by Ellen Sims
text: Luke 3:1-22
The Christian sacrament of baptism has roots in Jewish purification rituals and ancient naming ceremonies. In the Gospels God names Jesus “Beloved ” at his baptism. We who follow Jesus are likewise named “beloved” at our baptisms. And like Jesus, we undergo baptism not as a private experience but as a public confession and a communal covenant. Today I’ll ask the parents as well as the congregation to join in the words of commitment on behalf of two of our children. H__ and G__ are accompanied and supported today not only by their parents, not only by their extended family, not only by their faith community . . . but by a great crowd of witnesses who’ve gone before them and all people of every time and place who name Jesus as the exemplar of their faith.
But I want to speak now—and with attention to our Lenten theme of earth-care—about baptism as an earthy, embodied rite. Christian spirituality is rooted in a story and in practices of physicality. Although baptism of an infant appears dainty and delicate, John’s baptism of Jesus was raucous and splashy and sloshy and rough. Picture the crowd jostling one another on the banks of the Jordan with John shouting his sermon: “Prepare the way of the Lord!” John the baptizing preacher renamed the crowd “a brood of vipers” (Luke 3:7) and called out sin.
And in John’s day the sin he and later his kinsman Jesus indicted was the Empire’s sin of over-weaning power and greed, the sin of a system that overly taxed the poor and extracted natural resources and conscripted soldiers, harming both the people and their land. John railed against the Roman occupiers who often crucified their subjects en masse along well-traveled roads to terrorize the occupied people into submission. Luke’s version of this story says John showed soldiers and tax collectors they were complicit in the empire’s injustices against the poor—that they were as trapped in an evil system as those being evicted from ancestral lands and thrown into debtors prison and left to beg at the city gates. So John made a way for them to declare their decision to renounce evil, a phrase you’ll hear in today’s baptism liturgy. John told those wanting to “repent”—-go in a new direction—-that they should declare that decision with a public act.
And he explained that an undignified wading into the river would not be the hardest part. Their greatest challenge would be to live differently. “If you have two shirts, give the shirtless guy one of yours,” John offered as an example. If the people watched an unscrupulous tax collector undergo the embarrassment of baptism, they might have filed that away and if he tried extortion again, they could respond: “Hey, you publicly committed to the Jesus Way. You renounced this way of life.” John offered a baptism that was public, personally inconvenient, and messy in a physical and psycho-social sense.
If it sounds as if I’ve left out the “spiritual” dimension of baptism, I’ll get to that. But I want to add another layer to the earthiness of baptism, which I believe is critical to Christian theology if it’s going to be true to the life and times of Jesus.
Matthew’s and Mark’s versions of Jesus’s baptism say the Holy Spirit descended at that moment metaphorically, “like a dove.” Only Luke insists the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus “like a dove . . . in bodily form” (Luke 3:22). Only Luke, as we’ll read in a few weeks, attests that the resurrected Jesus first revealed himself to the disciples in bodily form in the breaking of bread together. The earthy element of baptismal waters cleansing human bodies and the physical act of hungry bodies breaking bread together are core to Christian theology.
In the first few centuries of emerging Christian theology, the big scandal Christianity posed was not that the very human Jesus was God—but that God was, in Jesus, human. Last Sunday we read in Luke 4 the story of the devil’s temptation of Jesus in the wilderness, a story that is very careful to fully humanize Jesus who nevertheless resisted the temptation of political and religious powers despite his human weakness, including hunger from fasting. On Christmas Eve we read the story of Jesus’s humble birth attended by earthy shepherds, according to Luke 2. Today’s text, bookended by Luke 2 and Luke 4, continues the emphasis on the physicality and humanness of Jesus—this time in the undignified waters of baptism.
Jesus did not, as far as we know, baptize his disciples. But later followers of Jesus pointed to his own baptism and recalled that he himself broke bread and shared it and saw that doing so with others who remembered him in that act were doing something sacred and communal that bound them together. So the Christian sacraments at the core of our faith life—baptism and Holy Communion—point us to God’s work of love and grace in Jesus. In and of themselves they perform no magic and effect no change in us or in our world–unless we inhabit those rites and live into the corresponding words and participate in faithful communities that continue these grace-filled symbols and stories. Like Jesus and his kinsman-baptizer John, we, too, are to wade into the messiness of the world’s waters, renouncing our allegiance to tyrants and giving away our extra shirt for someone without any. We are to live as Jesus followers. We are to live as beloved ones.
In a moment I’m going to say very clearly to Gee Gee Blum and to Hayes, “YOU are God’s beloved.” But we all know that some people have been baptized into Christ’s church only to have the Church contradict God’s baptismal affirmation. There may be a time—God forbid—when someone tries to steal from these two children their sense of their belovedness. We, who bear witness to today’s sacrament and the fundamental Christian theology of grace, must remind them of their belovedness. And here’s the spiritual/theological takeway: Accepting our belovedness is key to the Christian spiritual state of grace.
We, Open Table, at times have to remind one another of our belovedness that is at the core of our baptismal vows. I hope you can hear me saying to you again and again, “YOU are God’s beloved.” The words at the heart of your baptismal vows affirm we are all beloved children and therefore we are authorized—no, required—to tell one another, in words and ways: “YOU are God’s beloved child. God created you and is so pleased with you.” Yes, we sin. But in spite of what we do, WHO we are remains: beloved ones. I hope that our work with the youth of Prism implicitly carries forward this message: “You are beloved—no matter if someone else demeans you for who you are or whom you love.”
Although John the baptizer baptized adults, later Christians baptized children, probably out of wrong-headed fear that if a child died before baptism they would die without God. I don’t want to spend time verbally wresting hypothetical children from that pernicious theology. If that’s your starting place, then we have to go way back to the most basic Christian premise and Jesus’s chief teaching—that God is love.
And we who are beloved of God are also invested with beloving the rest of creation. The Genesis creation story serves to imbue us with a responsibility for the other creatures of this earth. Thus far earth has rebounded from human harm. But science says the beloved planet is threatened as never before—by our own hands. This past Friday young environmental activists around the globe delivered this statement:
“We, the young, are deeply concerned about our future. Humanity is currently causing the sixth mass extinction of species and the global climate system is at the brink of a catastrophic crisis. Its devastating impacts are already felt by millions of people around the globe. Yet we are far from reaching the goals of the Paris agreement. . . .Young people make up more than half of the global population. Our generation grew up with the climate crisis and we will have to deal with it for the rest of our lives. Despite that fact, most of us are not included in the local and global decision-making process. We are the voiceless future of humanity. We will no longer accept this injustice. We demand justice for all past, current and future victims of the climate crisis, and so we are rising up. . . . We finally need to treat the climate crisis as a crisis. It is the biggest threat in human history and we will not accept the world’s decision-makers’ inaction that threatens our entire civilisation. . . . We, the young, have started to move. . . You have failed us in the past. If you continue failing us in the future, we, the young people, will make change happen by ourselves. . . .”
Friends, those who follow Jesus as the incarnation/enfleshment of God, those who follow him in the bodily experience of baptism and eat of his flesh in the act of holy communion are bound to this good earth and responsible for its care. When God names us beloved at our baptisms, God is blessing not only our physical selves but also the waters that cleanse us, the earth that grounds us, the creatures that walk with us on this planet. And here is where Christian spirituality meets baptism’s physicality: when we accept our baptismal belovedness, we are united with Christ Jesus—and the created world he loved, too. The world’s healing and our own salvation are one.
God of Love, let us hear you speak to us now, even now, of our belovedness.