Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
Last Sunday was Epiphany Sunday and I told you that for us, here in the West, it is a remembrance and celebration of the Magi coming with gifts for the Christ child. As the 12th day of Christmas it marks the end of the Christmas season for the church. Epiphany is a transition from Advent where we waited and anticipated God coming to the world in human form and Christmas where we celebrate the birth of Jesus TO God in the world. We waited, Mary had the baby in a stable, the angels sang, the shepherds came to see the baby, 2-3 years passed and the Magi brought gifts. AND now the hard work begins: the teaching and modeling, the healing and saving.
You may also remember that Epiphany is celebrated by Christians in Eastern Countries with a different focus. They celebrate Jesus’ baptism on Epiphany. In their celebration of this transition from birthday to ministry they focus on one thing found in all the Gospels – Jesus’ baptism. It is the event that marks the beginning of Jesus ministry. For hundreds of years, the people of God waited for The Messiah, for 30 years he grew and matured, he studied and learned, and then it was time for him to go out and minister to the people. It was time for him to go public, if you will. It was time for Jesus to leave the safety of his family and solitude and begin the hard work that would lead to his untimely death. It has become the tradition for the churches in the West to celebrate Jesus’ baptism the Sunday after Epiphany.
Baptism has an interesting history. If you were to take a survey of all the denominations in KY, you would find some groups who baptize by pouring water over the head, usually as infants; you would find some who baptize by immersion like us; you would find some who baptize by triple immersion; and you would find some like the Salvation Army, Quakers and Christian Scientists who do not baptize at all. Baptism brings us together as people of faith and it also divides us.
Here in Kentucky, you will find some churches who require baptism by immersion in any church for membership and some who require the baptism to have been performed in that particular denomination; you would find some churches who accept all forms of baptism and do not re-baptize, you would find some who accept all forms but will re-baptize if desires. As Christians, we definitely do not have a consensus on the meaning or mode of baptism!
When John-Mark’s parents married they each were active members in different Baptist churches in Louisville. Joyce was a member of a Southern Baptist Church and Louis at a General Baptist church. They both loved their congregations and neither wanted to leave their church. So, they came to the agreement early in their marriage that they would attend which ever church was closest to their home. Joyce’s church was closest to their first home together. Louis would join her church and that is where they would raise their children. However, when Louis went to visit with the minister about moving his membership, the minister informed him that he would have to be baptized. Louis said, “I have been baptized.” The minister replied but for membership here, you will be required to be baptized in this church, in this denomination. At that time, Southern Baptists did not accept any baptisms outside the Southern Baptist church, General Baptist would not suffice.
Some of their family and friends thought that Louis should just be re-baptized. Joyce taught Sunday school and sang in the choir. She was an integral part of the congregation and it was closer to their home. For Louis, the point was that this church did not recognize the holy event that had already taken place. They took something away from Louis and from God by suggesting that his baptism was not valid. So, Joyce joined Louis’ church which did accept her baptism. Baptism can bring us together and it can keep us apart.
Baptism has been a topic of controversy from the beginning. Christians have debated why Jesus was baptized by John. While the Gospels all differ somewhat on the telling of Jesus’ baptism, they all agree that he was baptized and they all agree that it was a rite of passage for Jesus into ministry. And whether he meant it to be or not, it became a model for us. We are baptized because Jesus was baptized.
Baptism has been a factor in unity and in separation in the body of the church universal and in our own denomination.
When Barton Stone began the Christian movement in Bourbon County, Kentucky, he founded it on the unity of all Christians. As long as you follow Christ, Stone would consider you “in.” Stone’s own understanding of baptism changed through the years. He was baptized as an infant in the Presbyterian church and then shifted to believer’s baptism by immersion for the remission of sins. Baptism by immersion became a fundamental part of the Christian movement based on Scripture.
Alexander Campbell, the other founder of our denomination, insisted on believer’s baptism by immersion as being the true form of baptism – modeling Jesus’ own baptism. If Jesus was dunked then we should be dunked.
It is important to know that although it seems obvious and logical to assume that if Jesus was immersed that we should be immersed, infant baptism by pouring has almost always been more widely accepted and is more widely practiced now than baptism by immersion.
