Listen to the sermon HERE.
Earlier this week, I saw a flyer advertising swimming lessons for infants and toddlers, from four months and up. It reminded me of years ago when I used to go to the McBurney YMCA and from the space where the exercise equipment was kept, one could watch the babies learning to swim in the swimming pool.
They could have charged admission and it would have been a hit, the babies were so funny to watch. 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 really was a great drama, there in the shallow end of the pool. And 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”? Well, 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.
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.
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 saw Tilden in a room, you can see him almost doing this physically, as he actually does sort of 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 day 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.