January 10, 2016, Birth and Breath – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
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Baptism is a bit of a mystery, because even though it is absolutely at the dead center of our life as Christians, not very many Christians really understand what it’s all about, or what really happens to us when the priest or the minister pours the water over us or plunges us under the water. And almost as long as the Church has existed there has been disagreement about the proper methods of baptizing, “dunking” or “sprinkling” and about whether baptism is only for those who are old enough to make a mature profession of faith, or if it is also for infants who are being raised up in the church by believing parents or grandparents or guardians.
Christians have argued about the theology and practice of baptism for centuries, and it seems likely that we will continue to argue until Jesus returns and explains it all to us. But one thing the Church has always agreed on, is that baptism is at the heart of our life as Christians. It’s important. It belongs to us all. The fact of baptism is not a matter of tastes and traditions, like whether we prefer hymns or worship choruses, or whether we pray on our knees or standing with our hands raised; whether we worship in a sanctuary with stained glass and candles, or under a tree, or in a living room in someone’s home. Baptism, even though our theologies and our methods may differ, is the birth passage of every Christian into the family of God.
We first hear about baptism in the Bible, when John, the the man God sent to prepare the world for the coming of his Son, carried out his ministry by calling people to be baptised. John established himself in the wilderness by the Jordan River, a prophet like the prophets of old, preaching about sin, warning people to repent and be saved. And all those who really heard his warning he brought out into the waters of the Jordan, and he plunged them under the water as a sign of cleansing and a new way of life.
Baptism wasn’t a brand new thing for Jewish people. John didn’t invent baptism. Traditionally, whenever Gentiles converted to Judaism, they had to go through a time of preparation and study, and part of the ritual is that they were baptised, they washed in water, to purify themselves before they could become part of God’s chosen people.
The strange thing about John’s baptism was, that John was calling Jewish people, people who were already God’s chosen, to be baptised. He was calling God’s people to begin to really live like God’s people should live: to share with the poor, to do their work honestly and without greed. It wasn’t enough for people to just be descendants of Abraham and to follow the letter of the law; John preached that they needed changed hearts as well as lives. And people responded to John’s preaching. They came, they came by the thousands, and they repented of their sins, and they cried out to John,”Teacher, what should we do?” “They were in expectation,” Luke says, “and they were all questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ,” the one they had been waiting for for so many centuries.
But John told them “No. I’m not the one you’ve been waiting for. The one who is coming is so much more powerful than I am, so much more great and glorious than I am, that I’m not even good enough to untie his shoelaces.” In those days the task of untying the thong of the master’s sandals was such a lowly job that not even all slaves were lowly enough to be asked to do it – only non-Jewish slaves, the lowest of the low, were in a low enough position that they would be asked to do it. But John says, “You are all looking up to me – but He is so great that I’m not even good enough to do that demeaning task for him.”
And then John told them what this great one was going to do. “I have baptized you with water,” he told them. “But this great one is coming with a whole new baptism – not the baptism with water that you’ve always known, but a baptism with the Holy Spirit, and with fire.” From the very beginning, the announcement of the coming of Jesus came along with the announcement of the coming of a new baptism. And so it was the right and proper thing that the first sign of Jesus’ ministry was that he himself went into the waters of the Jordan River to be baptized by John. And the heavens opened, and the Holy Spirit revealed himself to everyone who stood there that day, and the voice of God spoke aloud, “You are my beloved son; with you I am well pleased.” It all began with baptism.
And our life in Christ, too, was inaugurated at our baptism, whether we remember it or not. My family was Roman Catholic, so I was baptized when I was a tiny baby, long before I can remember anything. My mother and my father held me before the priest who poured the water on my head and anointed me with oil. Carroll, who grew up Southern Baptist, was baptized as a young teenager, when he was able to stand on his own and profess his faith in his own voice. But the important thing about both of our baptisms is not what we did or didn’t do, but what God did. God’s Holy Spirit has been at work in us from the moment of our baptisms, as he has been in all of your lives as well, from the time of your baptism.
That doesn’t mean that God doesn’t show up in our lives until we are baptized. If you look back on your life and trace your path towards God, you begin to see that he was at work in your life long before you were aware of him. Sometimes you can even recognize his work in your life before you were born. But baptism marks a real beginning.
I think that people often fail to recognize the difference between the baptism of John and real Christian baptism. People came to John because they were convicted of their sins, because they realized that they needed to change their lives in obedience to God. And the waters of the Jordan River were a sign to them that they were forgiven and cleansed so that they could make a fresh start. And sometimes Christians seem to see their baptism as no more than that. They make a public profession of their faith and repent of their sins and their baptism is a sign of their new beginning. Or, in our tradition, the parents declare their intention to raise their child in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, as we say, and the baptism is a public celebration of their good intentions. We see baptism as what we have to do to belong, like a rite of initiation.
But John told the people that the baptism Jesus was coming to give us was something new and different. It wasn’t just a sign of our repentance; it wasn’t just a sign of God’s forgiveness, like John’s baptism. Mankind needed more than John’s baptism of repentance. Mankind needed so much more than just a new beginning, because no matter how many new beginnings we get, left to ourselves we always fall away from what we know is right. We all have sins or habits or addictions or desires that are stronger than we are. We can repent this morning and fall right back into our old rut by the afternoon. Without God we are forever slaves to our own weaknesses and appetites. We needed more than a chance to start trying to be good all over again – we needed to be set free. We needed transformation. We needed healing.
The baptism Jesus came to give us has real power, power to free us, power to transform us, power to give us real life. This new baptism isn’t just a washing with water on our outsides; it is a pouring of the Holy Spirit inside of us, into our very hearts. The true element of the new baptism isn’t just water, a created thing like us, it’s the Spirit of God himself. And this new baptism isn’t just a sign of our good intentions or a public profession of our faith; it is really and truly the beginning of the Holy Spirit’s work of transformation in us. Baptism in Jesus Christ is a thing of power. Your baptism is a thing of power, God living and at work in you.
When one of my children was born, she had a little trouble breathing at first. She lay there very still after she was born, and her skin was a little bluish, and it was really scary, because I couldn’t tell if she was alive or not. But the doctor massaged her and patted her and did whatever he needed to do. And even though it felt like a long time, it wasn’t very long before she drew in her first breath of air and she turned pink and beautiful and made lovely baby sounds and waved her arms and legs around and I cried for joy.
Baptism is our first deep breath of God’s life-giving Spirit, the Spirit that makes you alive in a way that you couldn’t be without him. It’s not an accident that the Hebrew word for Spirit is the same as the word for breath. God has breathed his life into you. And it’s not just a one-time thing and then you’re on our own; just as a baby, after that first breath of life, needs to keep on breathing in air for the rest of her life, you need the Holy Spirit always, every day, every moment of every day. Sometimes you will need to ask for an extra deep breath of the Spirit. Because he is your very life. And it all began with your baptism. As we say in the baptism rite: you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever.
I’d like to close by praying a prayer from the baptismal rite for all of us who have been baptised. (If there is anyone here who has never been baptized, and who would like to be, please come by, or call me, and talk to me any time about that.)
Let us pray:
Heavenly Father, we thank you that by water and the Holy Spirit you have bestowed upon us, your servants, the forgiveness of sins, and have raised us to the new life of grace. Sustain us, O Lord, in your Holy Spirit. Give us an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works. Amen.