Down to the River (Message for June 23rd)

I discovered something this week.    Baptism can be kind of comical.  In preparation for this morning, I searched for funny baptism stories, and they existed in droves.  When you get people in water, especially young people it appears that things get funny fairly quickly.   Baptism is a solemn and holy moment, but as all of those stories showed it can often lead to people chuckling for one reason or another.   One of my favorites that I read came from a Pastor named Barney Wiget while he was at a church in Santa Cruz, California.   Being on the coast they have the unique opportunities of doing beach baptisms.  Once they gathered at a location on the beach, Pastor Wiget explains what happens:   “We went to one of the worst locations for what we were trying to do. I mean, my first clue should have been that there was no one else in the shallow water just playing around – no one wading, no kids splashing around in the hip deep water. There were some surfers out a little deeper as I recall, but no one in the shallow. As I looked back at it later, I realized there was almost never such activity at that particular beach. No one ever just plays on the shore of this beach. And there is a reason for that. Duh! The waves there can be fairly large at times, but they’re not the kind that you see coming for a long time. They kind of jut up quickly, and then crash angrily on the sand.  We did the appropriate praying with the candidates along with about 30 people from our church on beach. I was saving the pronouncing of them officially baptized in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit for when we were in the water. Then I took our first brave soul, along with a helper out to the proper depth of water. We turned around to face the beach and our smiling onlookers. I began the pronouncement, “Based on your confession of faith in the Lord Jesus…” I noticed about half way through that the looks on the faces of our friends on the beach changed.  Their eyes seemed to enlarge, some with panic, others with hilarity. The next thing I remember is this huge shadow enveloping us from behind, accompanied by a moment of eerie silence, and then the ear-splitting crash. The three of us were covered, then lifted off our feet, then pounded down against the hard sandy bottom and washed up to shore right to feet of our laughing Christian brothers and sisters.   As we stood (three drenched and disheveled Christians), my baptizee exclaimed, ‘Wow! Was that it?!’ “


            It is odd that baptism is so core to our Christian faith, but at the same time so divisive.   Sadly baptism is one of the issues that has long divided elements of the church from one another.   There are so many different ways to approach baptism, beliefs for how to baptize, and thoughts about who should be baptized that someone would not be faulted for asking, “Just what is baptism?”     There is an old joke where a little boy is asked to explain baptism in Sunday school.  He said “it is when the preacher holds you underwater and you think about Jesus. “     Is that really all it is?   Surely, baptism is more than just thinking about Jesus.    More seriously, baptism has to be more than just a rite of passage that parents go through by having their infants baptized, because they are supposed to.    Baptism is so much more than that.   For the baptized, whether you were immersed or sprinkled, baptized as an infant or as an adult, baptism should be at the core of who we understand ourselves to be as followers of Christ.  


            Before we can fully dive into how our baptism should daily impact our lives, I realize that there are some issues around baptism that need to be unpacked first.   As mentioned baptism divides us as a body of Christ across denominations.   The two most divisive issues on this subject are how to baptize and when to baptize.    I think this is unfortunate, because as we will see what baptism represents is far more important than the details.  


            The first issue is easy, in how to baptize.    In some traditions, such as ours sprinkling is the most common form, in others it is full immersion or nothing.    The argument for only doing immersion baptisms comes from the fact, that when we look at the Bible the only example given is immersion.    In an area like Israel this is not an issue, where there is warmer weather, year round.   However, as Christianity spread it had to adapt.  For example in the fourth century if there was someone who wanted to be baptized in England during the middle of December, what does one do?   Immersion is not practical when the closest bodies of water are ice cold.    The only options are to wait or get creative.   Methods like sprinkling came about as a way to deal with the fact that immersion in water was not always a practical option.   All methods are viable, because baptism is not magic, and the water is not magic.   The water is a symbol that represents God’s love and acceptance.   More than that, it is a means of grace, which means through the element God’s love can be tangibly felt and known.    The amount of water used does not make one way better than the other, because baptism is an outward sign of an inward grace.  Whether a whole river is used or just a handful of water, the water still represents the same thing and the sacrament glorifies God either way. 


