13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ 15But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness.’ Then he consented. 16And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’
I often hear James Earl Jones booming voice or Morgan Freeman’s distinctive voice when I read that part. Jesus’ baptism ushers in a new baptism. Not just with voice and the dove. Christian baptism is not just a washing away of sin as John’s baptism was; but it is the baptism that brings the power of the Holy Spirit and a special relationship with God. The Gospel writers all 4 tell the story of Jesus’ baptism. As usual John has his own way of saying things, Matthew adds the part about John the Baptist preventing him and then questioning his validity to baptize Jesus, Luke cuts to the chase and has the shortest account, but Mark’s Gospel is different. Unlike Matthew and Luke, where it says the heavens are opened, Mark writes that as Jesus “was coming out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and a dove descending.” His word for ‘torn apart’ is schizo, and it means “to cleave, to cleave asunder, to rend.” It’s a strangely violent word to describe such a happy occasion. The way we tend to talk about baptism, it would have made more sense if Mark had talked about the dove, gently cooing, or perhaps fluttering over the surface of the water. But that is not how he talks about it.
Instead, Mark talks about the heavens, schizo, torn apart. It’s the word Matthew, Mark and Luke all use to describe that moment on Good Friday when the curtain of the temple is torn in two. It’s the word John uses when the Roman soldiers at the foot of the cross determine not to tear Jesus’ garment and divide it between them, but to cast lots for it, instead. It’s a word with resonances in the prophecies of Isaiah, also, particularly when Isaiah says to God, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,” (Isaiah 63:19).
Mark understands very clearly that in Jesus, this is exactly what has happened. God has torn open the heavens and come down. It is in the waters of baptism that the heavens are torn apart and a voice from heaven claims Jesus as God’s son. Although we rarely think of it as having such a dramatic flourish, baptism today still serves as a time when we recognize our being claimed as children of God. And this is why, in the Gospel writers’ judgment, the baptism of Jesus is a radical act. In Jesus, God has committed the act of breaking and entering the world, and they want the world to know.
Sometimes, I wish it were harder to join the church, to come to communion, to be baptized. I mean, honestly, sometimes I think it’s harder to get a membership to Sam’s Club than it is to become a Christian.
Sometimes we cheapen grace. It’s like the membership vows of the church are in the fine print or it feels like a medical commercial saying, you’ll feel better if you do this whole Jesus thing, you’ll be happier, while the people on the screen are running through a field of flowers or jumping on a trampoline or flying a kite with what seems to be a bright, smiling, happy family. They’re still showing the pictures of all the smiling people and let’s throw in a pet for good measure, as they read quick like the micro machine man the hazards. Baptism is terrific but please plan on attending worship, Bible studies, service projects, fellowship events, and don’t forget covenant discipleship groups. Christmas and Easter only come once a year, but Narcie throws in enough grace to last all year round. She may make you experience some discomfort and conviction, but that’s at minimum only once or twice a sermon. Following Jesus may cost you. Putting his teachings into practice may turn your life upside down……
Who can blame people for just tuning that part out? And not understanding what following Jesus means? What a big, awesome commitment that is?
We’re involved in a bait and switch. You may, say hold on a second, I do no such thing. I would challenge that back to you. Can those around you, tell you are a Christian? What makes you different from all of the other do gooders? What makes this different than any other civic organization?
Peter Rollins, Northern Ireland writer, speaker, philosopher, and theologian writes, “Without equivocation or hesitation I fully and completely admit that I deny the resurrection of Christ. This is something that anyone who knows me could tell you, and I am not afraid to say it publicly, no matter what some people may think…
I deny the resurrection of Christ every time I do not serve at the feet of the oppressed, each day that I turn my back on the poor; I deny the resurrection of Christ when I close my ears to the cries of the downtrodden and lend my support to an unjust and corrupt system.
However, there are moments when I affirm that resurrection, few and far between as they are. I affirm it when I stand up for those who are forced to live on their knees, when I speak for those who have had their tongues torn out, when I cry for those who have no more tears left to shed.”
If you want to actively follow Christ. It’s going to be hard. It’s going to be the greatest joy and sacrifice of your life. Don’t merely get baptized for fire insurance, because you want to flee the wrath of hell, but because you want your life transformed, you want to do more than honor Jesus’ sacrifice. You seek to live as a changed person walking the way of life, trying to grow more like Jesus every day, and when you mess up, as you inevitably will, God gives you God’s abundant grace, God’s sanctifying grace. God doesn’t leave us on our own in the mire and the muck. God begins the mighty work of transforming us.
We’re not going to change overnight into the perfect Christian. We need to hone our spiritual disciplines: prayer, scripture reading, daily times alone with God, discerning God’s will for our lives, and not just things we do alone. Tenth Avenue North sings in the song No Man is Island,“We’re not meant to live this life alone.” We are stronger together. Iron sharpens iron after all. The kids asked to watch Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince on Friday’s Family Movie Night. Mike says I should use “spoiler alert” even the book came out more than 5 years ago. At the end of the movie, Dumbledore, the headmaster of Hogwarts, dies and it looks like darkness has won. He was Harry’s protector and the only one Voldemort was afraid of. When he dies, the students and staff are mourning him and it seems like all hope is lost, Madame Pomfrey holds her wand in the air, Professor McGonagall joins her, and the students and faculty do the same. When they do that together, it lights up the night sky. Together in their sorrow. Together in their hope that the light will pierce the darkness. Mike told Enoch and Evy, the darkness doesn’t win and I joined him in saying, when all hope seems lost, even if it looks like the darkness has won, the light will always, always, always eventually conquer the dark. I want them to be prepared to fight for the light in their choices and to continue fighting even when it feels like it’s not making a difference, even when it seems they are fighting an uphill battle, even in the darkest night of their souls. Good will triumph. Spoiler Alert. The grave didn’t hold him down.
