Last month, I found myself following and to some extent participating in a twitter conversation or debate about the practice and theology of baptism. A number of people from various backgrounds took part as they discussed the relative merits of adult believer’s baptism or infant baptism, and explored the meaning of the rite—does it wash away original sin? Is it primarily a sign or symbol of membership in a community? Does it transmit grace, but only if the one being baptized makes a mature confession of faith or commitment? Continue reading
A friend of ours, our former Yoga teacher, was back in town over the holidays, and over lunch as we caught up on our lives, she recommended a book to me: Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion. It’s written by Fr. Greg Boyle, a Jesuit priest who has served in the LA projects for over 30 years. He works with gang members, helping them get off the street and leading productive lives. It’s a book full of powerful stories of redemption, forgiveness, resilience, and suffering. For most of the men and women in these neighborhoods, gangs provide the only family and community they have ever known. Continue reading
There’s a story behind my name—a story tied up with my family and roots, and it’s a story and a name with which I’ve always struggled. It’s not just that my surname is both awkward and uncommon—should it be pronounced Greezer or Greizer—or, heaven forbid, Greaser. BTW, I had a German prof in college who took great delight in addressing me as Herr Greaser…
It’s a German name, so it’s Grieser, of course. And while it may be rare in Wisconsin or worldwide, my hometown was full of Griesers. My grandfather, great-grandfather, and great great grandfather all had lots of sons who had lots of sons, and most of them stayed in the area. At least back home, they know how to pronounce it.
But there’s also the matter of my first and middle names. My parents wanted to call me Jon, but they wanted my initials to match the initials of my deceased grandfather—so DJ—but in my case the D stood for Dale—my father’s first name. So growing up, I was Jon, even though at least two other Jon Griesers in my elementary school, which led to infinite confusion. For example, I once wore a pair of prescription glasses for a week that was meant for one of the other Jons.
That particular confusion came to an end when my fifth-grade teacher, calling the roll on the first day of class, saw my first initial and promptly named me DJ. The name stuck and by DJ I was known until I graduated from college. That brought its own set of confusions and challenges—the inevitable question—are you a DJ?
So I’ve struggled with my first name and when I’m dealing with doctors or business or what have you, if I identify myself as Jonathan, they won’t be able to find my record. And then there’s the whole issue of my surname which is uncommon, unattractive, and confusing to pronounce.
Names are funny things, and we’ve just learned this week that our nation’s political polarization extends to preferences for naming babies. Apparently there are different lists of the most popular name in blue states and red states. Perhaps like me you’ve struggled with the name your parents chose for you, or you struggle with the surname that you carry with you.
The story of Jesus’ baptism is puzzling and problematic on several levels. In the first place, while the synoptic gospels all tell some version of the story, there are significant differences. Remember that the gospel of Mark was probably the first of the gospels to be written, and that Matthew, which we are reading in this year of the lectionary, draws heavily on Mark as a source. But Matthew changes Mark in some important ways. Only in Matthew, for example, do we have the dialogue between John the Baptist and Jesus, in which John protests saying that Jesus should baptize him.
More significant is another slight change. In Mark, after the baptism, the voice from heaven says, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” In Matthew, the voice says, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” In other words, in Mark, the voice seems to be speaking directly to Jesus, naming him as God’s Son; in Matthew, the voice speaks to John, and or to the crowd, identifying for them who Jesus is.
In these different accounts of Jesus’ baptism, we can see early Christians struggling to make sense of this event. It’s a problem for them for a couple of reasons. First, of course, is the obvious one. The gospels tell us that John baptized people for forgiveness of sins—baptism was a symbol of repentance and amendment of life. But if that was the case, why would Jesus, who presumably being divine was without sin, need to be baptized?
The second problem is perhaps less obvious but equally troubling among the first followers of Jesus. That he was baptized by Jesus implies that John somehow had as much, or more, authority than Jesus. We know from other stories in the gospels, and from the book of Acts, that there was something of a competition between followers of Jesus and followers of John, and it didn’t strengthen the position of early Christians in this controversy that John baptized Jesus. We can also see that as time goes on, there’s an attempt to erase the act of Jesus’ baptism. Thus, in the gospel of John, while we read about John the Baptist and learn of encounters and conversations between Jesus and John, if you look carefully, you will note that no where is it stated explicitly that John baptized Jesus.
All of that is of historical interest, but the story of Jesus’ baptism is not important only for the problems it presents to the gospel writers and perhaps to us; it is also important for the meaning the gospel writers attach to it. Although the voice from heaven says slightly different things in Matthew and Mark and may seem to be addressing different audiences, the message in both instances is quite clear, that Jesus is God’s Beloved Son.
To state the obvious, Jesus’ baptism is about his identity, making clear who he is. It’s not coincidental that in both Matthew and Mark, the very next event recounted is Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, which was about Satan testing Jesus’ identity.
This is where Jesus’ baptism connects with our own baptisms. In our baptisms, we become children of God. As I remind you regularly, when I make the sign of the cross with the oil of chrism on the forehead of the baptized, I say, “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.”
In baptism, we become sons and daughters of God. In baptism, we claim our identity as Christians. That identity, that belonging to God, cannot be taken away by anyone or anything. I’m not even sure we are able to renounce that identity, even if we want to. Our identity as Christians, as beloved of God, is a reminder of who we are, a reminder of our value and worth, in the eyes of God and of the world.
It’s a message we need to hear regularly, in a world in which there are so many other claims on our identity, challenges to our identity. We need to be reminded that we are God’s, that we are beloved of God, especially now, when there are many who would deny the value and worth of so many of us—that because we are not white, or male, or heterosexual, that because we were not born in this country, our lives matter less, our hopes and dreams are worthless. We are all beloved of God.
