The Shock of Baptism

watanabe_baptism_of_jesusA sermon for the Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ, January 8, 2017.  The lectionary readings are Isaiah 42:1-9Psalm 29Acts 10:34-43, and Matthew 3:13-17

Listen to the sermon HERE.

In the summer after I graduated from college, I spent three weeks in an Outward Bound course in Maine.  I knew that the course involved three weeks of sailing.  I knew that there would be thirteen of us on a small boat and we would cook our meals on the boat and take care of all “natural bodily functions” over the side of the boat.  But what I did not read in the small print was that our “bath” would happen each morning as we jumped over the side of the boat into the chilly June water.  As they say in the South, “I liked to died.” I remember those mornings well —the chill, the pain of that cold water, and the absolute shock.

We avoid the shock of cold water when we baptize at Holy Trinity.  In fact, there’s a trick to getting good, warm water that will be just right at the time of the baptism.  First, one turns on the cold water in the sacristy bathroom, then waits for a minute.  Then, turning on the hold water in the sacristy sink will produce a piping hot flow that, after about thirty minutes, will be just right.

While I have no plans to substitute cold water any time soon, in a way, it’s appropriate that there are sometimes tears at a baptism.  It’s appropriate that babies scream and adults might feel a little panic.  Baptism changes us and opens us up to the adventure of God’s way and will.

In today’s second reading, Simon Peter speaks eloquent words—but these words do not come easily.  Earlier in the Book of Acts, in chapter 10, the story begins and its really a story of Peter’s conversion.  He’s baptized not so much with water, but with God’s spirit—but it is just as shocking as his being dropped into 50-degree water.

Peter, like Jesus himself at the beginning of his ministry, understood his mission as being among Jews.  And yet, when God puts a man named Cornelius in front of Peter, all this is questioned.  Cornelius is a Roman soldier. He’s not a Jew; but a Gentile. Peter would have been completely within rights to have simply ignored Cornelius.  But then something happens.

Peter goes to sleep and has a dream. In the vision he’s hungry, and then he sees a sheet lowered down from heaven, a sheet filled with animals and reptiles and birds. And Peter hears a voice that tells him to stand up, kill, and eat. Peter responds to the voice, explaining that he’s religious, he never eats anything that is common or unclean, according to Jewish law. But the voice says to him, “What God has cleansed, you must not call common.”

Then Peter wakes up, recovers from his strange dream, and tries to get on with his day.  It’s only later, when God brings Peter and Cornelius together, that Peter connects the dream about clean and unclean food, with his prior understanding of people—the false separations between clean and unclean, between those included and those excluded, between those whom God loves, and those who (for whatever reason) are thought not to be loved so much by God.

And so, in today’s reading from Acts, we hear a wiser and enlightened Peter—“I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”

Peter’s new understanding that God does not play favorites, that God shows no partiality, that God chooses whoever and whenever God desires—all of these ideas related directly to the understanding of holy baptism, which we celebrate on this day, The Baptism of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The Catechism in the back of our Prayer Books reminds us that “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.” The birth child and the adopted child are indistinguishable, since in God’s sight, we are all adopted as children in our baptism. The water makes us one, and as though we were looking at the world through water, when we look out through the perspective of baptism, any distinctions we might have seen before, are blurred; edges are smoothed; difficulties go out of focus. Or at least, that’s the potential offered to us by baptism. Like regular water, it washes us. Though we are baptized only once, we partially re-live our baptism whenever another is baptized; whenever we affirm our own baptismal vows; whenever we touch holy water or are blessed by it being hurled through the air at us.

Seeing the ice outside, I’m reminded of a child’s joke about polar bears.  “How do you catch a polar bear?” the joke asks.  The answer: First dig an ice hole. Then put a whole bunch of little green peas on the outside, and when the polar bear comes to take a pee you kick him in the ice hole.

The church sometimes regards baptism a little like digging an ice hold and waiting for people to come.  When actually, we should be taking holy water into the world, splashing people with the love of God, the peace of the Christ, the freedom from sin, and baptizing into the eternal life with him who is Lord of All.  There are some places in the world where on the feast day for St. John the Baptist, people throw water on each other—out windows, onto cars, at strangers—all in a fun way to remember Baptism.  That’s the image of what the church should and could be doing—making a splash in the world wherever we go in the name of Christ.

God gave Saint Peter a vision that helped him to move beyond the confines of his upbringing, his experience and his religion. Even Jesus was shaken out of his own ethnic assumptions by the Samaritan woman, the Canaanite, the Syro-Phoenician, the tax collector and many others. Especially today, the scriptures invite us to ask what part of our lives God may be trying to expand or enlarge; to break down or build up? What part needs to be washed clean and made new? Are there places in our lives where we continue to hold prejudice or harbor assumptions? Are there places where we continue to show partiality and exclusion to any of God’s children?

May the power of baptism shock us like cold water.  May it wake us up to be God’s faithful people in new ways.  May it cleanse us from sin, bring us new visions, and help us to extend the kingdom of God to every corner and to every person.

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

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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