Baptism as Liberation
January 13, 2019
A younger adult in our church recently commented that the pastors always look SO happy when they are baptizing babies. He thought it was because babies are cute- it made me wonder if that’s what most people think. Babies are cute, of course. I love holding those squirmy little nuggets for a few minutes in front of everybody. It is one of the perks of the job, for sure. But, the reason we are so happy has mostly to do with what baptism means.
Maybe I should back up though, because I think we- “we” meaning the Church, the big “C” Church- we tend to assume that everyone understands what baptism is, or what it’s for. But, in this day and age we can’t just assume everyone is baptized let alone has the language to articulate it.
And, I realize, too, that this text from Luke doesn’t help much. There is some dissonance between the story of Jesus’ baptism and the ones you would see on Sundays at Westminster. For starters, Tim doesn’t usually refer to the congregation as a brood of vipers. And, second, John the Baptist feels a little bit like a fire and brimstone preacher, which likely makes many of us cringe.
John the Baptist, you might remember, was the son who was born to Mary’s cousin, Elizabeth, in her old age. It was foretold by an angel that John would prepare the way for Jesus. And from what we know that meant John would spend most of his adult life living in the desert, in near isolation. Totally normal.
So, the crowds that he drew must have been interested in him, first of all. He was probably a little quirky. I picture scorched, sandy skin from years out in the sun, long, tangled hair, a scratchy, stringy beard, a robe with dirty sandaled feet, and sticky hands from eating all those grasshoppers and honey. He not only sounded a little out there, but he might have appeared that way, too.
John, though, did have a compelling message. People were intrigued by the radical things this ancient hippy was telling them about a Messiah, and they wanted to be part of it. They wanted to be baptized. And, John knew what his calling was. He was there to prepare these folks for Jesus. To live as followers of The Way. Baptism wasn’t just about joining a new group, it was about a fundamental change of life. And so he said to them, “Look, don’t think that where you’re from or who your ancestors are will define you anymore.” He was explaining that it was not just the Jewish people, but even tax collectors and soldiers who were going to be welcomed in- the people that were least expected. John kept going, though. He demanded that since all would be welcome, they had to start making everyone feel welcome- everyone they encountered. Give away a coat. Share food. And, he didn’t leave out the tax collectors and soldiers. He told them, too, “look, this means something, to be baptized. You need to live like you’re changed. So, don’t overtax the poor, and don’t wield your power over people who have none.”
Saying these outrageous things got John thrown in prison quickly- to upend the social and political order like that had its price. Preparing the way for Jesus had a cost.
We rarely think of Baptism being so risky and chaotic, but it was there, for a while, for those early Christians, especially. Water in the Bible is often associated with discord and fear, and if you’ve ever been pulled in by the undertow in the ocean or one of the Great Lakes you know how powerful water can be. When God separated the water from the land at creation, it took mountains to do it- to divide and pierce their way through. The flood almost killed off all the living creatures on the Earth, and for the people of Israel it took Moses to part the waters of the Red Sea, so they could find their way from slavery to freedom. Water can be fierce- devastating, even.
The water in the River Jordan that day wasn’t just crossed, it brought people together in the midst of a divisive and chaotic world. They didn’t so much need a bath as much as they were thirsty for the message John was preaching. And it wasn’t a light sprinkling, bouncing baby kind of message. John said Jesus was coming to baptize with fire- to clear the threshing floor and burn it up. John was preaching about the power of baptism to bring different humans into community with one another under the radical and provocative notion that they could all be loved, equally, by the same God. Baptism was about freeing people from the idea that some are worthy of God’s love and some are not. Now, I don’t think we need to suddenly get crazy with our baptisms, heading down to the Mississippi and lighting bonfires, though that would be kind of cool. But, John’s words add weight to something we often see as merely a rite of passage or just a lovely thing to do.
Some of the images shown earlier in the service, you might have noticed, were paintings of African Americans being baptized in bodies of water. There is a whole tradition of African American Southern Folk Art around water and baptism. There are depictions of large groups of people- men, women and children in water, outside, usually dressed in white. And there are scenes of slaves escaping through water, traveling with the risk of capture in order to get to freedom. In the privilege I experience, I forget what baptism must mean to someone, or a community of people, that isn’t free. You see, baptism today might seem like an exclusive practice- baptized in, non-baptized out. But, it’s exactly the opposite. When you’re claimed by God in baptism there are no categories, anymore. You’re free from how the world defines you, because God has defined you. You are known and loved. If anything, the water in baptism is just a symbol of the water that touches all people, in some way or another, because we are all so wanted- even the tax collectors and soldiers, the politicians and CEOs, the gang members and prisoners and slaves and whoever else might be considered in or out.
You may have also noticed some of the photos that were shown earlier, maybe wondering why they were there. A couple were of a wall that separates part of the border between Mexico and California, right at the ocean. When I saw those it struck me that not even a wall could prevent the water from going around. We couldn’t make a wall long enough to separate the ocean. And, it’s all the same water- you can take a nice swim on either side, a dip in the same droplets of sea that foreigners touch, too. On some of the metal bars that make up the wall are written the names of those who have died trying to cross it. And, I like to the think the water lapping up on the edge is baptizing them, too. Reminding them that they are claimed, and known, and loved by God, and now eternally free from all that separates us from one another.
In my previous church I baptized nearly a whole family, over the course of a few years. It was baptizing the dad, though, that was so memorable. Of course, we baptize babies because we believe that there is nothing you can do to earn God’s love and grace- might as well welcome them into the fold as soon as possible. But, there is something about baptizing an adult who is conscious of what it all means- who realizes what they are getting themselves into- that is so amazing. To look someone in the eye and remind them of God’s promises, you can sense that they are thinking: “wow.” And, also, “now what? What does it mean?”
Preacher John Buchanan once said that he loves how remarkably lean the beginning of the Gospel stories are- particularly between Jesus’ birth and baptism. There isn’t a lot of instruction, even though we wish for more. But, maybe that’s the point. People went about their lives, baptized, and they had to figure out what that meant, how they were going to live. Buchanan says, “it’s when we start demanding particulars that we get into trouble.” I wonder, should there be an instruction manual on how we should live after we’re baptized? Beyond, you are loved, you are not alone, go and love others. I think I agree with Buchanan- that seems a little prescriptive, as though these simple, liberating truths can’t inform everything we believe and do.
Ministers are happy when they baptize babies because it’s a privilege and a great joy. Imagine if someone walked up to you and said this: “You are loved for no other reason than for being exactly who you are. And, you are always, and forever will be more than enough. And, you belong- you are a full part of this community, and absolutely integral to the life of the world. And, you are never alone.” It’s freeing to remember that on our worst days God is pleased with us. With you, and with little ole me. Pleased beyond measure, actually. And, really, it’s as simple and profound as that. It doesn’t need to be more theologically complex. But, it’s living as though its true that gets a little snarly. And living as though it could be true for everyone, is where the story gets a little hairy. Because frankly, we have a hard time imagining how that could be possible.
The thing I like to remind people about baptism, as if I haven’t said enough already, is that ministers might splash the water on, but it’s really the Holy Spirit doing the baptizing. And, so, who are we to say who is baptized and who is not? Maybe that was John’s point. Maybe what he was really saying is that when the world feels like its burning, everyone should get in the river and get wet. When the walls go up, hop in and swim around them. When you’re escaping from slavery, go through the river so slave owners can’t trace you and claim you as their own. Cause you’ll all be free from the harshness and heat, right here, in the cool, cool water.
Thanks be to God. Amen.