Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
Do you remember your baptism? When were you baptized – if you were?
I was baptized as a baby, as was the tradition in the church, back then, a long, long time ago(!) I was baptized on Thanksgiving Day, not quite 4 weeks after I was born, so I don’t remember a thing about my baptism. I can picture it because I still remember growing up in that church, but I have to ask my parents and my sponsors about what it was like. They don’t remember much either, I’m afraid, and they’re not even sure which of the two pastors on staff presided! I like to think that they were thankful for my birth, or at least, thankful to God for having a safe delivery, and that’s why they chose Thanksgiving Day for me to be baptized, instead of say, a couple of Sundays later in Advent on John the Baptist Sunday, or Epiphany, or today, on Baptism of Our Lord.
Of course, there’s another meaning to “remembering your baptism.” It’s the question of meaning, or the question of our identity. We can remember our baptism daily, and what it means to us! Who, and whose, am I? Where did I come from? Where am I going? What does my baptism have to do with the rest of my life?
Betsy, a pastor, just a little younger than I, got baptized as a newborn, when she was baptized in an emergency, because the doctors didn’t give her very good odds that she would survive surgery! It all happened in a rush. Their pastor, Pastor Derrick was called in a hurry and arrived as Betsy was being wheeled down the hall by the surgical nurses, and running alongside, dressed in a gown and mask, because Pastor Derrick had the flu, he grabbed her mother’s plastic water tumbler, stained with bright red lipstick, half full of water, and baptized her en route. She only knows this second hand, by those who were there, and because she survived. But now, says Betsy, whenever I see any ol’ plastic tumbler it reminds me of baptism, and that I am a daughter of God.
Most of us don’t have as dramatic a story to tell about our baptisms. But we all have a marker that we can point to. In baptism, we are marked with the cross, and sealed with the holy spirit, forever, traditionally, a mark made with oil, olive oil. And so, whenever we pass by the font here and cross ourselves with the water, or whenever we go to the healing station and we’re marked in oil with the sign of the cross on our foreheads, we can remember our baptisms. On Ash Wednesday, which comes early this year, we remember our baptisms with a sign of the cross, in ashes.
The baptism of Our Lord is about our baptisms. And our baptism is about who we are, every day – about who claims us, and names us.
There is a reason why we baptize infants, by the way. Not all faiths do, of course. Some baptize at the age of reason, 12 or 13, a “believers baptism,” as for example, the Baptists do. But we baptize infants, or adults. The reason is to remind us that, in our lives and culture, there are so many ways that we are taught to earn what we get, and in the case of religion gone bad, to morally prepare ourselves to be good enough. Which is why it’s so important to know how baptism is just the opposite. It’s not us, but it’s all God’s action. God the Holy Spirit, anoints us, and God the father calls us by name and claims us, and God the Son redeems us. When we baptize infants we can see this action of God’s grace, coming to us without our asking, or earning it.
Luke points this out in a unique way. In his account of the baptism of Jesus, Jesus is standing all by himself in the Jordan River, after John the Baptist was already arrested and put in prison. So if not John, who baptizes Jesus? Jesus is baptized by the Holy Spirit, “descending on him in bodily form like a dove.”
And the same for us! Little baby’s, innocent and vulnerable, not yet in control of their own fate’s, even newborns being wheeled into surgery, are the perfect examples of God’s generous forgiveness and love for us, whenever they are baptized and receive the Holy Spirit. There is nothing we can do, nothing we have to do, to receive God’s blessing in baptism. But it is powerful medicine, this relationship that God initiates. It is a mark we remember, and that we can be thankful for, every day. “…nothing that we do, or fail to do, can remove the identity that God conveys as a gift. Our relationship with God, as David Lose says, is the one relationship in life we can’t mess up precisely because, it wasn’t us who established it. We can neglect this relationship, we can deny it, run away from it, ignore it, but we cannot destroy it, for God loves us too deeply and completely to ever let us go.” (David Lose, workingpreacher.com)
But even this powerful action has recently been called into question in the Church of England. Now, at least from the perspective of the National Secular Society in the U.K, there is a way for people to choose to be "de-baptized"--for a simple online payment of $4.50. It began in 2009 when John Hunt requested that his 1953 baptism at the Parish in the Southward Diocese, South London be revoked because he was only five months old at the time of the baptism, and besides, he no longer believes in God. Hunt was serious. And he received the first, "Certificate of De-baptism," for which he paid $100 to have recorded in the London Gazette. But the Church of England, having a different perspective, informed Hunt that his lack of attendance meant his membership had already "effectively lapsed." But if he wanted, the baptismal record could be amended with an annotation at his request, which doesn’t cost anything.
Because baptism is a gift and a life-long journey, no matter if we accept the gift or not, you can’t be de-baptized. We might not use it to the full extent that God hopes we do, but that’s up to us. The gift is given and irrevocable. Baptism is once, for all time, as they say, it doesn’t lapse, nor do you ever need to be re-baptized. But the more we remember and practice it, the more it becomes who we are.
Luther used to say, the signs of water in our lives, like washing our hands and bathing, should remind us of our baptism. In baptism we die to Christ and are raised with him to new life, washed clean. Making the sign of the cross and remembering that we are a baptized people, even in such simple tasks as washing, help us to grow into the persons God has created us to be.
These next two weeks here at Unity, we are offering two Wednesday evening, and two Saturday morning, gatherings for Inquiry and Discussion about baptism and our faith journey. If you haven’t been baptized, you can delve into that or begin to prepare for it, whether it be next Sunday, or next year, or in ten years’ time. And, if you’re baptized already, this is a great opportunity to dig deeper into its meaning, which you can reaffirm here at the font, or in membership in this parish.
We hold many things in common as a baptized Christian people, but each person is also unique. Baptism is a life-long walk, and so today in our liturgy, we began with a Thanksgiving for Baptism, remembering all the ways that God saves us in water. And after the Hymn of the Day we’ll Affirm our Baptismal promises, strongly renouncing all the ways and forces that tempt and pull us away from God, and then affirm and remember our faith in the words of the Apostles Creed.
The Baptism of Our Lord, the baptism of Jesus, is about our baptism, our identity as a marked and redeemed people of God – and how we live that out, day to day.
Each person's spiritual path is unique. And so, as a community, we celebrate the good work that God has begun in you, and honor your unique, life-long walk toward faith. “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you.”