Romans 6:1-4, Matthew 3:1-11
I have a dim memory of my baptism. I think I was 2 or 3 years old. Mostly what I remember is my parents getting me from the nursery in their grey choir robes. I don’t remember the sight of the sanctuary so much as I have a vague feeling of being in a place I was generally not allowed. I also remember a Sunday School teacher telling our class a few years later that it was good if we did not remember our baptisms because that meant our parents loved us so much they had us baptized when we were very young. I had a slight twinge, wondering if my memories meant my parents didn’t love me so much. In any case, times have changed since then, and I am glad because children should never be forbidden from entering our worship space.
Now we are all good Protestants, and in our hearts-of-hearts, we know that the timing of baptism has nothing to do with how much our parents loved us or we love our children. And we certainly know that it is not what saves our souls. And yet….we do get caught up in cultural expectations that can overshadow our theological understanding of baptism, particularly when it involves someone we love. So let us look at the baptism of Jesus to help us understand.
The early church, and I daresay even in the modern church, the baptism of Jesus poses a theological problem. After all, if Jesus was the Messiah, why in the world would he need to be baptized by John? Each of the four gospel writers struggled with this question, but Matthew’s discomfort is the most obvious. He solves his dilemma by two deft additions to the tradition he inherits from Mark. First, he has John protest, I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me? Then he has Jesus acknowledge the awkwardness of the situation. He says let it be so for now, labeling it is a temporary condition. He also says that in this way they fulfill all righteousness. Matthew solves this initial problem of Jesus being baptized by John, yet Christians still struggle with a second question: Why is Jesus baptized at all? Given that we typically connect baptism to forgiveness of sin, if Jesus is the sinless Son of God, in what way does he need baptism? Or, more broadly, how does baptism benefit him at all?
On this point, all the evangelists agree. Baptism is not a simply about forgiveness but also announces God’s favor and establishes Jesus’ identity. In Matthew’s account the voice from heaven names Jesus as God’s Son, the one with whom God is well pleased. Baptism, for Jesus, was less about forgiveness than it was about commissioning him to his mission, ministry and assurance of God’s presence. How does this understanding of Jesus’ baptism inform what baptism means to us? Having our children baptized is important to us. But while the day itself may be a big deal, our emphasis on baptism seems to end there. Few parents I know remember the date of their own baptisms or remind their children to remember their. I have a refrigerator magnet that quotes Martin Luther, Every time you wash your face, remember your baptism. Yet, mostly, I have stopped seeing it.
We need to reclaim the significance of baptism in the church. Our identity as disciples of Christ is established in God’s good and gracious acceptance and affirmation of us that comes from baptism. Focusing too much on baptism as washing away sin may lead us to miss the profound words of empowering grace that are spoken here to Jesus and also to us. For we, also, are God’s beloved children, with whom God is well pleased.
This is a timely message, for we live in a culture that promises acceptance only if we are skinny enough, strong enough, successful enough, rich enough, popular enough, beautiful enough, young enough, and so on. The world is hungry to hear God’s gracious words in baptism, that we are enough, that God accepts us just as we are, and that God desires to do wonderful things for and through us.
I cannot get my hands wet yet, because the sutures are still in them. But if I could, I would now walk among you with a large bowl of water and fling it on you, declaring, Remember your baptism and be glad. Before I leave you I will do that with you. In the meantime, there are other ways to remember our baptisms and be glad. We can affirm it in words, and sacrament, and liturgy and in life itself. We could begin every day with an affirmation, I am God’s child, deserving of love and respect, and God will use me to change the world.
We are called by God, through the power of the Holy Spirit, to follow Jesus Christ, the savior of the world. This is what gives us our fundamental identities, as loved children of the living God. I was recently at the movies, arriving early enough to see the previews. I don’t remember the name of the film being advertised but it posed a fascinating and disturbing question. The character on the screen said, what if you were accused of being a follower of Jesus Christ. Would there be enough evidence to convict you? Do we behave in a way that distinguishes us as disciples of Christ, apart from the world to whom we are sent to share the Good News. Jesus was born, ministered, lived, died and was raised again to demonstrate in word and deed just how much God loves and accepts us. Does the world know that by encountering us? Is there enough evidence to demonstrate that we are followers of Christ? Perhaps remembering our baptisms and being glad would be a way to demonstrate that we did not just go through a cultural expectation by being baptized but that we are marked by the grace of Jesus Christ to serve God and his people.
To God be the glory.
~ Interim Pastor Helen Rose Moore