What’s In a Baptism? (a sermon from Luke 3:15-22)
John, the Baptizer drew people from the villages and towns out into the desert. He believed a new order, a new reality was about to break forth and in preparation he called people out to the desert for repentance and renewal. According to Luke John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
Now, here is Jesus going out into the desert and being baptized by John. Did Jesus feel the need for personal repentance and renewal or was he simply identifying collectively with his people? You can think about that later because I don’t intend to go down that road.
I want us today to think about baptism in our own experience and tradition. What does it signify for us? What’s in a baptism? Of course, it’s very possible we could have different perspectives on this, which is okay. Certainly Christians of different traditions have different ideas and not all Baptists believe the same things when it comes to baptism. So, here’s what I think.
First of all, I think baptism can signify the beginning of a new journey or it can signify affirmation of a spiritual journey that has been going on for some time.
The late Fred Craddock tells about the time he ministered in a little community in southwest Oklahoma. On a good day the population was around 450. There were four churches: a Methodist church, a Baptist church, a Nazarene church, and a Christian church. Each had its share of the population, and on Wednesday nights and Sundays, each church had a collection of young people. The attendance rose and fell according to the weather and whether it was time to harvest wheat.
The best and most consistent attendance in town, however, was at the little café where all the pickup trucks were parked and all the men were gathered inside discussing the weather and the cattle and what kind of crop they were going to have, while their wives and children were in one of the four churches. The attendance of the churches wavered, up and down as church attendance goes, but the café consistently had good attendance.
Once in a while, says Craddock, the café would lose one of their members because the wife or the kids finally got to him, and off he would go kind of sheepishly to one of the churches. But the men felt they were the largest and strongest group in town. These were not bad men, says Craddock, they were mostly family men and hard working men, but did not see a need for the church.
The patron saint of the group at the café was Frank. Frank was 77 years old when Craddock first met him. He was a farmer and a cattleman. He had been born in a sod house, and he had prospered. He was a real pioneer and with his credentials he was considered the patron saint of the café.
One day Craddock met Frank on the street. Craddock said he had no intention of accosting him in the name of Jesus, it was not his way, but old Frank decided to take the offensive anyway. He said to Craddock, “I work hard and I take care of my family and I mind my own business.” He told Craddock that as far as he was concerned, everything else was fluff. He was basically saying, “I’m not a prospect for your church, so don’t’ bother me. Leave me alone.”
So Craddock left him alone; he didn’t bother him. But then one Sunday, Frank surprised everyone, especially the men at the café, when at 77 years of age he presented himself at the Christian church for baptism. Some in the community thought Frank must have been sick, must have got heart trouble or something and got scarred. There were all kinds of stories floating about as to why Frank would be baptised.
So Craddock asked him, “Frank, do you remember that little saying you use to give me: I work hard, I take care of my family, and I mind my own business.” He said, “Yea. I remember. I said that a lot.” Craddock asked, “Do you still say that?” He said, “Yes.” Craddock said, “Then what’s the difference?” And Frank said, “Brother Fred, I didn’t know then what my business was.” Craddock baptized Frank and Frank discovered what his business was.
Baptism can signify a new beginning, a new journey where we, like Frank, discover what our real business is. This is what John’s baptism signified – a new beginning in light of what God was going to do. And Jesus after his baptism went about God’s business. In the very next verse after Jesus’ baptism and the voice from heaven Luke says, “Jesus was about thirty years old when he began his work.”
I also believe that baptism can signify affirmation of a journey that one has been on for some time. Can one be a disciple of Jesus and not be baptized? Yes, one can. However, in New Testament times that would have been highly unlikely because of the way baptism was practiced and functioned in the early Messianic communities. Of course, we live in a different context where unbaptized followers of Jesus are not unusual or all that uncommon. So baptism can function as an affirmation of a path already chosen.