See baptism is an individual sacrament, but it’s also a communal one also. Whole families were baptized in the New Testament. The church agrees to love, support, grow and strengthen those baptized persons. Dietrich Bonheoffer, German Lutheran pastor, theologian, anti-Nazi dissident, believed that a community of love is one which focuses its attention on Jesus and then expects everything else to fall into place. When the people of God come together to share their lives openly and freely, accepting each other with a kind of unconditional positive regard, there is a sort of social-spiritual “chemistry” that emerges, and those who come together experience a delightful cohesion and sense of belonging. Bonhoeffer’s central idea is that the Church as the fellowship of Christ centers on Christ rather than being a mere association of people with a common purpose. Human love and actions are related to a desire for human community. Christian love, spiritual love, comes from Christ and goes out to the other person, not directly, but through Christ. Christ “stands between me and others”. The most direct way to another is found in prayer to Christ whose influence is greater. The unity of the community is in Christ, “Through him alone do we have access to one another, joy in one another, and fellowship with one another.”
The Book of Mormon Broadway Musical has a song called Mostly Me. In it the missionary says he’s doing all of this “good” stuff altruistically, but he’s actually doing it for himself. This is not just a “but mostly me” but something that if we are to survive, if we are to be a stronger, healthier, more grounded body – we’ve got to be supporters, advocates, confidants, friends to each other. Bonhoeffer in The Cost of Discipleship writes, “Judging others makes us blind, whereas love is illuminating. By judging others, we blind ourselves to our own evil and to the grace which others are just as entitled to as we are.” We have to trust each other enough to share our lives together, with no fear of judgment, that’s the only way we get to the Light of Christ.
How do we push through the fear, the doubt, the awkwardness, the ego, and move towards real community? We have to really love each other, pray for each other, root for one another, weep one another, encourage one another, be CHURCH with each other. As Hebrews 10:24-25 says, “And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” I want us to be a deep, Christ-centered community whether it be as Friday morning Men’s Group, an adult Sunday School Class, the Choir, the Thursday morning Women’s Bible Study, the Somerby Bible Study or one of the other communities we will create this year. I want us to make as our theme this year to Love God and Love Neighbor. I want us to make the main thing, the main thing. Our focus shall be to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world in Park West, in North Mount Pleasant and across the Earth. We can only legitimately do that if we abide in Christ and seek his leading for our lives, for the call he has put on our lives, for the call he has put on this church to be the hands and feet of Christ at this time and in this place and if we look to Christ – boy, what could happen? Could you imagine?
People should be able to see Christ in us, just as the song says, “They will know we are Christians by our love.” Wesley’s General Rules provide an extensive list of the marks of the Christian life that could be summarized by do no harm, do good, and attend upon all the ordinances of God or as Wesley said,
“Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as ever you can.”
These rules take into account and respond to the great command to love God and neighbor. In our baptism, similar things happen to us as happened to Jesus when he was baptized: 1) The Spirit of God comes into us and remains in us. 2) We are declared to be a child of God. 3) We hear that God is well pleased with us. God’s grace washes away our sin and angst and doubt and we are made clean in the waters of baptism. We’ve been washed by the water and are set free to live an abundant, thriving life. Jesus doesn’t say it will be easy, but as Paul writes in Philippians 4, “I can do all things in Christ who strengthens me.” The Spirit of God opens up the Heavens to give us a taste of the Living God, Emmanuel, one with us, Jesus who was, is, and is to come. As we journey with our stars and seek God’s personal will for our lives and as we journey as a church to know God’s communal will for this body of Christ and the part God wants each of us to play in that, God’s wonders and mercies are new every day and at every step of the Christian journey, God will be faithful.
I’ll ask you to come to the baptismal waters as you reaffirm your baptism, as you reaffirm that you are a new creation, as you reaffirm your commitment to this body of Christ, to walk with each other in love and grace, spurring each other on to right action and to seek the will of God.
“We will walk with each other, we will walk hand in hand
We will walk with each other, we will walk hand in hand
And together we’ll spread the news that God is in our land
And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love
They will know we are Christians by our love.”
REAFFIRMATION OF BAPTISM
The Lord be with you.
and also with you.
Let us pray.
Eternal God: When nothing existed but chaos, you swept across the dark waters and brought forth light. In the days of Noah you saved those on the ark through water. After the flood you set in the clouds a rainbow. When you saw your people as slaves in Egypt, you led them to freedom through the sea. Their children you brought through the Jordan to the land which you promised.
Sing to the Lord, all the earth. Tell of God’s mercy each day.
In the fullness of time you sent Jesus, nurtured in the water of a womb. He was baptized by John and anointed by your Spirit. He called his disciples to share in the baptism of his death and resurrection and to make disciples of all nations.
Declare Christ’s works to the nations, his glory among all the people.
Pour out your Holy Spirit, and by this gift of water call to our remembrance the grace declared to us in our baptism. For you have washed away our sins, and you clothe us with righteousness throughout our lives, that dying and rising with Christ we may share in his final victory.
All praise to you, Eternal God, through your Son Jesus Christ, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns for ever. Amen.
Come as you feel led to the baptismal waters as we reaffirm our baptisms. As you come forward and touch the water, I will say, “Remember your baptism and be thankful” and you respond “Amen.” You can touch the water and make a sign of the cross on your forehead or you can scoop the water and let fall back into the bowl.
Remember your baptism and be thankful. Amen.
Prayer reaffirming the Baptismal Covenant:
The Holy Spirit work within you, that having been born through water and the Spirit, you may live as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ. Amen.