            The bigger issue that causes division among Christians on the subject of baptism is when to baptize people.  There are some faith traditions that only baptize people of a certain age, who are old enough to make a commitment to faith on their own.   There are other traditions, like ours, that has retained the practice of infant baptism.    I do not fault parents who wish to refrain from baptizing their children when they are young, because they would rather have their children make the decision for baptism themselves.  At the same time though, I affirm infant baptism and consider those baptisms just as valid as believer baptisms.   Baptism in either form is a celebration of God’s love and grace in those being baptized.  The difference is on how that grace is emphasized.    In our Methodist beliefs, we understand that we can experience God’s grace in multiple ways.   In believer baptism, justifying grace is emphasized.   This is the love of God we experience when we accept that Jesus died for our sins.  This is the love of God we feel, when we have an assurance that we are saved.   In a believer baptism, this grace is emphasized as the baptized publically proclaims and celebrates their salvation and faith through Christ.  In infant baptism, prevenient grace is emphasized.  Prevenient grace is the love that God has for us, before we love God.    This is the love that we experience, whether we realize it or not, because God actively cares for us at all times.    In an infant baptism, this grace is emphasized as it is acknowledged that God’s grace, love, and protection will be with the infant for all their lives.   The baptized infant is a testimony that we can do nothing to earn God’s love, but God’s love is always there for us.     In either type of baptism, the baptized is more fully brought into the community of faith.    Both forms of baptism celebrate the work and love of God.    Both forms of baptism are valid, and this morning’s scripture reminds us that the baptized have a special understanding of who they are in Christ.  


            Baptism has deep roots in the ancient Jewish practice of ceremonial washing.    In the Torah, the ancient Jewish laws, we can find very in depth instructions for ceremonial washings.   Like baptism, these washings were a physical sign of an inward change.   There were a variety of things that could make one unclean throughout day to day life, ceremonial washing was a way of signifying that those things were behind and that the focus of the person was now on worshipping God.   In Jesus day, around the temple in Jerusalem there were ceremonial baths called a mikveh.   Jews would walk through a mikveh to ceremonially clean themselves before entering a temple.   Paul wrote the book of Romans, to the Christians in Rome which had a large Jewish contingent.   These Jews would have been familiar with the idea of a mikveh, and probably thought of them when they heard verses 3 and 4: “Don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?   We were therefore buried with him through baptism, into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.”   Just as ancient worshippers entered a mikveh unclean came out clean, so too that those who are baptized in Christ have a new life.   


            The unfortunate truth is that all baptized people, from those who are baptized at 12 months, 12 years, or 120 years, we never cease being sinners.   As verse 11 reminds us, we are supposed to “count ourselves dead to sin, but alive in Christ Jesus.”    I do not need to tell you how much harder that is to practice over say.   We try, but it seems that sin is a bad habit we just can never quite kick.   In baptism we acknowledge that we have a dual nature.   We acknowledge that we are sinners with a sinful nature, but we also claim the hope and promise that we can be so much better than that nature.   We claim that as the baptized, we are new creations in Christ, that we have been made (and we are being made to be) more than our sinful selves.   We claim that through the saving power of Christ that sin truly can no longer have power over us.   We claim that someday, when God’s kingdom fully comes who we are as new creations in Christ will be fully realized.   


            Every day we face the choice as to who we are going to be.   Are we going to allow our sinful nature to rule, or are we going to attempt to live as who we are as a new creation in Christ?   Martin Luther, the great catalyst that started the protestant reformation, had a strong emphasis on remembering our baptism.    When he would wash his face, he would look in the mirror and tell himself, “Remember, you are baptized.”   In fact, when he was discouraged or afraid he would splash water on himself and say, “But I am baptized!”     We have to regularly and daily remind ourselves that we are baptized.   That we have been claimed for and by God’s love.   We have to remind ourselves that our imperfections, our flaws, and failures do not define us because we have been baptized and through God’s mighty work he envisions us as a new creation, in Christ Jesus.   We have to remind ourselves that we belong to God and not to the world.     We have to remind ourselves of this so that we can be who we are meant to be.   We have to remind ourselves so that like Christ, the lives we live, we live to God.   As a practical discipleship practice, I encourage you to remember your baptism daily.   Every day as you go through your morning “get ready ritual” as you wash your face or turn the shower on, may you like Martin Luther remember your baptism, and be thankful.   


            Today as a church family, we have the amazing privilege to celebrate the sacrament of baptism, and to once again recognize and claims the awesome acts of God’s love.    As we go down to the river, may those who are baptized remember your baptism.   May you remember that God loves you and God claims you.    May you remember that you are a new creation in Christ Jesus, and may you more fully claim that identity.     Where ever you are at in your faith today, however close or far you feel from God today, let’s all go down to the river.    May we all go down to the river as we are, but may we not come back that way.   As we celebrate the love of God through baptism may we all be touched and may we all come back as the new people God is shaping us to be.