13 January 2019
Today we’re going to look at an event that made it into all four Gospels such was its importance and inspiration: – the baptism of Jesus. As the Old Testament reading that marries with this story rallies the faithful to understand to whom they belong with the words: I have called you by name, you are mine … so in all Gospel readings and therefore our text for today from Luke we have these critical words from a voice from Heaven: ‘You are my son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased. To name is to identify, and to identify is to belong.
From this event in the Jordan, baptism became the point of initiation into the community of faith, heralding one’s sacred calling and kinship. Christian Baptist is rooted in the ministry of Jesus, in his baptism, in his death and in his resurrection. We in the Protestant or Protesting tradition and especially as Baptists talk about it as one of the main sacraments of faith: a visible and outward sign of a spiritual and inward grace. More about that in a moment.
Two points of interest I would like to raise with you.
Firstly, what is interesting to learn is that it didn’t come out of the blue and like many other Christian rituals it has a context: in other words, Baptism like the Lords Supper or the Eucharist was adopted from ancient Jewish practice. So much so that when John the Baptist was in the river baptizing people, people didn’t walk by and say, “What’s he doing? That’s a strange thing!” They knew what he was doing, he was baptizing; it was a common Jewish ritual. Before you could go to worship, you would ritually immerse yourself and this wasn’t necessarily for hygiene or for cleanliness, it was for spiritual purity. You would make yourself pure so that you could go into the presence of Yahweh, you could worship, you could offer sacrifices.
We know of some groups that practiced ritual immersion in and around Jerusalem and in a place called Qumran, associated with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. We know that certain ancient historians like Josephus talk about groups like the Essenes who would practice ritual immersion, in fact we actually have textual sources and archaeological evidence that demonstrates that certain groups were obsessed with it.
But the early Christians and perhaps John himself not only adopted the practice but transformed its meaning and significance. Spiritual purification became anchored around the person of Jesus and the theology behind it began to be shaped accordingly. Especially the frequency. While Jews would regularly wash in preparation for the Temple, the early Christians began to think that one ritual immersion washing was sufficient. there are early documents that didn’t make it into the formal canon of the Bible that talk about how you don’t need to be baptized three or four times, just baptized once and it became a form of initiation, of designation that I am now giving myself over to Jesus and to the Christian faith. So, Christian baptism has a Jewish context.
The second point of interest about baptism, is that we place high store on it, like communion, but unlike communion, this highly praised sacrament rarely gets celebrated. The point really is that very few are coming to faith, very few see little point in it, and so very few baptisms occur at least here in our community. Why? Does that trouble you? If you were rebuilding the church would you place a baptismal bathe in the centre of your worship space as it is here? Long may we pride it be a central component of our thinking of church, but does it hold central ground anymore?
The truth is that the mode and the method and the understanding of it in the Christian faith has had a colourful journey, which in some instances has brought fierce angst and hostility. Particularly around the time of the Reformation, when Christians began to read the scriptures, and strive for spiritual purity in practice and belief, Baptism became a significant point of division. It was fairly universal that the customary form of Baptism in the early churches and therefore the Biblical model of Baptism was by immersion. Tertullian, an early theologian writing at the end of the 2nd century of the Christian Era, playfully declared that Christians are little fishes who following Jesus are born in water. Reborn. Meaning their lives begin in a new purified way. In Baptism he said ‘we are plunged in water … but the effect is spiritual, we are freed from sin’. Dare we say also: freed from and freed to. The letter of Barnabas explains that candidates descended into water laden with sins and filth, then emerged from it bearing fruit with the fear of God in the heart and the hope of Jesus in the soul.
I remember a time when I was in Nicaragua in the 90’s our first time, when one of my roles was to liaise and resource rural churches. One of the elderly women wanted to be baptized and wanted me to baptize her. The problem was the river was full of cholera, as everyone knew, even though many still washed in it. What magnified it all was that she had fallen and the gash on her leg had not healed … in fact it began to show signs of becoming gangrenous. I was very worried about the implications for her, going down to the river and being baptized by immersion and then her leg becoming further infected or her becoming ill from cholera. I tried to explain that this probably wasn’t a good idea for her health, and neither would it be a good witness particularly if she understood baptism to reveal something of the sign of starting out with God, bearing fruit as a new Christian, if she in fact died because of it.
