January 13, About baptism

 About baptism

Isaiah 43:1-7, Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

If there is any act, any ritual, any physical expression that serves as the primary religious act, the primary religious ritual, the primary physical expression of who we are, as people whose spiritual ancestors were derisively called Anabaptists, but nevertheless embraced the label…if there is any such primal and primary act for us, it is baptism.

That is to say, by heritage, by conviction, by practice, we are people of non-violence, we are people who wash feet, we are people who serve others, we are people who seek simplicity, we are people who believe in no force in religion, we are people who live in the accountability and support of community, we are people who are non-creedal, we are people of conscience, we are people who are in the world but not of the world, we are people who worship God over government, we are people who believe in the ongoing interpretation and revelation of scripture, we are people who testify to faith more often with our actions than our words, we are people who believe in an upside-down kingdom…we are all of that, but if there is one act, one ritual that points to who we are more than any other, that points back to our heritage as well as forward toward our intentions and our allegiances, it is baptism.

After all, baptism is the very first way in which we are able to follow the example of Jesus. We Brethren, I would argue, are not biblical literalists in the way that many Christian fundamentalists are, but it is not much of a stretch to say that we are in many ways “Jesus-literalists.”

Why else take so seriously Jesus’ teaching to love one’s enemies? Why else let your yes be yes and your no be no? Why else take a towel around your waist and kneel to wash the feet of another? Why else refuse the ways of violence? And why else go under the water and then come back up again? Because, we would say, Jesus did it, and we seek to do what Jesus taught and what Jesus did.

And baptism? Well, baptism, we would say then, is something we do because it was the very first teaching of Jesus – a teaching by example. He did it, and our faith forebears did it, and so we do it. More than any other ritual, any other act, this is where the Jesus-example begins.

When Seth and I were talking the other day in one of our continuing orientation conversations about expectations and so forth for youth ministry in this church, I mentioned baptism. He was asking the “what are the expectations” and the “what are the regular patterns here” questions, and I volunteered that one of the things that he will be asked about is baptism: Are you emphasizing baptism with the youth? Are you teaching them about it, preparing them for their own decision of faith?

It’s an important question for a pastor to be asked, especially one who works with young people who are approaching adulthood in a faith tradition that emphasizes an adult decision of faith. But we might also say that it’s not exactly a clean or simple kind of question. Because, on the one hand, we identify ourselves as non-coercive people. When it comes to faith, we don’t want to put pressure on anyone. We want to be low-key, respectful, patient.

But on the other hand, we really, really want our young people to understand who we are and what we are about and how important and life-shaping all of this is, and we want to know that they understand it and take it seriously and have engaged it in meaningful and aware kinds of ways, and deep down, we think, we believe, that if we have done our job well– if we have witnessed consistently, and explained clearly, and lived with integrity, and loved deeply – then why wouldn’t our children, our grandchildren, our brothers and sisters, our new friends, even our former opponents, want to join us? If in these matters of faith and belief and spiritual practices, we have witnessed consistently, and explained clearly, and lived with integrity, and loved deeply, why wouldn’t someone look at us and say: That’s the life I want. That’s the new life I want. How do I sign up?

In my pastoral ministry across the years, I have baptized more than 50 people. It’s not a large number relative to the number of years I’ve been at this work, but I will say this: that every one of those baptisms represents to me a very significant conversation and connection that I’ve felt with those persons. None of those baptisms was spur of the moment, none was done out of view of the faith community, nobody was compelled or forced or unduly influenced.

Every single person descended into the waters because something of this or another faith community, something of heritage, something of personal seeking, something of the example of Jesus and of the lives of others in the body of Christ, spoke to them, stirred them, because something shifted in them, some shift towards newness, some shift toward wholeness.

In more recent years, when I am introducing candidates for baptism, this is how I often start the introduction. I will say this: One person has said that in baptism, “going under symbolizes the end of everything about your life that is less than human. Coming up again symbolizes the beginning in you of something strange and new and hopeful. You can breathe again.” Whatever else we might say of baptism, it does involve a new beginning, a new breath, and reaching for something within and beyond ourselves that is better, more true, and whole.

In the gospel text for today, I noticed something this week that I’ve never noticed before. So, I pulled it out of the text and put it at the top of the bulletin so that you could see it too – it’s found there in verse 21 of Luke 3: Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven opened.

