Did It Take? Baptism and Unity
January 21, 2018
Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.’ Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’
At the turn of the common era there was a strong interest in water purification rites among a number of Jewish groups, Johns’ being one of them. The baptism of repentance was a ritual bathing that was understood to effect the forgiveness of sins. They came to the river, living in hope that their sins would be washed away.
Jesus too came to the river. Baptism was sort of his inauguration. You might be asking the same question John asked: “What are you doing here Jesus? You should be baptizing me!” Could it be that Jesus knew he couldn’t address our human condition without getting down into the muddy water with us? We don’t usually follow someone who hasn’t gotten down into the trenches, who isn’t one of us.
And as he came up out of the water, he felt that spirit of God descend upon him as he heard God say, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” As far as we know he hadn’t even begun his ministry, but God reassured him in that moment, that with God’s grace, God’s blessing, he was ready.
Earlier in this chapter John tells his followers that “I have baptized you with water, but Jesus will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” Matthew’s gospel ends with Jesus telling his disciples: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and Son and the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always to the end of the age.”
As Paul baptized the Ephesians in the name of Jesus, his spirit is poured into them, the same way it is poured into us when we are baptized, declaring us a beloved child of God. It’s an affirmation of God’s grace and blessing, that God is with us in this life and the next. But it’s what we do with that grace and blessing that makes us either true Christians, or ones in name only.
Years ago, months after I had baptized an adult member of our church, one morning she called out from the balcony when I was preaching about baptism: “I don’t know if it took!”
We laughed, but it’s a good question for all of us to ponder. Did our baptism make a difference in our lives? Did it ‘take’? I was baptized as an infant in the Catholic Church, a sacrament that was supposed to wash away the original sin I was born with. Most of us today do not believe that we were born in a state of sin due to a metaphorical story of a couples’ disobedient act in chapter two of Genesis. But how do we know if it took? Only you can answer that question for yourself. It’s something to think about this week.
For those of us in the UCC, baptism is our inauguration into the Body of Christ. If we are baptized as an infant, or a child, we reaffirm what that means to us through confirmation. Baptism is the sacrament that all Christians have in common, whether we are sprinkled or dunked in the river Jordan. It’s what unites us.
This is the week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Christianity needs our prayers more than ever right now. We are becoming more fractured than ever. But this is not something new, as we hear in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.
Unity in the Body of Christ
I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.
Those early Christians obviously had their differences. When I speak of the fracturing of Christianity today, I’m not speaking of Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic, or different Protestant denominations and independent churches. Many of us, not all, but many, are coming together more and more to work to create the kingdom. We are able to set our theological differences aside to work for the common good.
Our fracturing today, at least in the U.S., is based on social, ideological and political differences, similar to the secular divisions in our country. They are issues of immigration, abortion and contraception, LGBTQ rights and gay marriage, climate change, separation of church and state, evolution, who we support and cast our ballots for, and how we respond to what comes out of our presidents’ mouth and tweets.
These were not what was on Paul’s mind when he wrote to the Ephesians, but they are on our minds today. There’s no escaping it - and we must not try to. Too much is at stake.
I am opposed to, and sometimes vehemently, many of the stands expressed by ultra-conservative, fundamentalist, evangelical preachers and their followers. I am perplexed by how they reconcile their beliefs and actions with the life and teachings of Jesus, who they proclaim to follow - just as we do.
How do we “bear with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” when we are so divided? This is a question many of my clergy friends are discussing a lot. We feel a need to come together, clergy and those in our congregations and hold each other in love, while we listen respectfully to those who hold differing opinions - to try to understand each other and where we are coming from. No one seems to come up with an easy solution to making that happen, as we are embedded in our own tribes. Your ideas are welcomed.
I truly believe we all ultimately want many of the same things for our country, but a lot of fear gets in the way. “In Nazi Germany Christians too were divided. A large segment of the Protestant churches supported Hitler and the rampant white nationalism of the Nazis. They pledged loyalty to the government, making no distinction between the Fuhrer’s authority over the government and the church. Pews of the German Christian churches were filled with Nazi officers, SS guards, and concentration camp doctors. Officials of the Catholic Church made an agreement with the government in 1933, a concordat between Hitler’s Reich and the Vatican. Shame on them.
But the Confessing Church movement was filled with pastors and church members who rejected Hitler as a figure of church authority. Deitrich Bonhoeffer, a theologian and pastor, was a member of the Confessing Church. Twelve years after he became one of the first voices in Germany to offer public opposition to the Nazis, he was executed by them as a traitor.
In a 1933 essay he wrote that the church has the right and responsibility to ask whether the state is fulfilling its duty to preserve justice and order. He wrote that the church has the right and responsibility to aid victims of the state, even if they are not Christians. And, most famously, he wrote that the church has the responsibility to jam the spokes of the wheel of the state if it is creating too much or too little law. ‘Jamming the spokes’, he wrote, ‘is not just to bind up the wounds of the victims beneath the wheel but to siege the wheel itself. Such an action would be direct political action on the part of the church.’”
We are not in Nazi Germany, but you can draw your own parallels to what we are living through today. Our country needs the voices of Christians today, unafraid to speak our truth to power as we work for the common good of all. Will we remain silent in the face of injustice? We need that gift of God’s Spirit we received in baptism more than ever. We need it to take hold of our spirits, to move us forward in these challenging times. I was encouraged yesterday when I saw hundreds of thousands taking to the streets across this country of ours.
Henri Nouwen wrote the following prayer that speaks to us today:
Dear Lord, even when I know everything about you, even when I have studied all the Scriptures with care, even when I have a great desire and willpower to work in your service, I can do nothing without the gift of your Spirit. Often I realize that the clearest vision of the true life, and the most sincere wish to live it, is not enough to make me a true disciple. Only when your Spirit has entered into the depth of my being can I be a real Christian, a person who lives in and with and through you. Lord, I pray for the power of your Spirit. Let this power invade me and transform me into a real disciple, willing to follow you even where I would rather not go. Amen
Baptism marks our birth as Christians. It is God’s gift to us of the Spirit. Most of us celebrate our birthdays each year. We need today to celebrate our birth as Christians. So I invite any of you who would like, to renew your baptismal vows, and in doing so, to invite the Spirit to fill you with love and grace, and guide you in wisdom.
If you haven’t been baptized, you are invited to respond if you feel called to do so. This will not mean you leave here baptized, but I would be happy to do that at a later date. If you do not want to participate that is fine too.
Those who wish please stand in body or spirit and answer the following questions:
Do you believe in God, your creator, Divine power of the Universe within which we live and move and have our being? If so, say “I believe in God.”
Do you believe in Jesus Christ, brother and guide in faith? If so, say “I believe in Jesus Christ.”
Do you believe in the Holy Spirit, the presence of God in all that is? If so, say “I believe in the Holy Spirit.”
Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself, finding mercy and compassion in your heart for those in need? If so, say “I will, with God’s help.”
Will you be true to the deepest part of yourself, nurturing your own spiritual life that you might nurture others spiritually? If so, say “I will with God’s help.”
Prayer: Loving God, strengthen these your servants, that they may continue to grow in relationship with you, with others, and in service to the world you have created. Amen
Now I invite any who would like to come forward at this time to take a stone out of the water to take with you as a symbol of God’s constant presence in your life through the sacrament of baptism, and a reminder of what it means to walk as a Christian.