By Water and Spirit

Scripture: Acts 8:14-17

            In 1919 shortly after the end of World War I the army commissioned the Cross Country Motor Transport Train.  The mission was to take a convoy of military vehicles across the country from New York City to San Francisco.   The mission was two-fold.  First it was an endurance stress test for the army vehicles.  Second, the route wove through many small towns so the mission was something of an extended military parade.   The route utilized the Lincoln Highway, the only Network of roads that spanned the country.   Calling this a highway was a lose term, it was a cobbled together path that utilized connecting roads to get across the country, many of these roads were not paved and were in fact poorly kept dirt roads.  On more than one occasion, the convoy had to stop and the engineers had to actually build a bridge because the rickety wooden one in place would not hold the army’s trucks.  All told in 1919 this cross country journey took right at two months to go coast to coast by road. 

            The journey was longer and harder than anyone had anticipated.  The trials and difficulties of this long trek made a lasting impression on one of the officers assigned to the mission.   He was a captain at the time, but forty some years later he had achieved the rank of Commander in Chief.   Because of his cross country trek, Dwight D. Eisenhower strongly championed the creation of a national Interstate system.  This started to become a reality in 1956 with the passing of the Federal Aid Highway Act.  Over the next several decades, the country undertook a truly impressive engineering feat and managed to build a cross country, interconnected, interstate highway system.   The cross country journey that took Eisenhower two months to complete can now be done in five days.  

            An act of congress created the Interstate system in 1956, but the system was not declared complete until 1992.   Of course, we know the truth:  It is never really finished.  I am fairly confident that for my entire life some section of Interstate in Indiana has been under construction.  Seriously, it sometimes like they start projects because it is easier to move those orange cones than it is just to put them away.   There seems to always be road construction.     I also feel like that will not change.  

The Interstate system was created in1956 but as long as it is exist it will never have a true ending point.   In a lot of ways this parallels the life of a Christian.  Our journey with God begins with our baptism, but baptism was never meant to be the end goal.   Once a life of faith has begun, then like the Interstate system it is constantly under construction and renovation as that life becomes more Christ like.   This morning’s scripture reveals a key aspect of how that happens. 

By and large baptism is an area that is somewhat misunderstood.   Nearly all branches of Christianity baptize and consider it a sacrament.   We see it as important because Jesus himself was baptized, under his direction his disciples baptized during the ministry of Jesus, and as this morning’s scripture shows baptism is an important part of reception into the church.  We tend to recognize it as important, but the whys about why baptism is done and how it is done tends to be murky.  Unfortunately, baptism is contentious and causes division among denominations today.  One of the best ways to clear up the murkiness around baptism is to properly explain the reasoning and the whys behind baptism.  To do so, let us consider two areas of baptism that cause the most confusion and contention. 

The first of these areas of confusion and contention is how to baptize.   There are some branches of Christianity that insist a baptism only counts if it is by full immersion into water.   In the Methodist tradition we recognize immersion but also sprinkling or pouring as proper ways to administer the sacrament of baptism.  The reasoning for doing baptism by immersion is because it is the only method of baptism recorded in scripture.   The practice of doing baptism by other means emerged out of practical means.   Christianity started in Israel and first spread around the Middle East, which has a temperate Mediterranean climate.  Even in the height of winter, cold is not really that cold and full immersion baptisms are doable.  As Christianity spread to cooler European climates this is not true anymore.  A Baptism by immersion in northern England or Norway in the middle of January in the 1200s for instance, would not have been possible.  It was too cold outside and running water was not a thing.   Thus, new methods emerged.  

Again from the Methodist perspective, we do not have issues with using methods other than immersion because the how of baptism is not as important as the why of baptism.  The water used and the way it is administered is not magic.  It is not like doing a baptism the wrong way messes it up.  We believe that baptism is a means of grace that means that while the water is not magical it is a powerful and special symbol.  That through God’s blessing, the physical act of the element can and does convey God’s grace and love.  A document called By Water and the Spirit details the Methodist perspective of baptism, and it explains it this way: “The sacraments do not convey grace either magically or irrevocably, but they are powerful channels through which God has chosen to make grace available to us.”  Full immersion may feel more meaningful to an individual, and that is perfectly fine.  However, it is our stance that God is present in baptisms done through other means.  

