~ Matthew 3:13-17 ~
In the calendar of the church year, this is called Baptism of Christ Sunday. Therefore, baptism tends to get talked about on this Sunday. From the earliest days of the Christian church, baptism has been a big deal. After all, Jesus, himself, was baptized. And artists ever since have tried to capture the moment as in the very stylized rendition on the bulletin cover.
My question for us is what does baptism mean for us today? Is baptism just some ancient ritual that we could easily dispense with in today’s modern world? Or might it be a deeper, more significant thing that opens us to living “a sacramental faith”? Let us explore.
The early church really didn’t know what to do with Jesus’ baptism. There seemed to be no doubt that John the Baptizer baptized Jesus. All of the early testimony said he was – the Gospels and non-Gospel sources all say he was. They just couldn’t figure why. Or what it meant.
You see, everyone knew that the purpose of baptism was for the forgiveness of sins. That is what John the Baptizer was preaching. Yet, if Jesus was sinless, the Divine Son, he shouldn’t need to be baptized, right? Yet, there he was, down at the Jordan, getting baptized by John. The whole thing seemed to make John look superior and Jesus, well, sinful.
So, what are we to do with that? Well, it appears the early tradition engaged in what theologian Dominic Crossan calls “theological damage control” (The Historical Jesus). You see, the Gospels only briefly mention Jesus’ baptism and then they move quickly to the important stuff – the “epiphany” of the dove descending on Jesus and being called by God, “my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
Mark devotes one line to the baptism and then describes this epiphany. Luke only mentions it in passing: “Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized….” And even though the Gospel of John goes on and on about John the Baptizer seeing Jesus at the Jordan and declaring him the Son of God, he never mentions the baptism – it’s just assumed.
And then we have today’s account from Matthew. Here, when Jesus comes to John to be baptized, John is reluctant, saying that Jesus should be baptizing him instead. But Jesus tells John that it’s OK, that it is proper for John to baptize Jesus to “fulfill all righteousness,” whatever that means. So John baptizes Jesus and suddenly we have the dramatic epiphany, which, for the Gospel writers, seems to be the whole point of the baptism.
And, yes, baptism in the early church really was a big deal. It was how one entered the faith. So it is that baptism is one of the Christian sacraments. The other big sacrament is, of course, the Eucharist. Now, the Catholic Church has designated other rituals as sacraments, including marriage, but in the Protestant tradition only two: baptism and communion. So, what is a sacrament? My online dictionary defines sacrament as “a religious ceremony or act that is seen as an outward and visible sign of inward and spiritual divine grace.” In other words, it is a physical thing or act that helps a believer experience the sacred. How Jesus’ baptism fits into that definition, we can only guess. But for us, baptism is one of the ways we experience God’s presence, even as it is with the Eucharist.
The reformer Martin Luther famously said, “Remember your baptism.” Well, I remember my baptism. A few weeks earlier, I had gone forward at the invitation of the minister of my mother’s tiny Pentecostal church to ask Jesus into my heart. Our church didn’t have a baptismal tank, so we went down the street to the Four Square Church and I got dunked. I remember that. I was eight years old.
However, I realize that for many of you, you can’t remember your baptism because you were a tiny infant. You had to be told about it years later by your parents. So, what good was it, you might ask. Now Martin wasn’t saying you should remember the event of your baptism but the fact of your baptism, especially when one might be prone to doubt and despair. According to our tradition the very act itself, whether you were aware of it or not, is a sacrament – you experience God’s grace, you experience the sacred. But you didn’t experience the sacred just in that moment but you do so continually these many years later. Actually, your whole religious life is a sacrament, an experience of the sacred. Your baptism is just one aspect of that bigger, fuller sacrament of being Christian. Let me elucidate.
The late theologian Marcus Borg describes three basic ways of seeing religion (The Heart of Christianity). Understanding these broad stroke perspectives, he says, is helpful in seeing how we live out our faith. Borg’s descriptions apply to all religions.
The first is what he calls the “Absolutist” view. It says that my religion is the absolute and only truth. In this view, truth is said to be grounded in God’s infallible revelation – that tradition’s scripture is the only truth over and above all others. Against all other claims – religious or secular – this religion is the only true religion. Thus, this religion – my religion – can be the only religion that is true. That’s the “Absolutist” view.
The second is the “Reductionist” view. In this view it’s just all made up, a fiction, merely a human construction out of human’s imaginations. Adherents to this view say that religion was created to explain the natural world and serve psychological and social needs. There could be other factors that explain it, but in the end, we just made it all up. Thus, for the reductionist, all religions are built on a mistake, for there is no God, no sacred. That’s the “Reductionist” view.