I said Baptism by immersion was Biblical as I read it, and a clear tradition of the Baptist faith, but that in church history there have been other ways of practice because of circumstance and need, like aspersion or baptism by sprinkling of water on the head. She wouldn’t have a bar of it. To the river she was going. And God would keep her safe. I reluctantly agreed and we baptized her in the river, in front of all the community and village folk and the kids who had heard something was on. I am not really one for this, but I am pleased to say, this was one of the many wonderful experiences of Baptism that I have participated in because, her leg recovered. And the experience challenged me about my dependency on reason whereas sometimes, sometimes, we just have to trust and embrace the mystery.
By and large the early churches of the New Testament and several centuries after practiced immersion by consenting adults. Infant Baptism and the practice of aspersion came later when the church began to wrestle with the question of infant deaths and the concept of salvation. Tertullian does suggest that children were baptized, but considered this to be an unwarranted practice and argued against it. Not with standing that, in the 16th and 17th century, infant Baptist had become the norm. And as mentioned in the heady era known as the Reformation Christians began to wrestle with the prevailing practice of the church and its internal corruption. Foremost in some of their minds were questions like: What is God calling the Christian to be? What is the true nature of the Gospel? How is a sinner saved? And their answer, particularly to the last question was unequivocal: we are saved not by the Pope, we are saved not by the King of England, Henry the VIII, who established himself as the head of the church in Britain, thereby separating himself from Rome. We are saved by God’s grace through faith in Christ. And linked with that line of thought came this next question: if salvation is through faith, what place is there for baptism, especially infant baptism? The early reformers therefore began to look hard at what the practice of Baptism and many started to Baptise again, baptize the faithful again, by immersion upon confession of faith so that all could be initiated in the new community of faith and experience anew the saving power of God. These reforming groups became popularly known as ana-baptists, a nickname, and because of their dissent from Rome and the Church of England they were harassed, oppressed and many were murdered for heresy. Luther, Zwingly and Calvin, prominent reformers of the time also attacked them mercilessly. We hold our origins from them. But what of today?
No doubt baptism holds a dear place in our Baptist Theology, but are we missing something in terms of our expression of it? If indeed it is a visible sign of an inward experience of grace, and it is, though perhaps it could be more, what are we doing as church to broaden that experience? To encourage that experience?
There is a lovely story of the drunk who stumbled upon a baptismal service one Sunday afternoon down by the river. This guy walked right down into the water and stood next to the Preacher. The minister turned and noticed the old drunk and said, “Mister, Are you ready to find Jesus?” The drunk looked back and said, “Yes, Preacher. I sure am.” The minister then dunked the fellow under the water and pulled him right back up.
“Have you found Jesus?” the preacher asked. “No, I haven’t!” said the drunk. The preacher then dunked him under for a bit longer, brought him up and said, “Now, brother, have you found Jesus?” “No, I haven’t Preacher.” The preacher in disgust held the man under for at least 30 seconds this time, brought him out of the water and said in a harsh tone, “Friend, are you sure you haven’t found Jesus yet?” The old drunk wiped his eyes gasping for breath and said to the preacher, …”Naw preacher, are you sure this is where he fell in?”
Baptism for Baptists isn’t where you find Jesus; it heralds your faith, it celebrates your kinship with the community of faith, and it suggests a path in terms of what you do once you’ve found him. But where is Jesus being found?
Our text today heralds Jesus being honored by God. In his moment of baptism, God proclaims Jesus, and in that proclamation God proclaims self as bone of our bone, flesh of our flesh, Emmanuel – with us. For God’s beloved has come to the Jordan, and is washed in the river, baptized with us and for us, confessing our sins as his very own. He bears them as his own and carries them to the cross. And for that … for the inauguration of ministry, for the start of the campaign of freedom, God is pleased, ‘well pleased’.
And when we are baptized, we too may hear the same jubilation from the heavens – in you person of faith, in you like with Jesus, God proclaims I am well pleased … you and I are his beloved. In that moment we can know we belong. My point is though: are we getting that message across clearly enough. In our world, in our daily contact where can we make known Jesus? The river of purity is still here … waiting. Where though can Jesus be found? Where can we make him known?