What I noticed in that verse, in that phrase, wasn’t just that when Jesus was baptized the heaven opened and a voice spoke approval. I’ve always noticed that, in each of the gospel accounts of Jesus’ baptism. No, what I noticed for the first time was the first part: Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized…

As I looked at those words, I realized that I’ve always thought of this story as the story of Jesus’ baptism – and it is – but now I see that it’s also the story of the baptism of all the other people who were there. Maybe the writer writes it that way to point out that, of all the baptisms that happened that day, Jesus’ baptism was the only one that opened the heavens and summoned God’s voice – You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased. – so that’s where our attention is drawn. But for Jesus’ baptism to be highlighted that way, the story depends on this other piece too: that all the people who were there with Jesus and John at the Jordan were baptized too. All of them. They all made a choice for a new life – for “a new beginning, a new breath, reaching for something within and beyond, that is better, more true, and whole.”

And that’s what baptism is. It’s a decision to join the church. It’s a commitment to follow Jesus. It’s an identification with our particular Christian tradition through this particular expression of ritual – trine immersion, kneeling in the posture of prayer. It’s a public statement about faith. But at the end of it all – or maybe I should say, at the beginning of it all – the beginning, the moment when you come up out of the water – it’s a decision for a new life, a choice for a new life, for each of us, for all of us. Jesus doesn’t do it for us – we do it with him. Together we choose new life.

Now, some people understand a decision for new life and live into that more easily than others. But some are so attached to their old life, that they can hardly imagine the need for a new life. And some are worried that they might say, “I choose a new life,” but then they won’t be able to follow through, so maybe it would be better not to risk it at all. Some don’t believe in new lives, in this “fairy tale” of being re-born, or else they focus on those they have met who claim to be “born again,” and thinking of those folks they realize that they see nothing attractive or compelling or inspiring about those persons. So, the idea of a “new life” is hard to swallow, much less  imagine.

But let us remember, let us recognize, that Jesus went into the water and everyone else who was there that day went into the water, and they all did it because they believed in a new life, they were choosing a new life – a turning from the old, and turning toward the new; a washing away of the old, and an embrace of the new.

I will admit that sometimes I find it easier than other times to believe in a whole new life. Some days I struggle to get past the feeling that each day is just a recycling of the day before – that the things I struggled with yesterday are going to be the same things I’ll struggle with today and the day after that and the day after that.

But then, sometimes it’s different. Sometimes -- maybe in the best and most hopeful moments – I realize that today is not the same as yesterday. Most days the change I might detect is subtle, but every now and then it’s dramatic. Every now and then it really is a whole new life that comes into view, that becomes available, and I recognize that I do have a choice: Am I going to let what is new wash away the old – wash it away so I can come up clean! – or am I going to stand on the river bank and fret about what I cannot change or what I don’t want to change?

Not just today, but many times in recent weeks, I have been thinking a lot about Seth and Laina and their family and the change they’ve made in coming here to be with us. I don’t know if they think of it as a whole new life, because there are people here who they knew from before, and this community of North Manchester is a place they knew from before, but certainly it must feel to them at times that they are in a running stream, maybe even a flood, of change. So much is new. 

I got to go along to the Senior High youth retreat that Seth led last weekend, the first weekend he was on the job. I could tell he was a bit nervous – not about how to do a retreat or about his resources or plans, but about this new group of youth.

I kind of lost sight of that ahead of the retreat because I do know our young people and I’ve learned to read them, at least to a reasonable level – but for him, they were new. And for them, he was new. And so, what they were starting to create that weekend was a new life together – the beginnings, the seeds, of a new life together, not just for them, but for all of us. I am reminded again of those words I said that I have often used before baptism, words about what happens in that act: Something strange and new and hopeful…

Now I want to tell you a secret, but you have to promise not to tell anyone. Okay? This is just between us:  some of the boys who went on the retreat – I won’t name names – jumped in the pond at that retreat last weekend. It was on Sunday near the end of our time together. One of those “polar bear’ things that kids want to do. There was a thin layer of ice on the surface of the water. And even without the ice, jumping into that water is against the rules. (Although we didn’t know that until afterwards.)

But jump in they did. And it was cold. Really cold. Maybe as cold as it was for the first Brethren baptized in America on Christmas day of 1723, who broke the ice in the Wissahickon creek in Philadelphia to be baptized.

I don’t know what it was like in Philadelphia all those years ago, but I did see what it was like last Sunday. After the boys came out, and their teeth stopped chattering, they couldn’t stop talking about it. It was something they won’t forget: risk, rules, cold, community, excitement, change, relationship, courage, refreshment.

Maybe some time they will jump into the waters of faith too. Our waters – the ones that come with promises to follow Jesus and to belong together. I don’t know. I hope so. And if so, I hope it is as life-awakening for them as the water that morning was.

 

Amen.

 

Benediction:

May God who makes all things

new dwell among us

and give us new life. Amen.

 

 

Kurt Borgmann

Manchester Church of the Brethren

January 13, 2019