Sunday, January 8, 2012

Baptism as Covenant

Genesis 1:1-5
Acts 19:1-7
Mark 1:4-11


There is, from the beginning of time, an intimate connection between God and water.  Though the first creation may have been the calling of light into being, the first action we read is a movement over the waters.  When God is creating the heavens and the earth, “a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.”  And so it that we see there is the time before, and the time after, and water stands in between.  This is the first hint we have that water has some powerful significance in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

This significance continues throughout the whole of sacred scriptures.  There is the before, the waters, and the after.  In the before, the world was full of sinful and unrighteous people  Then came the waters.  After Noah and his people repopulated the earth.

In the before, the Israelites are slaves in Egypt.  Under the leadership of Moses, they flee and are pursued by the whole of Pharaoh’s army.  Then came the waters.  The Israelites pass through the Red Sea on dry ground and all of Pharaoh’s horses and chariots, horsemen and troops are swallowed in the deluge of the returning sea.  After, the people feared the Lord and put their trust in Him.

In the before, the people complained against Moses and Aaron and their lack of water in the desert.  Moses was commanded by God to speak to a rock and water would spring forth.  In the before, Moses did not trust God, and struck the rock twice with his staff instead.  Then came the water, gushing froth from the rock, and the community and their livestock drank.  And in the after, God chastised Moses for not honoring God.

In the before, Moses appoints Joshua as his successor.  Moses dies on Mount Nebo while looking over the Promised Land.  Then came the waters.  And in the after, Joshua leads the Israelites across the Jordan, trusting in God’s promise to be with Joshua, and to never leave him nor forsake him.

This relationship between God and water continues in the New Testament, in the form of baptism.  The Gospel of Mark opens with John baptizing people in the Jordan.  John tells the people that he is baptizing with water, but one is coming who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.  Jesus come to John.

In the before is a little-known Jewish man about whom we have no information (at this point in the story).  Then come the waters.  Jesus is baptized by John in the Jordan.  And “as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.”  And in the after, a voice from heaven declares, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Jesus is not the last person in the New Testament to be baptized.  Those who are baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus also receive the Holy Spirit.

The UCC Book of Worship has this to say about baptism:  A person is incorporated into the universal church, the body of Christ, through the sacrament of baptism.  The water, words, and actions of the sacrament are visible signs that convey the Christian’s burial and resurrection with Jesus Christ (Romans 6:3-4). …. It is “a sign and seal of our common discipleship.  Through baptism, Christians are brought into union with Christ, with each other and with the church of every time and place.”

There is the before, when a person is separate, distinct from, not part of the church.  Then come the waters—the baptism into the burial and resurrection with Jesus Christ.  And in the after, the baptized is a child of God, a member of the family of Christ, a participant in church life.

The baptism of Christ was the starting point of Jesus’s recorded ministry.  Baptized in water, and filled with the Holy Spirit, Jesus spent the next three years preaching good news, healing the sick, and bringing the Kingdom of God the people of God.  Jesus made manifest the love of God in the world.

As a baptized people, we are called to do the same.

In the course of baptism, there comes a point in which the congregation, the community in which a person is baptized, is asked the following: Do you, who witness and celebrate this sacrament, promise your love, support, and care to the one about to be baptized as she lives and grows in Christ?  And the congregation responds: We promise our love, support, and care.

I was baptized here at Ripley.  I was raised in this church.  Throughout college and my seminary career, I worshiped elsewhere, in other places and with other denominations.  I have seen church done in a number of different ways, and I have seen many theologies of baptism expressed in the lives of those churches.  Church and theology are not one size fits all.  But the theology of baptism that fits me is the one expressed by the UCC Book of Worship, and lived out by the people of Ripley.

I have not always been a particularly lovable person.  My teenage years were particular difficult.  But I never felt unloved here at Ripley.

When I confirmed my baptism, members of the congregation were encouraged to pick a student from among the confirmed and to pray for them throughout the remainder of their academic career.    Every time I returned to Ripley, I was welcomed.  I knew I was prayed for regularly, and throughout this journey, I have felt incredibly supported by this congregation.

Ripley is a church where I have experienced significant care.  I remember being looked after at times by women in this church.  I remember being blessed by many who are no longer among us.

In the before, I was an infant and cannot say I remember what life without a church was like.  But the waters came.  I was baptized.  And in the after, I was a member of the family of God.  I have been loved, supported, and cared for by this church, by this congregation, by all of you.  In the waters of baptism is change, the loss of one type of life and the gaining of another.

This is what Jerry Sittser has to say about loss:  “All people suffer loss. Being alive means suffering loss.

“Sometimes the loss is natural, predictable, and even reversible.  It occurs at regular intervals, like the seasons.  We experience the loss, but after days or months of discomfort we recover and resume life as usual, the life we wanted and expected.  The winter’s loss leads to the spring of recovery.  Such losses characterize what it means to live as normal human beings.  Living means changing, and change requires that we lose one thing before we gain something else.

“Thus we lose our youth but gain adulthood.  We lose the security of our home but gain the independence of being on our own.  We lose the freedom of singleness but gain the intimacy of marriage.  We lose a daughter but gain a son-in-law.  Life is a constant succession of losses and gain. There is continuity and even security in the process.”

In baptism, we pass through the waters and join Christ in his death, losing a life in which we were free to live for ourselves, we cross over into a new life and gain a life in which we join Christ in his resurrection.  We are now called to live our lives for something else, for someone else.  We lose a life that is entirely our own, but gain a life is part of a larger community.  More than a community or social structure, the life we gain is part of a family, a family in which everyone is welcomed, loved, supported, and cared for.

I feel fortunate to have grown up here at Ripley.  To have been so well loved, supported, and cared for by this congregation.  For all of the studying one can, and probably ought, to do in the course of college and seminary, nothing that can be read in a book can possibly teach so much about the life of a church as what is learned in the lived experience of a church.
In my life here at Ripley I have been loved through difficult circumstances.  I have found advocates who have supported me.  I have been cared for and richly blessed.  I have seen people give of their time and resources to meet the needs of others.  I have seen people bear the burdens of their brothers and sisters in Christ.  I grew up here at Ripley, and I have grown through my relationship with Ripley. 

Today is my final Sunday as an intern here at Ripley, my final Sunday worshipping with you.  I am grateful for the lived experience of this church.  I am grateful that you are a people of a baptismal covenant.  I am grateful that you have held to the vows you made 30 years ago to love, support and care for me.  As I go forth from this place, I sincerely hope that I am able to love, support and care for others, and live the example you have set for me.  For everything you’ve done and all you have given:  Thank you.

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