Does Baptism Matter?

On the first Sunday following January 6 every year, churches around the world observe something called The Baptism of Our Lord Sunday; and as soon as we pastors get those words out of our mouths, you can see the shades coming down for some folks.  I understand that.  They are asking a couple of reasonable questions:  "Isn't this just some ancient ritual on a liturgical calendar that really doesn't mean much to a modern world?"  And the second question is just as serious:  "In truth, in our world, why does Baptism even matter at all?"

And so, Baptism gets relegated to funny stories or cute photo opps.  A family is riding home from church on Sunday noon.  Their four-year-old son in the back seat of the car was baptized that morning.  Suddenly, midway home, he bursts into tears.  When his parents ask what on earth is wrong, he sniffles out the answer:  "The minister who baptized me said I would be brought up in a Christian home.  But I want to stay with you guys!"  We all know the jokes.

And we all know the parental requests when the babies are brought forth in their new frilly white outfits which mom and dad call "christening dresses," despite the fact that most of us in the Protestant tradition don't "christen" at all.  To "christen" is to give a name.  We assume the parents have already done that. We "baptize."  But it doesn't really matter because the requests are not theological, are they?  They are instead, "Reverend, may we get a few pictures of you holding the baby?"  "Christen," "Baptize," who cares?  It's really a photo opp.

So, if that's all, Baptism means any more--a source of stale jokes or family pictures--why waste a whole sermon on it? 

The answer, at least one answer, is that when the gospel writers tell The Jesus Story, Baptism is crucial.  Everything starts at the river where Jesus entered the waters and placed himself in the arms of his cousin John.  "And the heavens were opened. And the Spirit descended upon him as a dove. And a Voice came from heaven saying, 'This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.'"  And despite the beauties and sentiment of the birth narratives, in truth the ministry and teachings and trials and triumphs and almost all that make us remember Jesus took place after his baptism.

It was at the moment of Baptism that Jesus was claimed and called.   Sure, the angels sang at Bethlehem, but God's voice spoke for the first time at the river, acknowledging that Jesus was claimed by Someone special and called to do something special.  So, when in liturgical services like the one for this Sunday, we preachers challenge our congregations to "Remember your baptism," the challenge is actually to remember that you, too, just like Christ, belong to Someone special and are called to do something special.

At some point in time, a voice spoke your name and said, "This is My beloved child, with whom I am well pleased."  Perhaps you were only a baby when that happened, too small to understand the concept of God, too young to know that there even is a God.  But that wasn't the point.  Remember, Jesus didn't say or do anything at his baptism either.  It was all done from the top down. It was all a matter of God claiming him, just as in your own baptism, God claimed you before you'd done a single thing to earn it.  Paul Tillich was correct when he said that, "Salvation is simply accepting the fact that we have (already) been accepted."

Years ago I knew a man, a leader in the congregation I was serving then.  When I knew him, he was an example of all things good and decent and helpful.  His wise faith gave guidance to our whole church, and his courageous commitments gave leadership.  But, by his own admission, he had not always been that way.  He told me that as a young man, in his words, "I was always looking for trouble.  And if the trouble were really bad, I'd look for it twice!  But then," he said, "I met Elizabeth--a kind, sweet, moral, smiling girl who loved me no matter how big a scoundrel I was.  And little by little, because I wanted to live up to her love, I became less and less a scoundrel.  Finally we married, and I've spent my whole life trying to make her as happy as she made me."  Then he said something I have never forgotten, a powerful statement.  He said this:  "The truth is, Elizabeth loved me into loving."

That is the first lesson of Baptism and a key reason why it is such a strong and vital part of our faith.  God claims us at Baptism.  God sends unearned, unconditional love our way.  "I met Elizabeth," my friend said, "who loved me no matter how big a scoundrel I was."  Theologically, we call that grace, and nowhere is it more visibly symbolized than in Baptism. "This is My beloved child," whom this day I choose as my own, not by their merit, but by My mercy!  That's what God said to Jesus at the river and what God says to you and me.  I choose you as part of My family.  I choose you to possess Divine legacy.  I choose to "walk with you through the waters, and the rivers shall not overwhelm you ... and to walk with you through the fire, and the flames shall not consume you ... You are precious and honored in my sight, and I love you ... So fear not, for I choose to be with you" in all things, in all times, in all places, in all circumstances, now and forever.  I choose to love you whether or not you are always lovable.  That's the message of Baptism, one which should grip and inspire us:  It is a symbol that we are claimed by Someone special.

And as was the case with Jesus, so it is with us, Baptism says that we are claimed by Someone special and we are called to do something special"And the Spirit descended upon him as a dove." And so does The Spirit descend upon you and me, calling us not simply to be God's children but also to be God's helpers in a wounded, weary world.  Claimed and Called.  That's what my friend was talking about when he told me his story.  "I wanted to live up to her love," he said.  "The truth is, Elizabeth loved me into loving."  And isn't that the power of this ritual we observe today ... that we are claimed, usually in spite of ourselves, and once we become aware of how deeply we are loved by God, we find ourselves falling in love with God.  And we express that love by how we do our living in the world.  That, I think, is what it means to be called. It really is that simple.  God loves us into loving.

A man I know volunteers working on a minimum of two Habitat for Humanity houses a year.  He's quite a gifted carpenter and can get twice the work done in half the time it takes most people.  Some years he works on five or six Habitat projects, but he has made both God and himself a promise that he will always do at least two.  He's honored that commitment for over thirty years.  I asked him once about the source of his passion for that ministry, and he told me a story I didn't know.  After returning from Vietnam, he struggled to readjust.  He had no close family structure, so he drifted ... town to town, job to job.  The one thing he did have was a talent for carpentry, so he could usually find a building site that needed an extra hand.  Finally, in a small Midwestern town, he signed on to help build a development of six moderately sized and affordably priced houses.  He told the foreman that he would be happy not only to do carpentry but also to provide security, bringing his sleeping bag with him and spending the nights on site.  So he did that, house by house.  The owner of the company was impressed by the man's abilities and commitment--and he was also aware that apparently he had no other place to sleep.  So, at the close of the project, almost a year in the making, the business owner took the man aside and said:  "I want to thank you for what you've done.  And I want you to stay on with the company."  Then he handed the man a set of keys and said:  "The sixth house we built is yours.  Take it."  "But I can't pay for it," the carpenter said," to which his employer answered:  "You'll find a way."  "My volunteer work," he told me, "is how I have repaid him.  At least twice a year I put a roof over the head of someone else who needs it, just as he did over mine."

Baptism symbolizes that we are loved free of charge.  Someone special claims us, asks us to stay on with the company, to be part of the family. "This is My beloved child, with whom I am well pleased."  And that act of grace loves us into loving.  We remember our Baptism and are so overwhelmed by being claimed that we suddenly feel called.  "The Spirit descends as a dove" and settles into our hearts, and we want to pay all the favors of grace forward, sharing with others the gift that has been shared with us.

And so, on this Baptism of Our Lord Sunday, remember your Baptism ... and live into your calling.

Let us pray.  O God, who claims us as your own and who calls us to be your partners in the world, descend as a dove, rest upon us, and work through us we pray.  Amen.