“Beloved” Colchester Federated Church, January 13, 2019, (Luke 3:15-17 and 21-22) Baptism of Christ Sunday

Today is Baptism of Christ Sunday where we remember Jesus getting baptized by John in the waters of the Jordan River.  We also remember our own baptisms and experiences we’ve had of baptisms.  One experience that has stayed with me is from my elementary school days.  When I was in fourth grade a good friend faithfully attended a nondenominational evangelical mega-church in our hometown.  My family had our UCC church we belonged to, but I would occasionally go to church with my friend after spending a Saturday night at her house.  One summer she invited me to the summer camp that her church friends attended, and I was excited to go.

As I was packing, our minister’s wife was at our house having tea with my mother.  So we spoke about camp and she asked to see the packet of information.  She scanned the materials and said, “Lauren, these camp counselors will teach you Bible stories differently than you learn them at Trinity, just be aware.  Most importantly, don’t let them baptize you again.  You’ve already been baptized and God was present.”

Now I wondered why anyone would try to baptize me again, but I kept her advice in the back of my mind.  On the second day of camp, one of the counselors offered Communion to anyone who had been baptized.  I got up to receive Communion and was asked when my baptism occurred, so related that it happened at my church when I was a baby.  The counselor replied, “Well your baptism doesn’t count, you should get baptized again in the lake this week.  But I’ll let you take Communion anyway.”  Remember I was in fourth grade, so asked why my baptism didn’t count and he said that God only approves of Believer’s Baptism.  The proper way to get baptized is like Jesus was by John—wading into water when you’re old enough to know what it means and you’ve accepted Jesus Christ into your heart.  I got defensive, saying that in my church we baptize babies and adults and I think God is fine with that and actually you’re just dumb if you don’t understand that.

Church camp ended by having anyone who wanted to be baptized come forward on the last day, wade into the lake, and be immersed in the water by a camp counselor.  I was not among those kids.  And when I came back to church and told my minister and his wife what happened, they were proud of me (not for calling the camp counselor dumb), but for believing that my baptism was perfectly valid in the eyes of God the first time around.

Truth be told, that negative childhood experience from that summer camp still irritates me.  And I am sincerely thankful that being the Pastor of our church has somehow redeemed the practice of full immersion baptism for me.  Because I no longer associate this religious act with judgment, but with God’s grace.  As I think about the Salmon River and the beloved children of God who have been baptized in its waters and the Deacons and Discipleship Mentors who wade into those waters to witness to God’s grace.  So that negative story has a happy ending as we have varied beliefs about baptism here at CFC and are spiritually mature enough to celebrate with each other.

Because we remember on Baptism of Christ Sunday that when Jesus goes to the Jordan River to get baptized by John, it marks the beginning of his ministry.  When he comes out of those waters something remarkable happens.  Jesus either heard or felt these words from God deep in his heart and soul: “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” The Common English Bible translates this verse as “You are my Son, whom I dearly love, in you I find happiness.”[1]

Jesus is about to embark on his three year journey of highs and lows, conflicts and triumphs, and a whole lot of adversity as he began to teach people that they are to love God and love their neighbors as themselves in order to create the Kingdom of God on earth now.  Today’s story paints a picture of God affirming Jesus and calling Jesus beloved, the one who brings God happiness.  It’s a moment of blessing, that’s the deeper meaning of the story.  And exactly how the baptism happened pales in comparison to what it ultimately means—not just for Jesus, but for his followers like us.

When we get so obsessive about the perfect way to do things, sometimes the deeper meanings get lost.  My Systematics Theology professor once told our class that the best way to think about Christian history and this inclination we seem to have is to picture an hourglass.  In the beginning of the Jesus Movement, there was a great deal of diversity, different beliefs and practices and even different Gospels wherever the faith spread.  The way Christians practiced their faith and the beliefs they held in Antioch were often different than Corinth or Rome or Ephesus and on and on.

Over time, with all those Church Councils and creeds and the Christian canon solidified and this once small Movement becoming powerful under Emperor Constantine, we have our hourglass coming in and being restricted.  At that time in the history of our Christian faith, it was all about Orthodoxy.  If one didn’t believe this doctrine or that doctrine, that person was declared a heretic.  Being a heretic had consequences—expelled from the Church, burned at the stake even, written off in history as the loser of the battle for the heart and soul of Christ’s Church.

The irony in all of this is that theology requires imagination in speaking about things that are often beyond our own experience and understanding.  It’s not like we can put God under a microscope and study God the way that we can other subjects.  It’s not like we can explore Jesus’ DNA in order to determine his genetic make-up.  Yet, theology as humanity trying to work out what this all means got lost in the middle of that hourglass.   We fought over what were orthodox beliefs about God and Jesus and the Church.

With the Protestant Reformation and now in our own time, our hourglass is slowly but surely spreading out again.  Diversity in religious beliefs and practices are accepted (in many circles, not all) and even celebrated.  Now we don’t just have Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant branches of Christianity, we diversify ourselves even more.  We have all our denominations in addition to terms like Mainline Protestants, Progressive Christians, Evangelical Christians, Nondenominational Christians, Emerging and Emergent Christians—and there’s a difference.  We have folks who identify as PentoBaptists (both Baptists and Pentecostals.)  We have MethoBaptists (Methodists and Baptists.)  And we could go on.  Our own Federated Church is a great example of people coming together as one across some differences.  But the point is that diversity in religious beliefs and practices are here once more, thank God.

Now that was a simplified explanation of thousands of years of Church History and practice, but this is all so exciting in the present!  Instead of the doom and gloom predictions of what will happen to Mainline Protestant denominations (including ours) in the midst of all these changes—we have the chance now to throw some things up in the air and see what really matters to us.  We have the opportunity to figure out who we are now in this generation.  God is Still Speaking!  It’s up to us to discern where God is leading us.

Because the thing is, I don’t think that Jesus went to John to get baptized knowing exactly how his ministry was going to go.  God’s divine affirmation and pep talk indicate that God was trying to make sure Jesus knew he was loved and that God would be with him at all times.  But it wasn’t going to be easy.  God does this for us too.  When each one of us gets baptized (no matter how old or young we happen to be when that baptism occurs), it’s an outward and visible sign of God’s love for us.  God names us and claims us as God’s own beloved.  The whole congregation takes vows that we will walk beside you and/or your child as we live out our faiths together at Colchester Federated Church.  There’s power present in this ancient practice.

In reflecting on God walking beside us and outwardly loving us in the practice of baptism, UCC Minister Donna Schaper once related that her brother called her and asked for his baptismal robe that hung in her house for decades.  She asked why, all his children were grown and he was now in his 50s.  Her little brother responded, “I want to remember that I was presented to God and that God took me in.”[2]

In some ways, we get to remember our presentations to God every time we witness a baptism here in this sanctuary or down by the river.  We get to declare the words Jesus once heard—you are our child whom God dearly loves.  In you, God finds happiness too.  And it doesn’t matter how that baptism happened or at what age, the love of God is always there.  This is what we witness in each and every baptism we see.  This is what we witness when we go back and look at the Baptism of Jesus the Christ.

And these are words to live by in our daily lives.  We don’t know what this year will bring our way.  We can’t predict the future.  But with God by our sides and this family of faith walking beside us, we certainly will not be alone in this sometimes crazy and conflicted world.  Remember that God finds happiness in you.  You are beloved.  Thanks be to God for that.  Amen.

[1] Luke 3:22, NRSV and CEB.
[2] Donna Schaper, “I Am Baptized” in The Best of the Stillspeaking Daily Devotionals, 13.