Much of the conflict in Western Christianity through the centuries has been between Absolutist and Reductionist views of religion. We see it in the pitched battles over evolution and creation. In these conflicts, only one view can be true. However, I should say that both of these views of religion are products of the Enlightenment – they are modern paradigms.
In contrast to these views of religion, there is an older, more “true” alternative. Even in our modern world, this view is emerging as a more satisfying and deeper truth. This is called the “Sacramental” view of religion. As a sacrament, religion is not “absolute.” Rather, like communion and baptism, religion is a way of mediating the sacred – using finite products, finite means to experience the sacred. Even as water, bread, and wine help us experience God’s grace, so all of religion is a means of approaching the sacred. There are several characteristics of this “Sacramental” view of religion.
First, religion is a human creation. In this, it is like the Reductionist view in that the scriptures, teachings, doctrines, rituals, practices, and so forth, are human products. No divine dictation from above in this view.
Second, unlike the Reductionist view, it affirms that religion is in response to experiences with the sacred. Even though they are human constructions, they are not just human projections. Religion is a human product created in response to the sacred within the particular culture in which those people lived. Thus, a Sacramental understanding affirms the reality of God, the sacred.
Third, religion is immersed in culture and language. Having arisen out of particular cultures, each religion has particular cultural and linguistic characteristics. Over time, those characteristics are their own culture. Even as being French means more than just knowing the language – there is a whole French ethos that comes with being French – so living within a particular religion – knowing the stories, practice, teachings – is part of living that religion, to live within its ethos.
Fourth, religions that have been around for a long time, having stood the test of time, are “wisdom traditions” (a phrase coined by the renowned Christian historian, Huston Smith). Wisdom is more than knowledge. Wisdom is more foundational. Wisdom is about two important questions: What is real? What is the way? Even though ancient religions (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam) have some ideas that we now regard as mistaken or no longer applicable, they embody a deep wisdom that helps us understand what is real and what is the way. That wisdom can help us go deeper than our modern world offers.
Fifth, all enduring religions have valued and created beauty: in music, poetry, stories, art, architecture, worship and ritual. They see beauty as a mediator of what’s real.
Sixth, religions are communities of practice. They provide a practical means for living the religious life, encountering the “thin places” of experiencing the sacred – worship, prayer, deeds of compassion, and other practices. It is practiced communally.
And finally, religions are communities of transformation – means of transforming the self and the world. Transformation from an old way of being to a new way of being. Transformation of the world through compassion.
All of these contribute to seeing religion as sacramental. Religion’s purpose is to mediate the sacred and, in so doing, inform, engender and nourish a transforming relationship with God.
This is how, I believe, the sacraments of baptism and communion contribute to our faith. They are specific sacramental acts within the larger umbrella of a sacramental faith.
This “sacramental” approach to faith helps us understand how other faiths related to Christianity. In some sense, every enduring religion is a mediator of the Absolute, if you will, but is not “absolute” itself. So, the point isn’t to believe that Christianity is the only true religion, the only absolute revelation of God. Rather, it is to live within the Christian tradition as a sacrament or mediator of the sacred. For us, as Christians, it is an authentic experience of God. We need not apologize or shrink back from that expression. But neither should we be arrogant and condescending. As you well know, many terrible things have been done and are still being done in the name of Christianity. Our task, in this place and in this community, is to seek out and live this sacramental faith as honestly and faithfully as we can.
So I say to you all “Remember you baptism.” It is one real aspect of your experience with God. It doesn’t matter where and when you were baptized or in what tradition, “once baptized always baptized,” we Presbyterians like to say. If you haven’t been baptized, well, I invite you to consider it. It’s not some magical rite; it’s not hocus-pocus. But in some ethereal, mystical sense, it is a real experience of the sacred. But it is more than just a momentary experience. In our Christian tradition, baptism is a call to discipleship. So it is that in the litany of baptism the question is asked of the baptizee: “Will you be Christ’s faithful disciple, obeying his Word and showing his love?”
However, looking closer at the baptism of Jesus, we see that it is not so much about a job or a vocation. I think it is something even more profound. It is about being named. The first word of Jesus’ baptism is about the delight of God in this beloved one, this chosen one, this child called by name. The voice of heaven declares it: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
In the same way, and I really mean in the same way, our baptism is about being named a child of God – a child with whom God is delighted. “You are my child with whom I am well pleased,” says God. The words embrace us and promise to hold us. May we never forget that. Amen.