by Ellen Sims
text: Luke 3:1-22
We have a new baby in our congregation! Her family is looking forward to her baptism with all of us witnessing this ancient Christian sacrament. I’ll be talking with her parents about the whens and whats and hows of baptism. But today I’m sharing with you the whys. Some folks who’ve become disenchanted with the Church may wonder if this sacrament continues to hold meaning for progressive Christians. Some may associate baptism with superstitious rites, mindless conformity, and empty tradition. I see it differently. While I do not believe baptism itself is salvific, and I do not want to pressure anyone into being baptized, I want to make a case today that Christian baptism remains a powerful act with both personal and communal consequences.
Baptism, like the sacrament of holy community, holds a rich capacity for multiple meanings so that it can, to an extent, be personalized. Think of the range of meanings and experiences we take from Holy Communion. Sometimes we emphasize that Christ is the food we eat; sometimes Christ is the host at the meal; sometimes Christ is the guest. And all are true. Likewise, baptism’s symbolism illuminates the life of faith from various angles. I’m not saying baptism can mean just anything. But the early Jesus communities, as reflected in the different Gospel accounts of Jesus’s baptism, found slightly different meanings in the baptismal waters. Luke’s Gospel, as I’ll discuss soon, stresses the political implications of Christian baptism.
Baptism is intended to be celebrated as part of a community, but people within the same community might experience the sacrament differently. Some of you were, for instance, baptized as infants. You received baptism through God’s grace. Your parents and congregation and minister, as representatives of God, took vows to nurture you in the love of God, and you simply received that love and nurture as a child. Others here were baptized as older children or teens or adults after deciding to follow Jesus in baptism and throughout life.
Maybe this 2,000-year-old rite survives because it is theologically flexible. The power of a poem or painting or religious rite lies in the generosity of meanings, in its flexibility of uses, interpretations, and applications. It’s not that a poem can be interpreted to mean absolutely ANYTHING. But a work of art or a sacrament that stands the test of time has layers and angles that keep it alive and useful.
Baptism in living water remains a generative ritual overflowing with meanings. Though the Church has often been divided over this symbol– has put dissenters to death over this symbol–baptism remains the outward starting point of Christians’ faith journeys because it is so theologically instructive and enlivening.
And that is one reason progressive Christians value the sacraments. Dogma gets frozen into rules and truth claims. Dogma is used to define who’s in our tribe and who’s not. Dogma is determined by those who hold power. Dogma can divide. Dogma and doctrines can resemble arguments. But sacraments are more like art. Doctrines pinpoint meanings. Sacraments enlarge meanings. To articulate a doctrine of baptism or holy communion is to choose one meaning over others.To receive baptism or communion is to participate in an action that retains many possible resonances.
Doctrines are hemmed in and closely guarded. Sacraments are let loose into the world of experience to grow and expand. Dogma is what is created after sacraments get literalized. Dogma has its place. But postmoderns wonder if spiritual truths and personal experiences, which need to be marked as holy, are easily captured in objective language.
So I find more compelling the implicit meanings within sacraments and symbols than the explicit meanings of doctrine. Of course, I admit that sacraments can also be made divisive and dangerous. Just consider how the 16thand 17th century Anabaptists were persecuted for practicing adult baptism. The name Anabaptist meant “one who is re-baptized.” They were so named because these Christians didn’t find their 1st baptism as infants valid and insisted on a 2nd intentional baptism as consenting adults. Within a few decades, thousands of Anabaptists were executed in Europe, often, ironically, by drowning, which was sadistically called their “third baptism.” Thus, a sacrament intended to celebrate newness of life was twisted into an instrument of death. Obviously, murder is no true sacrament. Sacraments must be life-giving and freeing. They will remain so if we do not lock them into literalism and law.
