1/11/2015 sermon “Baptismal theories”

Preacher: Jo J. Belser
Location: Episcopal Church of the Resurrection, Alexandria, Virginia
Text: Genesis 1:1-5, Acts 19:1-7, and Mark 1:4-11
1Epiphany, Year B

“Baptism theories”

You may have noticed that all of our scripture lessons today are about baptism.

  • We hear of the prophet John baptizing people with in the River Jordan either for or after they had repented of their sins, and of John’s baptizing Jesus.
  • We hear of the apostle Paul re-baptizing the first Christians in Ephesus after he discovered they had only received water at their baptism, but not the Holy Spirit, the strong energy that God uses to bring new realities into existence.
  • And we hear that, “in the beginning,” the Spirit of God—here called a “wind”—blew over the “waters of chaos” to create everything that is. (We call God’s “wind” “Big Bang.”) But isn’t this baptism? When somehow the essence of God, a power greater than we can fully grasp or understand, when God somehow moves over and through the water to bring a new reality into being?

We Christians think so. But to speak a not-so-secret dark little secret about ourselves, we Christians have been arguing about what baptism IS ever since we began following John the Baptizer’s lead and using the ritual ourselves. About the only thing that all Christians universally agree to about baptism is that 1) baptism is important, and 2) baptism is required to be a member of the church, the place where we get to practice living the whole new reality that God makes in and of our lives through baptism.

My challenge today is that we only get to TALK about baptism. This day in our church year was meant to include baptism. We haven’t done so today for two reasons. First, we have tried to keep this service as short as it could be in deference to our many guests; we are ever so grateful that our preschool students and their families are here today (thank you!). Second, one of our bishops is coming next Sunday, when we will help Bishop Goff baptize Ella Medhurst. So today I am only going to share the THEORY of baptism (kind of like being all dressed up a week before the party).

So here are the theories. Or, I should say, the major ones.

The first theory about baptism is John’s: that baptism and repentance are connected. Repentance according to John, is a “change of mind,” not just an act where we are sorry for the individual wrongs we have done, but where we want a whole change of orientation to God. John makes clear that baptism is FOR the forgiveness of sins, that act of God that releases us from guilt for our past and begins us on a future or right desires.

We could quibble all day long (we won’t!) about whether baptism “saves” us from our sins and our desire to sin, or whether baptism is what we do after we have chosen new life. But we all are agreed that there is a relationship between baptism and repentance, and that baptism marks where we choose to give our lives to God.

The second question about baptism is, if baptism is somehow for repentance of sins, why did Jesus need to be baptized? If Jesus was God-made-man, as we believe, he was without sin and wouldn’t need repentance. So why did he ask John to baptize him?

First, there’s the humility angle. This theory is that a major spiritual task for humans is to recognize that we, ourselves, are not God. And, this theory continues, the part of Jesus that was fully human needed to submit himself fully to God, just as much as we need to. The twelve step folks call this the first three steps: we admit that we are powerless over sin, that a Power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity, and then we make a decision to turn our will and our lives over to God as we know God.

Second, there is the atonement angle. This theory is one that a preacher, whom many of us here know, named Craig Biddle once famously preached. His theory is that God-as-Jesus had to go into the water of baptism so that, rising, he could leave all of humanity’s sin in the water. Jesus’ atonement was made complete, this theory goes, when Jesus died on the cross for our sins, but Jesus’ baptism marked a clear beginning of the process.

Our gospel today gives Mark’s theory of Jesus’ baptism. Mark says that this is when God adopted Jesus as his son. By extension, our baptisms are when God adopts us as his children. My problem with this theory is that we are already God’s children, all along, so why do we need adoption? Well, a seminary classmate of mine and his wife recently were able to adopt a Chinese boy after a five-year paperwork process. The child was “theirs” all along, but there was a day when the “deal was sealed.” They call this his “Gotcha day.” The Belser theory is that baptism is our “gotcha day.” In the case of infant baptism, we as parents, godparents, and the whole Christian community, sign up to help the child claim God for themselves.

There is just one more theory of baptism I want to talk about. Actually, for me it isn’t a theory, but a lived experience. Because I get to stand up here, near the water, and offer myself as a conduit of God for the person I baptize in the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, I get to feel this tremendous energy that our lessons talk about today. The energy level is tremendous. When possible, I like to invite children to draw near the action, for them to be able to see what is happening, but also so that they, too, are in the energy
cone. What this energy feels like is pure joy. I hope you, too, will deliberately offer yourselves next week as a conduit of God’s energy, God’s Spirit, when we baptize Ella.

So those are the major theories of baptism. The realities are these: God loves us, one and all. God made us and called creation “good.” God comes to us to share our humanity and provides a way for us to orient ourselves to God and be God’s forever. And that connection feels like pure joy.

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