But don’t take it only from me. Right now, I would like you to turn to your neighbor, introduce yourself if you don’t know each other’s names, take your thumb and make the sign of the cross on each other’s foreheads, and as you make that sign, say, “You are God’s beloved child.”
That, my friends, is the meaning of baptism. Let us claim it, and let us claim our shared identities as God’s beloved children.
Today is the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord. Each year on the Sunday after the Epiphany (which occurs on January 6), the church remembers Jesus’ baptism by John. It’s also one of the major feasts when we typically offer the sacrament of baptism. It’s an especially appropriate day for us to baptize newcomers to the faith, as it reminds us all of Jesus’ example.
With Epiphany, we have moved out of the Christmas season and into a period when we explore the ways in which we experience God’s becoming present among us and in the world. Our scripture readings, gospel, even hymns, during these weeks will emphasize God’s glorious presence in the world. There’s a sense in which the season of Epiphany is an extension of the season of Christmas, when we celebrate and experience God becoming one of us, God in the midst of us. But Epiphany is not limited to our experience of God in Christ, it encourages us to explore all of the ways God makes Godself present and real to us.
The synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke agree that Jesus’ baptism is the beginning of his public ministry. In none of those gospels do we hear Jesus speak before he is baptized by John. That should make attune us to the significance of this act, both for the gospel writers (and the communities for and to which they were writing) and for Jesus. In all three gospels, the description of Jesus’ baptism is accompanied by what we would regard as supernatural events—the heavens are opened, a voice speaks, and the Holy Spirit comes upon Jesus. The details of these events differ from gospel to gospel. Luke emphasizes, for example, that the Holy Spirit comes upon Jesus in the bodily form of a dove and that the voice speaks directly to Jesus, saying “You are my Son, the beloved.”
There are many questions we might ask of this brief account of Jesus’ baptism in Luke, especially if we were to compare it to the accounts in Mark and Matthew, but for today I want us to focus on the significance Luke places on the event. There are two things to note. First, the voice—“You are my Son, the beloved.” It’s significant that Luke has this statement addressed to Jesus (Matthew, for example, has the voice saying, “This is my son” in other words, the voice addresses the crowd, not Jesus.” In his baptism, Luke seems to be implying, Jesus becomes the one of whom John spoke; he is the one to fulfill the expectations of the people.
The second important thing is the coming down of the Holy Spirit. This points to one of the key themes in Luke’s over-arching narrative—the presence of the Holy Spirit. Luke organizes his two-volume work, the gospel and the book of Acts, by emphasizing the role and activity of the Holy Spirit. It comes down upon Jesus at his baptism. Jesus’ last words on the cross in Luke are “Into your hands I commend my Spirit” suggesting that the Holy Spirit departs from Jesus at his death. Then, on Pentecost, the Holy Spirit descends upon all of the disciples and goes with them throughout the world, as the brief reading from Acts reminds us. For Luke, baptism and Holy Spirit are linked, for Jesus and for everyone.
The two are linked in our practice as well. As I pour water into the font and pray over the water, I recall the Holy Spirit’s moving in creation and I invoke its presence in the water and in the lives of those being baptized. After I pour water over their heads, I will anoint them with the oil of chrism and tell each of them that they are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.
I may say the words but I doubt many of us expect or experience the sort of supernatural events described by Luke at Jesus’ baptism. In our church, baptism usually occurs with small children, typically infants as is the case with Ella and Noah today. And while we celebrate the baptisms of babies, rejoicing with their families as we welcome them into the body of Christ, our modern sensibilities shrink back from the idea that something supernatural is happening when I pour water and say the words, “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
But today we are also baptizing an adult. Actually, it’s a bit more complicated than that. Soon after Paula began attending services regularly, she and I had a conversation during which she told me she didn’t know whether she had been baptized. We could have left it at that. After all, if you were baptized as a baby, you couldn’t remember being baptized, and the chances that you would still have a baptismal certificate highly unlikely—we regularly receive requests from people for proof of baptism. There’s one sitting in my email inbox right now.
So today is a teaching moment for all of us. Paula wasn’t sure whether she had been baptized and wanted that certainty. So, I will be performing what’s called a conditional baptism, prefacing the usual formula with the phrase “If you are not already baptized…” The church has long taught that any baptism performed with water and in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is a valid baptism, no matter who performs it or wherever it takes place. In fact, rebaptism is considered heresy.
Paula’s desire to be certain of her baptism is a reminder to all of us of the importance and the power of baptism. It may only be water, and it may only be words. But the words and the water brought together have the power to save. Baptism cleanses us from our sins, brings us into the body of Christ and makes us Christ’s own forever. We bear the sign of the cross; the sign of Christ’s suffering and love, and we share that sign with the world. In baptism, we embark on the journey of becoming Christ’s own, of becoming Christ-like. Each time we witness a baptism, we are invited to recall and reclaim our own baptisms, to recall and reclaim our identity as Christ’s own and to recommit ourselves to becoming transformed into his image.
May the baptisms of each of these individuals be a powerful presence in their lives, as they share in Christ’s death and resurrection, and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. May these baptisms be a powerful presence in our lives, reminding us of Christ’s saving and life-giving power, inspiring us to repentance and newness of life, filling all of us with joy.
The Sunday after the Epiphany is always the Baptism of our Lord. On this Sunday, we hear the story of Jesus’ baptism according to one of the gospels. It’s also a day when we often celebrate baptisms. Unfortunately, due to a combination of circumstances, we aren’t baptizing anyone at Grace today. But the lessons still give us an opportunity to reflect on baptism—what it means, why we do it, and how we can claim it as central to our lives as Christians. Continue reading