The second area of confusion and the biggest area of contention is who should be baptized.   There are branches of Christianity that strongly believe in believer’s baptism.  This means that only people of a certain age should be allowed to be baptism.  However, in the Methodist articles of religion, the document that contains our core beliefs, one of the things John Wesley wrote on baptism is “the baptism of young children is to be retained in the Church.”

The reasons for this reveal a lot of the reason of why we baptize in the first place.  First, baptism from the very beginning has been about initiation into the church.   That is clearly shown in this morning’s scripture.  Peter and John journey to Samaria because it had accepted the word of God and many Samaritans had committed to following Jesus, and as the scripture shows this was initiated by being baptized in the name of Christ.  Baptizing children is an incredible statement, then that the child is part of the church.   The child is not outside of the community of God, but is valued enough to fully include from the beginning.   The baptism of an infant especially is a beautiful theological statement.  Infants are helpless and completely dependent, yet the love of God and the grace of God is still available to them and that love is manifest and made known to the child by how the community of faith embraces the child as one of their own.  

The second reason for baptizing infants is that baptism is a starting point.   It is not the culmination of a faith journey, it is where it begins.   Just like the Interstate system began in 1956, baptism is meant to be the beginning of our Christian life.   For a child born into a Christian home with faithful parents who earnestly desire to share the life giving message and faith of Christ Jesus, then the starting point for experiencing and being made aware of God’s infinite love truly does start as an infant.  

The idea that baptism is the starting point of our faith journey is the main message of this morning’s scripture, and that is true no matter what your faith tradition.   In this scripture the people of Samaria had been baptized.  They believed that Jesus had died for their sins, been resurrected, and freed them into the family of God.  However, baptism was only the first step.  For the people of Samaria, it was only when Peter and John laid their hands on them and prayed that they received the Holy Spirit.  The people of Samaria came to learn that baptism was not a one and done magic ritual that saved them for all time.  It was a starting point to a large world of following God.   This is true for us as well.

The sacrament of baptism has a lot incorporated into it, but as this morning’s scripture shows one of the elements that is part of baptism is recognizing the role the Holy Spirit plays.  This is demonstrated in our Baptism liturgy.  Right after the water is administered in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit the pastor then prays over the newly baptized saying, “The Holy Spirit work within you, that being born through water and the Spirit, you may be a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ. “  Baptism is the starting point in our faith journey, and it is the Holy Spirit that continues to guide us along the path.

 As much as we dislike it, I think the constant construction of the highway system is a very apt analogy for our faith journey.    Just like the highway system got started by an act of congress and then will never be truly finished, our faith journey with God begins with baptism but it is never truly finished.   We are in constant need of repair and improvement.  Baptism is the starting point where we are declared to belong to God and we recognize the work of God to make us new creations in Christ.  The formal theological word for this is regeneration.  However, being baptized does not prevent us from choosing sin, so just like a road needs to be repaired so does our soul.   The UMC articles of religion put it this way, “We believe, although we have experienced regeneration, it is possible to depart from grace and fall into sin; and we may even then, by the grace of God, be renewed in righteousness.” 

 Also just like road construction regularly switches the layout or adds new lanes in our faith we can constantly improve.   The Holy Spirit can work in our lives to improve upon the work begun in our baptism.   Through the empowerment of the Holy Spirit we can become more patient, more kind, more generous, or more loving people.  Through the empowerment of the Holy Spirit we can take steps of faith we never thought possible, we can do more than we thought possible, we can meet real needs, and we absolutely can make a real and lasting transformation in the world today.   As baptized believers we do not need to settle for “that’s just how it is”, because as this scripture shows the baptized have the Holy Spirit of God and with God all things are possible.  

The beginning of our baptism liturgy truly sums it all up, “Brothers and sisters in Christ:  Through the sacrament of Baptism we are initiated in to Christ’s holy church.  We are incorporated in to God’s mighty acts of salvation and given new birth through water and the Spirit.  All this is God’s gift, offered to us without price. “   If you have received that gift, and are interested in saying yes to God’s yes and being baptized, then let’s please not delay and talk about it soon.   If you are among the baptized though, may you claim it as the starting point.   May you continually renew the covenant declared at your baptism, readily acknowledge what God is doing for you, and re-affirm your commitment to Christ’s holy church.   May you be filled with the Holy Spirit and may you allow the spirit to work in your life.   Through the power of the Holy Spirit, the places may the potholes and rough patches in your thoughts and actions be made smooth.  Through the Holy Spirit may you continue to become more like Jesus that being born of water and spirit, God will use you to make a real difference in the world.