that context baptism is not seen as a sacrament so much as a rite of membership into a particular congregation, so baptisms done by other denominations are generally not recognized as being valid for church membership.
Other denominations, like PC(USA), of which we are a member, believe that the emphasis in baptism should be on what God is doing through the sacrament. In this context the infant becomes a powerful symbol of the way we all appear before God: in the same way that the infant is dependent on others for her care, we are totally dependent on God’s preemptive love. It reminds us that God is always the initiator, always the one extending grace to us, even before we are aware of our need for it. Parents answer questions about faith on behalf of the infant and then later, when the child is older, confirmation is the process by which the child has an opportunity to publicly affirm his or her faith and the baptismal vows that were made on their behalf.
There are also many opinions about the relationship between salvation and baptism. Some faith traditions believe that baptism is necessary for salvation, but that is not the position held by Presbyterians. We believe that it is the crucifixion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ that saves us, and the sacrament of baptism re-enacts and celebrates our dying with Christ as we go under the waters and are then raised to new life as we emerge from the waters to live a new life in Christ.
This morning we will all have the opportunity to renew the promises and vows that were made at the time of our baptism. In doing so, we remember that we are baptized by living water which symbolizes our inclusion into Christ’s body, the Church, our adoption into God’s family, and the new life we have in Christ. It is through Christ’s life, death and resurrection that we are redeemed. It is by God’s grace that we are eternally loved and chosen. Let us celebrate our redemption with the renewal of our baptismal vows. As I ask the sacramental questions, you will respond with “I do.” Let us stand…
Trusting in a loving and merciful God, do you renounce the power of sin and evil in your life? Do you? I do.
Do you reaffirm your faith in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior? Do you? I do.
Do you commit yourself to follow Christ, to love and serve Christ by loving and serving this world? Do you? I do.
Loving God, we thank you that in the beginning you brought forth beauty and wonder out of the waters of chaos. You used your power over water to divide the Red Sea to save your people. You gave them water in the wilderness.
You give us living water through our baptism into the body of Christ. We thank you that in the waters of baptism we die with Christ and are raised with him into new life. Help us to fulfill our baptismal vows to love and serve you. In Jesus’ name, we pray. Amen.
And now, as the music begins to play, you are invited to come forward to be blessed by God’s living water.