“Baptized and Beloved” Colchester Federated Church, January 12, 2020, (Matthew 3:13-17) The Baptism of Christ
The first Baptism I ever helped perform (as a Student Minister) was one that became unforgettable. It happened at the largest and most formal church I’ve served—a church that every Sunday has hundreds of people in worship and a grand processional down the center aisle during the opening hymn with the 30 plus member choir in their robes marching forward singing beautifully led by young acolytes and a crucifier bearing a golden cross with the five ministers marching at the end of the processional. It’s a church that appreciates pomp and circumstance, all the smells and bells of more formal worship (if you will), and it’s an absolutely beautiful worship experience. This is a UCC congregation that does that particular style of worship well.
So the Senior Minister came forward with me—the lowly Seminarian—and we’re going through the liturgy to baptize an infant of the church one Sunday morning. The baby was not having it, he was restless in his mother’s arms and she couldn’t calm him. He was agitated and on the verge of a full meltdown and we were just trying to get through the theological statements and questions as well (and fast) as we could. There’s a question that gets asked of the parents of the child being baptized in our UCC baptismal liturgy that goes like this, “Will you encourage this child to renounce the powers of evil and to receive the freedom of new life in Christ?” Somehow our Senior Minister misread that question and accidently asked, “Will you renounce this child?” and stopped himself. And I looked at him wide-eyed (this was my first ever baptism as a student minister that I was just helping to perform) and he looked at the parents of the baby, completely mortified. We felt the congregation wonder what just happened, what did he say? There was all this tension in the air. And the mother of the fussy baby about to be baptized, without flinching and voice full of sarcasm answered her Pastor asking, “Will you renounce this child?” by saying, “Well, today I do.” The entire congregation erupted in laughter and it took all of us time to get composed and continue on with the baptismal liturgy and baptize that beloved child of God who was just not having it that day.
Perhaps why this was an unforgettable moment was because of the setting in a church that loved formal worship. Though the congregation tended to have a good sense of humor. And as a student minister yet to be ordained it was a wonderful lesson in grace, really. That sometimes the minister will not get the baptismal questions perfect and the child to be baptized will be fussy. Yet life goes on. As an ordained minister, I’ve been privileged to baptize 22 people thus far, ranging in age from infants to teenagers to adults. Baptisms tend to have memorable moments, from the infant who kept pulling on my hair and then on my cross and almost choked me to the baptisms we did with the Discipleship Class in the waters of the Salmon River in May of 2018 when it was freezing rain and we all could see our breath in the air. There are inevitably these memorable moments where we feel joy and God’s grace present.
Today is Baptism of Christ Sunday where we remember Jesus’ baptism by John in the waters of the Jordan River. We remember our own baptisms or the baptisms of those we love and hold dear. Maybe we haven’t been baptized yet, and we use this day to look forward with anticipation to the day that we will be baptized. Whatever the case may be, we all can remember that the unforgettable moment of Jesus’ baptism, of course, was the heavens opening as he came up out of the water and seeing the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. The moment when he heard a voice from heaven declare, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
Jesus’ baptism by John marks the beginning of his public ministry. It marks a moment where Jesus shows his full commitment to God and to the ministry before him, his allegiance to God’s righteousness. His willingness to preach and teach and heal and be with those on the margins, showing the love of God for all people. All of what’s to come in Jesus’ ministry begins in the waters of baptism. And this is just one reason that we hold baptism to be so sacred in our Christian tradition. We know that baptism is something that Jesus experienced and from the beginning of the faith, it’s been an important symbolic action to usher in new life for the one baptized with water and the Holy Spirit.
In our church, we have different understandings of baptism. There are different beliefs over when this act should happen in a person’s life. In the UCC, people are baptized as either children or adults—typically inside a sanctuary using water from a baptismal font that’s sprinkled on a person’s forehead. In the ABC, people are baptized as youth or adults (believer’s baptism) and must be fully immersed in water—whether the church has a baptistery in the sanctuary or goes to a body of water like we do here at CFC with the Salmon River down the road. We have different understandings of how to perform baptisms and sometimes even language that we use to describe this act. For UCCers it’s a sacrament. For ABCers, it’s an ordinance.
Though it seems that the commonality is the belief that this is the act that fully incorporates a person into the Church, the body of Christ. The water, the words, and the actions of the act of baptism are visible signs of an invisible grace. Baptism is both God’s gift and our human response to that gift, a sign and seal of being disciples of Jesus Christ. This is the moment that is a sign and seal of God’s grace, the moment that we hear and fully experience that we—you and me—are beloved children of God. Just as Jesus heard that he was God’s Beloved Son the moment that John baptized him and he came up out of the waters. The moment we are named and claimed by God is not quite so dramatic. Though just like Jesus, we are baptized and beloved by God.
In some ways, the question on this Baptism of Christ Sunday becomes what do we do with this grace—how do we respond to this action? Does baptism and being claimed as God’s beloved children make us exclusionary toward others, toward anyone who hasn’t been baptized? That has certainly been the case throughout Christian history and even how people practice the Christian faith today. Or does being baptized open us up toward others, realizing that if God names us and claims us as God’s own who is to say that others aren’t named and claimed by God too? It’s certainly something to contemplate because baptism remains that important in the Christian Church and in the individual lives of Christians.
This week has been difficult in our world. Though we remember on a week like this that Jesus was called the Prince of Peace for a reason. Jesus advocated for nonviolence, teaching in the Gospel according to Matthew (just a few chapters ahead of the story that we heard today), “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” Advocating and praying for peace is a Christian ethical principle. Perhaps part of the reason that Jesus taught his followers “blessed are the peacemakers” is because Jesus saw inherent worth and dignity in every human being. He saw people as having worth at a time when those in power didn’t always do so. Jesus taught his followers to see other people through his own eyes, his eyes of compassion. Sometimes this practice has been described in Christian Education lessons for younger children that we can look at the world and at one another with our “Jesus eyes.” It’s hard to know what the future holds—though at a minimum, we can pray for peace as Christians to truly follow in the footsteps of Jesus Christ, our teacher.
Maybe that’s the gift of remembering our baptisms or looking forward to the day that we will be baptized especially right now on January 12th, 2020. We remember that if we are beloved children of God, then being beloved applies to other people too. Being baptized as Christians and declared beloved makes us unique in some ways and unites us with others simultaneously. Because baptism is how Christians become officially part of the Church—the Body of Christ. That applies to Christians in South Korea and India and Palestine and Ghana and Honduras and Australia and all over the world. It’s an act of being named and claimed by God that isn’t unique to us alone here at our church or even in our denominations or even in the United States.
We as Christians can be proud and filled with joy for what baptism means in our faith tradition and how it unites us across different nationalities and races and cultures, reminding us that we are part of a beautiful tapestry of faith. In the end, human beings are meaning-making creatures who need rituals in our lives. It helps to have those special moments where we are named and claimed by God, where we are given courage for the journey ahead of us. So today let us remember with joy that when we are baptized, we are declared beloved. Knowing this deep in our hearts—let us follow in the footsteps of Jesus, the Christ and the Prince of Peace—who challenged us to be compassionate as our God is compassionate. Thanks be to God. Amen.