Baptism of our Lord
January 10, 2010
Some of you know that I grew up Mennonite. It’s not something I talk about a lot, if only because I’ve gotten tired of telling the story over the years. For many of you, the term “Mennonite” conjures up people who dress in funny clothes, drive around with horse and buggies, or bring choirs to sing at the Dane County Farmer’s Market. Well, all of those things are true, I suppose, but that doesn’t at all describe my upbringing. The only funny clothes I wore growing up were the clothes we all wore in the 70s and I’ve never driven a horse and buggy. The Mennonite community in which I was raised had abandoned most of its peculiar dress and ways in the first half of the twentieth century and now if you were to visit my mother’s church, the people would look very much like typical Midwesterners.
That is not to say there are not, and were not, oddities about the Mennonite Church and over time, I’m sure I will have more to say about them and Corrie would be happy to share with you her take on them. My journey from the Mennonite Church of my childhood to the Episcopal priesthood was a long and winding road filled with wrong turns, the occasional dead-end, and a few visits to the ditch.
One of the roadblocks for me was infant baptism. The roots of the Mennonite Church lie in the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century and with a group of people who rejected infant baptism, arguing that only baptism of adults, made after a mature confession of faith, was valid. What I find interesting in my own journey is that while I came to accept the theological arguments in defense of infant baptism relatively quickly, imagining myself baptizing a baby took a very long time. My spiritual forebears had given their lives because of their commitment to adult believer’s baptism, and if you look at the 39 Articles in the back of the Book of Common Prayer, you can read the denunciation there of the practice of adult baptism.
I say all that because today we are baptizing both children and an adult. We don’t often do that in the Episcopal Church, but I suspect that as our culture changes and becomes more secular, we will be doing more and more of it. Jewel Rose will be taking the big step in a few minutes, and with her will be Cade and Phoebe Seep. I will ask all of them if they want to be baptized; during our run-through yesterday, all three of them answered that question for themselves, and I hope they will today, too. But the next set of questions, Jewel will answer for herself, while Cade and Phoebe’s parents and godparents will respond on their behalf.
It is traditional that we baptize on this day, the First Sunday after the Epiphany, because it is on this day, each year, that we celebrate the Baptism of our Lord, Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptizer in the River Jordan. It may seem somewhat strange that we do this now, when we have just celebrated Jesus’ birth a little over two weeks ago, Jesus’ baptism marks the beginning of his public ministry, and except for Luke’s mention of Jesus’ visit to the temple when he was twelve, the gospels are completely silent about Jesus’ childhood.
We heard Luke’s version of Jesus’ baptism as the gospel today, and well, having taught Bible all those years, I can’t resist pointing out the most interesting piece of Luke’s story. Unfortunately, the lectionary editors left the most interesting part of the story out. You will notice that several verses of chapter 3 were left out of the gospel reading. The reason they were left out was because in them, Luke tells the story of John’s arrest by Herod. In other words, in the Gospel of Luke, John the Baptist is arrested before Luke mentions Jesus’ baptism. Now there are good reasons for this. It’s not that Luke doesn’t know that John baptized Jesus; rather it’s because he wants to de-emphasize John. The question I always used to ask my students when they were confused about this was, “Who has more power, the person doing the baptizing, or the one who is baptized?” Of course, in the case of a toddler, the answer to that question may not be obvious.
So we don’t really see John baptizing Jesus in Luke’s gospel. Instead the focus is on something else—the expectations of the crowd, and the question concerning John. We will see this again in the coming weeks, the question of who John was, and whether he was the Messiah, the one people were waiting and hoping for.
It is a question that was asked in the first two chapters of Luke, and it is a question we will hear again as we read through Luke’s gospel this year. But it’s always a matter of just what one expects, and whether one’s expectations are realistic or warranted. In this case, the answer is not quite obvious.
The problem was not just the question of the relationship between Jesus and John the Baptizer, the problem was also about the meaning of the baptism itself. The gospels agree that John’s baptism was a baptism for the forgiveness of sins, and everyone knows that Jesus was without sin, therefore, why did he need to be baptized? That’s the question the gospel writers struggled with, and part of the reason Luke writes the way he does is to downplay the significance of Jesus’ baptism, for his own self-understanding and for his ministry. The lesson from Acts underscores Luke’s interpretation that John’s baptism was ultimately inadequate.
The crowd was filled with expectation and wondering. Baptism is an important celebration in the life of the church. It is an opportunity for us to welcome new members and to remind ourselves of our baptisms and what we committed ourselves to at that point. In fact, it’s helpful for us to watch an adult being baptized. Too often, the questions that are asked during the service, and the vows we make are treated lightly, as if they really don’t mean what they say.
The baptismal covenant lays out our responsibilities as members of the body of Christ. They are what is expected of everyone who takes that step: to continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers; to persevere in resisting evil; to proclaim by word and example the good news; to seek and serve Christ in all persons, and to strive for justice and peace, and respect the dignity of every human person.
Those are enormous responsibilities and tasks, and how each of us fulfills them is between us and God. But membership is not about occasionally attending services. Membership is about committing oneself to the body of Christ, using one’s gifts, talents, and resources to build up the community and to reach out to others. We’ve included in the service bulletin one way for you to do that. While many of you already participate in our worship service by serving as acolytes, readers, and the like, we are always in need of others. I encourage you to think about how you might help out with services, fill out the form, and put it in the offering plate. Of course, there are many other ways you can volunteer. The shelter meal which has been organized by Sarah and Sparky Watts for several years, can always use additional volunteers, for example, as can the food pantry.
The prayer book actually views adult baptism as the norm, not the exception as is our practice. That’s a good thing, because the vows that Jewel makes today are vows that we all make together. As we make them, let us make them, not only with our lips, but with our lives, promising to do all that we can, body and soul, to strengthen the body of Christ and serve God’s kingdom.