For January 8, 2017
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Sermon by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton
Before there was Jeff Foxworthy there was Jerry Clower, Mississippi Baptist lay preacher and story-telling comedian. He used to talk about the time one of his cousins was engaged to be married to a nice Methodist girl from the neighborhood. There was only one thing wrong with this young woman – she had received infant baptism. For the groom’s staunchly Baptist family this simply would not do, she must be properly baptized – as an adult believer – by immersion – in the river. The young lady politely refused. Brother Jerry was called in to mediate the situation. Jerry sat down with the couple and the family patriarch. He said to Uncle Jehu, “What if I took Mary Lou out into the river just waist deep? That would be a compromise.” Uncle Jehu said, “No, that won’t do.” Jerry tried again, “What if I take her in up to her shoulders?” Jehu shook his head no. “What about up to her chin?” Again, a vigorous no. “What if I take her in so that just the top of her head is still sticking out of the water? Uncle Jehu shook his head again and said, “Nope, it has to be all the way.” Jerry leaned back in triumph and said, “That’s what Mary Lou’s been trying to tell you – it’s just that little bit on the top of the head that does the trick anyway!”
If it’s just that little bit on the top of the head that does the trick – what exactly is the “trick” that baptism does? In any discussion of baptism, the “trick” that most people think of is really the least important. Many people believe that you must be baptized to get rid of original sin. Some people waste a lot of time arguing that there is no such thing as original sin, while others worry about babies who die going to hell if they haven’t been properly baptized, and all of it is really beside the point.
This misunderstanding of the sacrament turns it into a bit of holy hocus-pocus; a matter of human beings casting a magic spell that makes sin disappear and requires God to allow the newly baptized into heaven. It is because of this idea that people sometimes ask, “Why was Jesus baptized, since he was a sinless, perfect being, he had no sins which needed forgiving?”
Well, first of all, baptism does not forgive our sins; God forgives our sins. Baptism is a message and a reminder to us that all our sins – past, present, and future – have been forgiven in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Martin Luther once said that whenever we feel oppressed by sin, death and the devil we should pat ourselves on the forehead and say “I have been baptized.” His point being that because we have been baptized, these things no longer have power over us. Baptism – the water, the words – is a constant reminder to us that we too are beloved children of God, in whom the Holy One is well-pleased.
I recently baptized a pre-school child. That night his grandmother posted a picture of a very wet Spiderman action toy. While taking his bath, her grandson had poured water over Spidie’s head, proclaiming as he did it so, “Now, Spiderman can be a friend of God too.” That’s a pretty good summing up – we are friends of God. Jesus’ baptism, and ours, is a public affirmation of God’s love.
For all of this the most important thing is the gift of the Holy Spirit. It brings us into a dynamic, organic, growing, pulsating relationship with God almighty. As the Holy Spirit penetrates our lives we, like Jesus, become enmeshed with God. God is in us, we are in God, we are the Body of Christ, we are the temple of the Holy Spirit. We are not far off and distant from God, simply seeking to keep God from sending us to Hell through magical religious rites and our accumulated list of good works. No! Baptism reminds us that we are part of the Divine Presence in the world. God has made God’s dwelling to be within us and God’s love goes out to the world through us.
In Acts 10:38, Peter says of Jesus’ baptism – “. . .God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, because God was with him.” Yes, God was with Jesus, and God is with each and every one of us and is constantly working in, with and through us to “do good and heal” the world.
Writing in Christianity Today, Pastor Paul Bocca talked about how some people find a genuinely Christian life boring. Going to church, doing the liturgy, reading the lessons, hearing the sermons, doing the rituals, serving on committees, etc. etc. BORING! Pastor Bocca turns this boring accusation upside down – by admitting it, and then reminding us of another meaning for the word boring. The Christian faith is like the slow movement of a drill; slowly, laboriously digging beneath the surface of our lives. Within the continuing cycle of Sunday after Sunday, season after season, year after year, the Christian message and life in community bore ever deeper and deeper into our souls, until we begin to realize the truth of the words spoken over us in baptism.
Gradually and over time we come to believe and live out the fact that we are a beloved child of God. We are marked with the cross of Christ forever. We are filled with the Holy Spirit. We are invited to follow Christ on the way of the cross. We are invited to love one another unconditionally. We are forgiven. We are called to forgive others. We are ambassadors for Christ. If there is any trick to baptism, this is it. These words, this water, trick us into acting like the beloved children of God we were created to be until one day we are no longer acting, we are just being who we really are. This boring life of faith is begun at baptism, and is not completed until the day we die. In the meantime, we are invited to begin each day with the sign of the cross as a reminder that we have been baptized, that we are, really, truly, forgiven and beloved friends of God.
Amen and amen.