Letting Baptism Catch Up With You

One thing’s for sure and that is whenever the subject of baptism gets brought up, especially when it has to do with your child or your grandchild or someone in a different denomination than your’s—there is inevitably a heated discussion, or an argument or fireworks.  Which church does it right, is baptism better by immersion or dipping, is it infant baptism or young adult-believers baptism?  Where is the right place for baptism to take place?  Who can be the God-parent? –my best friend who is Roman Catholic or Jewish or an atheist? When it comes to baptism, we get all tied up in doctrines and customs, trying to do the right thing and not to offend anyone. Does this resonate with any of you?

Well, just go to the Holy Land and experience the fiery controversy about the location of Jesus’ baptism—the real site.  On the surface you may think this controversy is a waste of time, given all the other pressing issues that crop up in that part of the world.  But citing the real spot on the Jordan River where John met Jesus and where the heavens were torn apart is important.

It is important to biblical scholars and to historians.  And, it is important to the spiritual sensitivities of the faithful who want to step in the stream, just as Jesus did, and feel a sense of holy connection.  As it is, there are two spots on the Jordan River that vie for authenticity.  One is claimed by the Episcopal, Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and Orthodox churches as the most likely to be the real location—and for sound reasons to be sure.  It is in Bethany beyond the Jordan River, as scripture says and that puts the baptism of our Lord in the country of Jordan, not Israel.  The other site is further north on the river, in Israel and it is owned and operated as a tourist site by the State of Israel.  You are free to draw your own conclusions.

In both of these places the faithful or even the curious have an opportunity to step into the water. I have seen people from as far away as China travel all the way to the Jordan in order to be baptized.  Or baptized persons going down into the water as a way of experiencing baptism anew.  Or simply standing in the water and reciting prayers from our own Book of Common Prayer in order to renew their baptismal vows.

There is a saying: Baptism might get you wet or it might just change your life.  In itself, there’s nothing magical about a dip in the water.  Even if it’s a religiously motivated one, with a formal liturgy in a church, specially blessed water, godparents, and the whole works.  Or taking a pilgrimage to the real Jordan River whether it is in Jordan or Israel.  What makes it special is what you do with it after you get out of the water.

For Jesus, baptism was a pretty rip-tide experience.   Jesus had come out to the Jordan to find John who was rapidly baptizing people who were looking for a way to wash away their sins.  What John was practicing was a baptism of repentance.  It was common enough practice in those days and truthfully the idea of baptism as washing away sin is an excepted understanding of baptism—yes, even in the Episcopal Church.  But there is so much more to it.

John points this out when he says, there is one coming who is much more powerful than me.  I will baptize you with water, but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.  You have to love the account in the Gospel of Mark: no sooner have we been alert to the nature of John’s ministry when Jesus appears on the scene and when he rises up from the Jordan, the heavens are TORN apart.  They just didn’t open up, but they were torn apart as if God wasn’t going to waste any time getting down into that river with Jesus and claiming him His own and all us for that matter.  Like, you had better stand back in the wake of this urgency of the Spirit of God That swoops down just as the voice thunders out “You are my Son, my beloved.”  And not just that, God makes this declaration, a declaration that every child longs to hear, “In you I am well pleased.”

Clearly this baptism of the Holy Spirit is the beginning of Jesus’ ministry now claimed as Son and Beloved.  So, too, it is for all of us who are baptized in the name of Jesus the Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit.  It is the beginning of our son-ship or daughter-ship with God, in an intimate relationship that God has chosen for us that gives us our working papers to go forth to minister to God’s people in the name of Christ.  It isn’t just a piece of rhetoric that we say we are the Body of Christ.  Individuals yes but together, corporately as the Body of Christ born anew to be the arms and legs, the thoughts and actions of the very Jesus whom we read about in scripture, pray to and sing about.

In reality most of us, at the moment of our baptisms, didn’t experience that rush of wind, the thundering voice of God.  We were infants.  What did we know?  But at whatever age or rational capacity we had to understand what was happening to us we were brought into a community of faith that promised to nurture us in the love of Christ. And blessedly, our baptisms catch up with at some point in our lives.  Whether or not there is any water involved at the moment it happened, you experienced your baptism when you realized who you are at your very core and you accept that realization with joy coming, as it does, from a deep abiding love of God.

Carlo Carletto writes this:

Love is God in me
Yes, love is God in me, 
and if I am in love I am in God, that is, in life, in grace: a sharer in God’s being….

And if God is in me as love,
why do I change or disfigure God’s face with acts or values which are not love?

Let me share two vignettes that reveal the face of God’s love that shines through the baptized. The first is community of Christians who live and worship in the lower East side of New York. Last night Church of Our Savior held a concert featuring their own choir which is made up largely of Cantonese Episcopalians. The occasion was to raise funds to support the Episcopal hospital in Gaza, which like all institutions in the Gaza strip has been devastated by the latest round of rockets.  Al Ahli Hospital is in the heart of Gaza City.  It is run by the Episcopal diocese of Jerusalem but it services any and all Palestinians regardless of religion and ability to pay. It is the only Christian presence in Gaza in an area where unemployment exceed 50%, daily fuel to keep power on in the operating rooms and everywhere in the hospital complex is a challenge.  As winter grinds on, they expect to see more burned children, as they did last winter, from the open fires in homes used to keep families warm.

And, down on the lower Eastside, the Body of Christ radiates God’s love in a small church in Chinatown, A love that crosses ethnic priorities and cultural boundaries. Some say, Isn’t that amazing.  Others would say, we could do no other.

The 2nd vignette was told to me the other day.  Your vestry met last Thursday night, which in and of itself is an act of God’s love but beyond that they had a visitor.  An unknown man arrived without much to his name.  He has just been released from the jail up the road. He was in great need.  How easy it would have been to say, “We are very busy and there is nothing that we can do.”  But there was something to be done.  A show of hospitality and then a phone call to get him safe and warm lodging for the night.  Some would say “we could do no less.”

Today we remember our Lord’s baptism, we remember our own and what changes in our lives that moment, whenever it came or comes again wakes us up to the joy of God’s love and the awareness that we are no less than the Body of Christ, with all our warts and misgivings we have been claimed as God’s beloved.


The Baptism of Our Lord, 1 Epiphany, 2015

The Reverend Dr. Deborah Dresser

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