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Based on the scripture readings:
Mark 1:4-11
Acts 10: 34-48
Statement by the World Council of Churches

2003 October 12
Kenneth F. Baily, Senior Pastor

Remember your Baptism

Those of you who were here back in March when we held my installation -- which sounds more appropriate to a device than a disciple -- may remember that we had a family baptism on the same Sunday. A friend of mine, an Episcopal priest, performed this sacrament. He tried to merge their Book of Common Prayer with our Book of Worship, and I enjoyed seeing him walking around juggling two books and holding a pine branch dipped in water and sprinkling it on all the Congregational clergy and anyone else he could reach, saying, "Remember your baptism. Remember your baptism." It was delightful to see the combination of acceptance and anxiety that was present on many faces, not certain where he would go next or just what he would do.

We don't do that sort of thing so much in New England, but I liked it just the same. Yet I wondered, how many people out there can remember their baptism? How many of us recall the day, the events, the pledges?

I can remember many baptisms performed, though likely not all. I remember an 88 year old woman in Yarmouth Maine who was agoraphobic yet used to be the chief piano player at the silent movie house in town who was thinking about her morals in her later life and ready to join a church. Due to her fear, I went to her apartment with a deacon, her daughter, and baptized her there and gave her her first communion and she played a tune for me on her upright. I was with her about two years later, too, in the hour that she died.

I remember before I left Yarmouth seeing if anyone wanted to participate in a joint baptism, and eighteen people organized for the celebration one Sunday from a several-month-old to someone in their seventies. A ten year old said she would be afraid to do this on her own,  but she saidBack to top "I'm not afraid of baptism in a group." She already had a pretty good theology.

I remember twins one time, siblings another. One time I re-baptized someone initially baptized with rose petals. I remember being called to a hospital in the middle of the night to baptize a stillborn baby -- not because it's necessary but because it is loving and right. I remember adopted children from China and those from creative modern conception methods, but I don't remember my own baptism or at least not its day.

I want to take just a few minutes today to ask what we might remember if we did and to consider what we are doing when we can. I want to focus on baptism for just a few minutes and ask what it means to us today and tomorrow as individual people, as a parish, and as a community of Christians, and in order to do some of that I need to give a little background, which I hope is not too basic.

Baptism comes from the core of Christian faith. It is grounded in Jewish purification rituals and serves as our initiation rite. It is one of two sacraments to a Protestant and one of seven to a Roman Catholic. It is, other than for some dissenters, once and for all and need not be repeated. It is commanded by the risen Christ at the end of the Gospel of Matthew, although Christians have done it in many ways over the centuries.

In the old days it was done most often on the eve of Easter, after two or three years of instruction. If you've been in Florence or Ravenna or many other European cities, you've seen these magnificent baptisteries that usually have the font at the center and some sort of circular or embracing architecture. Baptism by immersion or significant wetting is more common than our circumspect applications, but both are good and right and honest.

When I talk to children between the ages of about three and ten or so, if I am baptizing them, I ask about the role water plays in their life. We talk about drinking and swimming and caring for plants and taking baths or washing our hands. We talk about boat trips. And each of these reflects a theological dimension of baptism. There is water that we need for life itself, the water of chaos and creation, water for joy and celebration, water with which we serve others. There is water that we need to clean. There is water where we travel and water where we join or play with others. In fact, if you think of most of the childhood uses of water, you are probably touching many of the main points of baptism. And baptism has many main points, many dimensions.

Now, I know that whenever I go into one of these long explanations I risk losing the attention that is central to sharing a point or exploring a new idea. And I apologize for the long exegesis here, but stick with me just a little longer in a rather deep and complex area, and I promise Back to top I'll work to have it make sense.

In the Bulletin this morning I've reprinted a piece from the World Council of Churches. It says what most Christians agree upon about baptism, and it makes nine points. Each of them is worth a sermon, in my opinion. I'm not going to give each of them a sentence. Rather, in summary, they unite with scripture to reveal that baptism is a way of uniting with Jesus, seeing how Jesus by entering the Jordan with sinners was uniting with us, how it is a journey through death and resurrection and embarkation on a ministry of renewal, liberation, and inclusiveness. If you can, read all of those citations sometime. They are worth twenty minutes. And they challenge you to a whole new level of understanding and memory.

