My brief meditation this morning is really just the introduction to, and underpinning of, Ernie’s presentation a little later on about the challenges and opportunities we face today in the life of our church. And as we all become part of “the church” when we are baptized, it is fitting that we should look at the story of Jesus’ baptism which he shares with us.
All four gospels tell the story of Jesus’ baptism, but each has their own unique perspective. In some, the whole crowd hears the Voice from heaven, which some take to be thunder, saying that this Jesus is God’s beloved son. Others, like the one we read in Luke, have the Voice speaking only and directly to Jesus–”You are my beloved son; with you I am well pleased.” The Spirit descends like a dove–”in bodily form,” Luke tells us–and this tangible, feathered Presence alights on Jesus’ river-drenched body. Baptism happens in the midst of embodied life, in the presence of earthly elements. It’s not just an abstract, heavenly symbol.
“I have called you by name; you are mine,” God says to Israel through the prophet Isaiah.”Do not fear for I am with you…–everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.” Jesus was not and is not the only the only “beloved.” God calls each of us by name, calls each of us “beloved,” but our response to that claiming is “personal and situational,” as Bruce Epperly writes. (The Adventurous Lectionary, 1/13/13) We are free to ignore that claim upon our lives, free to refuse to believe that God is able to love even us–as unworthy, or as flawed, or as confused as we may be or have been taught that we are. Even Jesus had to choose whether or not to accept the affirmation of the Voice–his public ministry lay before him, and he had to be tested in the wilderness to see whether this was a path he was going to take. But, as Epperly writes, “Fully alive, Jesus was fully open to embodying God’s vision in his own unique way, sharing God’s vision, energy, and power for the wholeness and salvation of humankind.” (Ibid.) When and if we are “fully alive,” God is able to work God’s vision through our unique selves, and we become part of God’s transforming wholeness and salvation of humankind.
Some of us were baptized as infants, and so “remembering our baptisms” may be a pretty fruitless enterprise. Others of us do remember our baptisms, as we were baptized as young or older adults in what is often called ‘believers’ baptism.” Still others of us may not yet have been baptized, but for whatever reasons, consider ourselves part of the church community. It is said that Martin Luther, on particularly bad days, would look at the sign he had written for himself near his desk–”Remember your baptism.” It’s not the sprinkling or the immersing in water that we are to remember. It is the affirmation and claiming that happens when we are baptized–”You are my beloved child,” God says to each of us. Baptism doesn’t make us or our lives holy or sacred or mistake-proof, but it affirms, acknowledges, recognizes that we are, indeed, sacred beings, called by God, “created for God’s glory, formed and made by God,” as Isaiah said.
Baptism is not just private and personal. It is a “powerful bonding experience,” as UCC pastor Kate Huey writes, in which we understand ourselves as belonging to a community that is “engaged with God in the transformation of the world, in bringing a new world to reality at long last.” (Samuel, 1/13/13) That’s why we yearn for and pray for God’s kingdom to come–”Thy kingdom come”–it has already been ushered in by Jesus but it is not yet fully revealed. Baptism “connects people with promises too big to fit into the world as it is presently constituted,” as another commentator puts it (Richard Swanson, cited by Huey, op cit.)
Which is where we as a church community come in, where our discussions and prayerful discernment of our future come in. What we shall be has not yet been revealed. What shape or form the church will evolve into is still unknown. But by our baptism, each one of us has a part, has a stake, in what that future will be like. Our unique, individual gifts, and the gift of this particular, unique church community, are called into service by God for the transformation of the world. We can choose to respond to that call or we can ignore it. But the difference between those responses is literally the difference between life and death. “Choose life,” God begs us. What will be our response?
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark