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The Nature of Baptism

1/11/2015  Baptism of Our Lord  The text for today is Mark 1:4-11.

Grace and peace to you from God, our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen.

There’s nothing like a baptism. Babies dressed in heirloom gowns, are brought to font as teary-eyed grandparents and proud moms and dads watch.  After the service is over, pictures are taken to mark the special event.  From there, people usually head out to a brunch or party at a special restaurant or at grandma’s house as the celebration continues.  But Jesus’ baptism isn’t anything like that.  It isn’t cute.  There is no adorable gown, no inspiring music sung by the congregation.  Mark’s stripped-down version of what happens just gives the facts. And as Jesus emerges out of the water, the heavens are torn open and a voice declares “You are my Son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

You might think this would call for a party or at least a little pat on the back, expressing congratulations, but this doesn’t happen.  Immediately after his baptism, Jesus heads out – not to brunch, but into the wilderness.  He doesn’t post pictures on Facebook.  He doesn’t hang out with his cousin, John. Instead, without hesitation and fanfare, Jesus heads out to the wild and wooly places of the world, where evil awaits to tempt him and tragedy is common.  Jesus’ baptism propels him into his ministry and onto the path that will lead him to the cross.

What that says about the nature of baptism is something (I suspect) that no one ever thought of when bringing children to the font or going there ourselves.  For, while we may envision baptism as a Hallmark moment, it isn’t that at all.  Baptism is not some gentle washing in the word.  Baptism arouses the soul and introduces us to the ministry that God has in store for us.  It is not the peaceful scene we think it is.  It actually is much more like an old story told about Saint Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, and a time when he was baptizing new converts in a river. As he baptized, he would wade out waist-deep into the water and call out for new Christians to come to him, one by one, to receive the sacrament.

One day, as he was baptizing a mountain Chieftain, Saint Patrick was holding a staff in his hands.  Unfortunately, as he was lowering the chief down under the water three times, he also pressed his staff down into the river bottom.

Afterwards the people on the riverbank noticed their chief limp back to shore.  Someone explained to Patrick that, as he pressed the wooden staff into the riverbed, he must have also bruised the foot of the chief. Patrick went to the chief at once and asked, “Why did you not cry out when I stuck you in the foot?”  Surprised the chief answered, “I remembered you telling us about the nails in the cross, and I thought my pain was part of my baptism.”

When we think of our baptism, pain isn’t part of it.  An insurance policy against the devil and the gates of hell, maybe…a celestial get-out-of-jail free card, perhaps…but pain? Never do we think of baptism as painful.  And yet, if we are baptized into the life and death of Jesus Christ, pain is part of the equation.

We know that none of us escapes this life without experiencing some degree of pain. In baptism, we are connected to the one whose pain and suffering frees us from eternal damnation.  But, in baptism, we are also connected to the life of Christ and therefore, our feet should be callused and sore by following him.  We may not walk the well-worn roads of the Holy Land.  We may walk the streets of Worcester or amble down the country roads of Paxton or Douglas, or wind our way through Millbury, Auburn, Boylston and surrounding communities.  But, we are followers just the same.  We are to follow the example of our Lord Jesus Christ who reaches out to those in need, who challenges those who think that they are better than others, who teaches us what it means to love others as we are loved by God, and who endures the anguish of rejection and death in order to free from death those who believe and trust in him.  For, there is no such thing as an arm-chair Christian.  In baptism, we are connected to Christ and to his ministry. And that connection is forever. No one can take it away from us. Even death has no power over it.  Yet, we should not be lulled into thinking that baptism is it, and that once it is done, there is nothing more.

My friends, if Jesus’ baptism shows us anything, it should tell us that baptism is no passive event. It is no rite of passage.  It is no pretty certificate put in a drawer.  It is no picture taken by the font or party at the family home. It is not something done lightly or something that we do for a child, like getting a social security number.  Baptism is none of these things.  Baptism is the entry point into the life and death of Jesus Christ, who begins his ministry as he emerges from the water. As with Jesus Christ, baptism is the beginning of our ministry, a ministry that will lead us down unknown paths, a ministry that will be revealed to us as we journey through life.  And that ministry, my friends, while different from Jesus’ and different from mine, may be full of temptation and uncomfortable moments.

So why baptize? Why set up yourself or an innocent child? Obviously, our connection to the life and death of Jesus Christ brings benefits. Through his cross we are saved…not from the pains of living this life, but from the pains of eternal death. A bond is formed in baptism as we are proclaimed beloved sons and daughters, and nothing will ever be able to separate us from this love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. We are his forever.

So, then, let us rejoice in our baptism. Let us live as followers of Christ each day. Let us acknowledge our struggles, let us enter our ministry, and let us leave our pains at the foot of the cross. Let us boldly proclaim that we are his and he is ours.  And may the peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen.



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