Ernst Troeltch, a theologian from a century ago, adds this about baptism. He says it is the presence of God within the bounds of our senses. Which is pretty amazing. It is what we are often seeking. He goes on to say that baptism connects the material, the supernatural, and the divine. Now I don't know that I want to believe that they are usually disconnected, but I still like the idea of their unity in baptism. Finally, at least for me, he says that baptism is the solemn and festive representation of the Word. And I like that part of its being both solemn and festive as well as connected with the essential meaning, preaching, and promise of the Gospel. --from The Christian Faith

One way to summarize all this would be to say that in baptism we find nearly the fullness of the Christian life and hope, the fullness of God's acts in the past and promises in the future. And that's why it is worth remembering. But, again, do we? Well, here's the trick. While a great deal of our assumption and even a large part of the way that I am presenting it suggests that baptism is a single act at a single time, that's not quite true. Baptism is not just the isolated event of community and water and spirit and prayer. It is also the journey of life, the ongoing blessing and promise and the ongoing call to ministry to all of us, not just the ordained of us. We can remember our baptism because it is not just that thing that happened perhaps before we could form memories, but it is the grace that continues to this day and beyond. Baptism is the birth of a life of growth. Baptism pledges us to a process of faith throughout life. And I can remember what I was up to thirty years ago, what I was doing twenty years ago, and what I am called to this year, and so I can remember my baptism and so can you.

Consider this: if baptism makes manifest the union with Jesus Christ, who was baptized, and with his whole body the Church that means something. If it is a union with the Church in every time and place (and it is) that means something more. It means we are related, some might say by blood, with Palestinians and Peruvians and Philadelphians when they are struggling with issues of life and faith. Why do we care about what is happening over there when we have needs right here? Back to topBecause they are our relatives by baptism. This relationship calls us to engagement and action.

Consider this: if baptism is the liberation into a new humanity where divisions and barriers that culture has erected are transcended then what was once the battle over slavery and then the issue of women's rights and now the conversation over same sex commitment are drawn into a whole new light. Sure, families disagree and even differ, but why do we care about the condition of gay and lesbian Christians? Because they are our family, our blood, in baptism. But take it a step further. Transcending barriers doesn't have just cultural effect and call but economic dimensions, too. Why do we care about the poor Christians of so many nations in Africa, or about the economy -- even our own -- that keeps them poor? Because we are responsible for them in the family of Christ. Why do we pledge to a church, perhaps tithing, according to our own means and not just donating something modest and safe? Because this is our house we are talking about, and how it does each year is our responsibility.

Maybe I am going too far with this baptism application, but most theologians would say I am not going far enough. Twice in my own memories I noted the connection between baptism and death, which is such a tough topic to explore, but it is central to our past and proclamation. Baptism does call us to die to the death-focused culture all around and receive new life in a way that may set us apart. It does call us to affirm that God gives this new life even in very subtle and mysterious ways. And it does expect us to open ourselves to the possibility -- no the promise -- that in this act and in the life that leads forth from it we will find the unity of material, supernatural, and divine that makes new life possible.

To remember the full nature of our baptism is to re-direct the journey of our life very often. But this re-direction does not just come with challenges. It also comes with courage. For if you remember your baptism, you remember that you are not alone. You remember that the family of faith not only needs from you but prays for you. You remember that once upon a time and still continuing to this moment, God is uniting the wonders of divinity with the materials of your reality. You can have the courage to know that whoever you are, you are not here by mistake. You can have comfort in your convictions and know that you are not called to hide your light -- your light -- under a bushel. You can have the calming assurance that no matter how many challenges and pains you meet, you are not here to suffer. You are here for a life of liberation, sacrifice, healing, and joy. You are here as part of God's family.

Remember your baptism. Remember your baptism. Unify your spirit, your politics, your heart, and God's amazing strength. Serve this world. Live as witnesses to the resurrection. And continue to grow on this journey. Amen.

Copyright 2003 Kenneth F. Baily.  Used by permission.

Web update: for another sermon about baptism, click here. to top

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