Changed, challenged and compelled

A sermon for the Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ, January 8, 2012.  The lectionary readings are Genesis 1:1-5, Psalm 29, Acts 19:1-7, and Mark 1:4-11.

Before coming to Washington, I would try to exercise a few times a week at a YMCA.  The old McBurney Y had been almost entirely vertical—8 or 9 small floors stacked on top so that if you wanted one kind of machine, you might need to go to one floor.  If you wanted room to stretch, you’d go to another floor. Much of the workout was simply in navigating the building, up and down, without getting hit by an opening door in a stairwell.

But just before I moved away, a new Y was built.  It sprawled more than it climbed, but there was still a kind of stacking to the space.  But this time, there were openings between levels, so if you were on the indoor track, you could run around the machines and pool.  You’d run over the basketball courts.  I liked the elliptical machine—the easier version of a stair-climber—and I tried to get to the gym early so that I could get a particular elliptical machine, in a particular spot.  From “my” machine, not only could you watch the runners on the track (and feel self-righteous about saving your knees from that abuse), but I could also see the swimming pool.  And on certain days, early in the morning, there in the pool, the babies were learning to swim. 

Watching those tiny little kids, who really looked like jerky little tadpoles, always made me laugh.  As painful or scary as it might have been for the child, for the onlooker, it was a joyful thing.  The whole scene was filled with hope and promise, with tenacity and persistence.  It was a great drama, there in the shallow end of the pool.  Whenever I watched them, I was reminded of baptism. 

The water, the tears, the babies, the parents trying to be helpful but coming to terms with the limits to their care and protection—all of that being played out over and around water.  And today, as I think about baptism—the baptism of Jesus and the baptism of us all—I think of some similarities between those swimming classes for babies and the Sacrament of Holy Baptism. 

Often on days such as these, the church encourages us to “remember your baptism.”  But what, exactly does that mean?  Especially for those who were baptized when they were infants, what does it mean “to remember”?  I think it’s a little like those swimming classes.  Few, if any, of those children will remember the actual class in which they learned to swim.  But the fact will remain:  they learned to swim.  They can swim.  Come high water, they will know what to do. 

It’s a similar thing with a Christian.  The memory may have faded.  The details may be fuzzy.  But the fact of baptism remains.  We were taught to swim, spiritually, and nothing can change that, come hell or high water. 

There is another similarity.  The babies at the Y did not decide to learn to swim.  Their parents did not encourage them to grow up, read and research whether one might best navigate water with paddle or motor or the physical means of swimming.  Instead, parents made the decision that this would be good for the child.  Later, as the child grew, she might learn other strokes, other styles, and develop her own unique way of swimming.  But she had been given the basics, given a great gift that would serve her well in the future. 

Baptism is not a magic spell cast over a newborn to protect him from an evil eye.  Instead, baptism is a beginning.  It’s a free gift.  It is a sacrament.

The Catechism in the back of our Prayer Books reminds us that a sacrament is an “outward and visible sign of inward and spiritual grace, given by Christ as sure and certain means by which we receive that grace.”  Going further, the Catechism says: “Holy Baptism is the sacrament by which God adopts us as his children and makes us members of Christ’s Body, the Church, and inheritors of the kingdom of God.”  Notice who’s doing the action here.  Not the child or person being baptized.  Not the parent or the grandparent, the aunt or the uncle.  But God.  Baptism is God’s initiative, God’s decision, and God’s action.  It’s the sacrament by which GOD adopts us as children and GOD makes us members of Christ’s Body.

At Christmas we celebrated the birth of a baby, the child of God who is God-in-the-flesh, Emmanuel, God-among-us and God with-us.  On Epiphany we proclaimed that this God of life is not only God-for-us, but God-for-all.  And today, we remember how Jesus was baptized by John, not so much because Jesus needed to be made holy through baptism, but because, through baptism, Jesus is able to make us holy.  He makes us holy through water, water that is animated by the Holy Spirit. 

Our first reading from Genesis reminds us that the Spirit of God was there at the very beginning.  Even before the earth was made, there was darkness and chaos, but over all there was a wind from God, the breath of God breathed out over the chaos, and rippled over the face of the waters.  Water and spirit mingled together and out of them came shape and form and purpose and new life.

In the Epistle reading, Paul is preaching about just this connection of water and Spirit.   People say honestly, they didn’t know there was a Holy Spirit.  And so Paul preaches, and tells them about the Spirit, and who knows what else he does.  He baptizes them and lays hands on them, and they begin to get it.  Evidence of the living spirit of Jesus Christ fills their hearts and begins to change their lives.

In our Gospel this energy of water and spirit combines in new form as Jesus is baptized.  It inaugurates his public ministry:  it marks the beginning,  it energizes him, it gets him going, and it pushing him out. Baptism (and the reaffirmation of baptism) does those things for us, as well.

In baptism we are changed.  We are challenged.  And we are compelled. 

Baptism changes us.  From dry to wet, we are moved forward, leaving an old life behind.  This is a symbol that we can return to as long as we live. At his baptism, God says, “You are my child, my Beloved, with you I am well pleased.”  God says the same thing to each one of us at our baptism.  It’s our inauguration, our commissioning, our call to action on behalf of Christ.

Baptism claims us as one of God’s own, for us to continue “getting wet” with one another, to get involved, and to allow the power of God to have its effect upon us. Saint Paul understands baptism as dying and rising again. He says, “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” (Romans 6).  As we are continually brought through death to life, through death-dealing circumstances and problems, to new life with its hope and promise, we are changed again and again.  And this change has its beginning in baptism.

We are also challenged in baptism.  The cold of the water, the strangeness of it.  People looking on, the odd priest scooping us out of our parents’ arms—all of it is a challenge.  But just as a stone that’s thrown into water disturbs the water and makes a ripple effect, the effect of our baptism will continue to disturb our lives and the lives of those around us as it ripples through time.  If others get close to us, they’ll get wet, as well.  Our baptism will naturally spill over.

Being baptized challenges us in the way we make decisions, in the way we spend money, in the way we treat other people.

And finally, our baptism compels us to share the gift.  Offer water to others.  Teach another to swim.  We offer baptismal hope when we bring someone to church, when we volunteer in the spirit of Christ, when we extend a hand, or when we share a kind word with someone who needs it.  We do this physically through ministries and mission, but we also do it spiritually, as simply as when we help others hear that there is a source of water, there is a God of love, and there is a God who will never let us sink.

Tilden Edwards is an Episcopal priest who helped found the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation often speaks of “leaning back” into the presence of God. If you ever see Tilden in a room, you can see him doing this physically, as he actually does lean back, or settle in as a part of his prayer, as a part of being open to God, as a part of “remembering his baptism.”  It’s a little like resting in the water, trusting the water to buoy us and hold us. Trusting our baptism that we have learned how to stay afloat and that there is a multitude of saints standing guard around us and ready to extend a hand, should we need it.

On this feast we give thank for the baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ, for his becoming like us that we might become more like him. And we give thanks for our own baptism, especially as the memory of our baptism continues to claim us, to challenge us, and to compel us outwards.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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