A range of sacramental theologies are represented in the UCC because our denomination is the result of the union of four previous denominations with different sacramental theologies. Here at Open Table, we baptize children whose parents request that outward, visible sign of God’s grace. We do so to welcome the child to the universal church, the body of Christ, and promise our support for the child’s spiritual development. But we also can baptize older children and adults who’ve not been baptized and want to signal their decision to follow in the way of Jesus and be part of Christ’s church. (http://www.ucc.org/worship_baptism)
With individual flexibility within baptism there is nevertheless a communal and even political dimension. Baptism is not just between Jesus and me. Baptism has larger political consequences, and Luke’s Gospel illustrates this point well. Look back at the first verse of the first Gospel reading, Luke 3:1. Note what pains Luke takes to set the political backdrop for Jesus’s baptism: “During the reign of In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, 2during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.”
John the baptizer was followed mainly by the poor and marginalized—but also by some whom the Empire used to exploit the poor. There was a political context for Jesus’s baptism. Powerful men were exploiting the lives of the lowly. When John called the people to repentance, the people asked, essentially, “Well, what are WE supposed to do about bullies taking advantage of us?” John replied: “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise” (3:11). Even the poor were to give to someone who had less. Jesus’s radical message is that God’s kingdom—so different from Tiberius’s Roman realm—was for the poor and all who share even the little they own.
But what was more shocking about John’s ministry was that even TAX COLLECTORS, who harassed the poor, “came to be baptized, and THEY asked John what they should do” (3:11). John preached that they should stop being complicit with the Empire and their values. Then even some ROMAN SOLDIERS—who were used to enforce the tax collectors’ demands—grew repentant and said, essentially, “And how about us?” John responded, “You can’t be baptized until you turn around (the Greek word metanoia, usually translated as repent, means to turn and go in the other direction, to make an about face), so stop threatening people or lying about them in order to extort more money.”
Then, starting in verse 15, we see the people who’ve been following John are stirred up and wondering if he is the Messiah and feeling as if he just might turn the social order upside down. Can you imagine: the tax collectors and Roman soldiers seem ready to take the side of the poor! But just like that, Herod throws John in prison, although not before John predicts someone else more powerful than he will “separate the wheat from the chaff,” and not before John baptizes Jesus. Jesus’s baptism as John’s successor and superior—has a political context and meaning.
Our baptisms, friends, should usher us into today’s political fray as we prioritize the poor. Our baptisms are not the gateway into Easy Street. Our baptisms send us out into the world and, as Luke emphasizes, signal that we are rejecting empire and instead are serving Jesus and the poor he loved.
Other gospels report that a voice from heaven announced to the crowd, “This is my beloved Son.” But Luke’s Jesus, though called to a public and political ministry, is probably the only one who heard more intimately God’s voice saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Christian baptism was not originally an occasion to bless a baby with sweet words and high hopes for her future. Jesus accepted a baptism that set him against the powers that be and aligned himself with the poor. Jesus followed in the steps of John the baptizer, whose arrest and subsequent death foreshadowed what Jesus, too, would endure. Baptism was and is not a mark of conformity; it’s a means of disruption, resistance.
On that scary note, I now offer an explicit invitation to anyone who has not been baptized but would like to be. So cue the choir for the first verse of “Just As I Am.” Just kidding about that. But I’m serious about this. If you have never been baptized and would like to at least consider baptism, I would love to have a conversation about that with you later. Baptism doesn’t mean you’ve figured out everything about the Christian faith or that you assent to every doctrine. Baptism for you might be a way for you to share a new level of commitment to follow Jesus, which means becoming a disrupter of systems as well as a lover of the least–and to do so among this supportive community of faith. Because baptism is both personal and communal. And we want to accompany you on your challenging faith journey. Let us not minimize what a powerful ritual can mean for the journey ahead. Let us not miss an opportunity to become for others a signpost of God’s transforming work in our lives. Let us not, progressive Christians renewing the church, let us not, my friends, throw the baby out with the baptismal waters. Thanks be to God.
Your waters, O God, are ever bracing and refreshing. May we continue to find ways to plunge into the currents of change, to trustingly yield to the buoyancy of your care, to surface again with vigor for a new day. We pray in the name of Jesus, who entered a beloved tradition and altered it with integrity. Amen