In our particular Christian tradition church membership is based on baptism. One does not have to be baptized in this church to be a member in this church, but one does have to be baptized. And this, I believe, is in keeping with the New Testament practice of baptism into a local body of Christ.
Many interpreters of Paul believe that the great text in Galatians 3:27-28, which I like to call Paul’s magna charta of Christian equality, was actually a baptismal proclamation that was proclaimed at Christian baptisms. In that passage Paul says, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one (that is, equal and united in an inseparable bond) in Christ Jesus.” Through baptism we proclaim by faith who we believe we are in Christ.
It’s interesting in our Gospel reading that between references to John’s baptism and Jesus’ baptism by John Luke mentions Herod who imprisoned John. Luke describes Herod as a ruler who has done evil things, which presents quite the contrast with Jesus who is endorsed by the heavenly voice.
The heavenly voice makes use of two OT scriptures. The first line, “You are my Son” is taken from Psalm 2, which was spoken on the occasion of the crowning of the king of Israel. So Jesus is being acknowledged as king and as lord. By the way this sort of language was also applied to Rome’s king, Rome’s emperor. He was called “Son of God” and “God manifest” and the title “Lord” was attributed to him.
But is Jesus that kind of lord, a lord like Caesar? The next line makes clear what kind of Lord Jesus is. The next line which says, “My Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” is a phrase from Isaiah 42. It’s a line from the description of the suffering servant of God, the one who gives his life for the cause of God and the good of others. It has to do with loving, caring service for others. The voice is saying, “Here is my Son who is king, he is a suffering servant who loves others and gives his life for others.” Jesus’ baptism is an affirmation of who he is. Our baptism is an affirmation of who we are – that we are God’s beloved daughters and sons called to participate in God’s work.
After the baptism and the voice of affirmation Jesus leaves the Jordan and embarks on God’s mission. Jesus goes about doing God’s business. And what did God’s business involve? Did it involve wielding power and controlling servants and demanding submission? No. And why is that? Because God’s kingdom is really God’s kin-dom – it’s about caring, loving, just, and compassionate relationships. It’s about loving others and serving others, not exercising control over them. God’s kingdom or kin-dom is unlike earthly kingdoms. God’s kingdom is a nonviolent kingdom rooted in forgiveness, not a controlling kingdom governed by force.
Christian baptism then is a public proclamation of our commitment to God’s kingdom and our participation in a local community committed to be faithful to that kingdom.
This means participation in a larger story than just our little stories. Maybe this is one reason Luke highlights Jesus’ prayer life in his Gospel. Interestingly, only Luke’s version of Jesus’ baptism mentions that Jesus was praying when he had this spiritual encounter and heard the heavenly voice. We must be people of prayer. I don’t mean prayer in the sense of constantly asking things from God, but prayer in the sense of being open and receptive and aligned with God’s love and purpose. The baptized life is a life that is open to and trusts in the love and grace and spiritual power of God.
One other thing about Christian baptism. Christian baptism highlights the spiritual significance of death and rebirth in the life of Christian discipleship. The Apostle Paul makes this connection in his letter to the Romans when he says, “Therefore we have been buried with Christ by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in the newness of life (Rom. 6:4).”
We remember our baptism, sisters and brothers, not simply by remembering a certain event that took place in our lives once upon a time as a child or as an adult. Rather, we remember our baptism by waking up each day remembering who we are – that we are God’s beloved daughters and sons.
We remember our baptism by deciding to die daily to those things that diminish our lives and the lives of others. We remember our baptism when we let go of petty jealousies, old grudges, personal prejudices, painful hurts, and decide to live as simply, graciously, forgivingly, and compassionately as we are able with God’s help.
And that sisters and brothers, is what’s in a baptism.
O God, as we join together as the body of Christ, as your visible, incarnate presence in the world and celebrate through bread and cup your living reality in us and in our midst, let us remember who we are. Help us commit ourselves once again, for the hundredth time, or thousandth time, or maybe the first time to your good purpose for our lives and our church. In Christ’s name. Amen.