When the first people were baptized into the Christian faith, they were baptized by household and which included children. When Scripture says that a household was baptized we envision them all standing in a creek or river being baptized but every group of Christians did not have a body of water nearby and it is logical that the infants and young children were not dunked under water.
In the earliest days after Jesus was crucified and resurrected, Christians expected Christ’s return to happen very soon. In order to assure that everyone in the family would be able to go with Christ into the eternal home of God, it became customary to baptize infants. – People in the early church quit their jobs and stopped preparing for their future lives here on earth. They got ready for their eternal home. They expected him to return immediately. So when a baby was born, he or she was baptized right away.
The other factor that solidified infant baptism more than anything else was the doctrine of original sin. Augustine was the first to write about it at the end of the third century. Original Sin is the understanding that humans were created in God’s image as perfect but once the first man disobeyed God, all of humanity for the rest of time, inherited Adam’s sin. The only hope against the original sin was God’s grace. The church soon accepted the doctrine of original sin, and infant baptism became the norm as a result.
The earliest writing we have outside the Bible about baptism is a writing called the Didache (Die – dakee). Scholars believe it was written between the years 80-120, before the New Testament was canonized as one book. The Didache is a book of detailed instruction on to how worship and how Christian rituals were to be performed. The Didache instructs anyone involved in the baptism to fast for 1-2 days before the baptism. The baptisms were to be carried out by immersion in “living water,” which is a freely running body of water. If there is no running body, then a still body of water will do and it should be a natural temperature (which I take to mean cold!). If there is no large body of water then pouring water over the head of the candidate 3 times will suffice. It says that the baptism should be done in the name of the Father, the son and the Holy Ghost.
Due to the insistence of believer’s baptism by immersion, early Christian churches joined local Baptist Associations. But they split 10-15 years later because the Christians refused to adopt Confessions and had a different view of missions . Baptism brought these groups together, but it was not enough to hold them together.
A faction in the Christian churches began to grow that eventually split the denomination in the late 1960’s into what is now the Disciples and the Independent Christians over several issues the main one being the insistence on re-baptism by the Independent Christians.
The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) accepts all modes of baptism as being valid and practices believer’s baptism by immersion because that is how John baptized Jesus. Some Disciples churches will re-baptize people who request it and some churches have a policy against rebaptism with the understanding re-baptism diminishes God’s role. Baptism is a complicated issue no matter how you look at it.
I bet Jesus had no any idea, as he walked into the waters of the Jordan River, how much discussion and debate would be caused for thousands of years by that one act.
If everyone in this room were to discuss infant baptism vs. believers baptism, pouring vs. immersion, and rebaptism we would have many differing views and some strongly held convictions, which puts us right in line with Christians and Disciples throughout history. That is one of the things I love about our denomination. We are encouraged to discuss, debate and question all things and there is not one command from leadership that says we are to believe and practice one way.
We believe that baptism is a gift of grace, received by faith, which expresses its meaning in a variety of images, all different for different members: new birth; a washing with water; a cleansing from sin; a sign of God’s forgiving grace; the power of new life now and the pledge of life in the age to come. The meaning of baptism is grounded in God’s redemptive action in Christ.
Through the years I have talked with many people about their baptisms. I know many people baptized in creeks and ponds. I know some young people who were baptized in this very church in water so cold their lips turned blue. I know that many in this room were baptized as infants.
But unlike our scripture reading today, no one has ever told me that heaven opened up or that they heard the voice of God. Many of us who can remember our baptisms were thinking about not slipping and falling or remember the cold or warm water. For most of us it was not a magical moment, but its meaning overtime continues to grow.
I was raised in a Disciples’ church, and my baptism was for me a rite of passage more than anything else. I wanted to be baptized because that is what kids my age did at my church and it was required at that time to take communion.
Watching and doing baptisms as an adult is much more meaningful than the act of my own baptism was. I have become overwhelmed with emotion through the baptisms of others. I now remember my own baptism with a new heart and now I can I hear God saying to them and to me, “This is my beloved with whom I am well pleased.”
The Gospels differ on God’s statement. In Mark and Matthew the crowd hears God’s claiming statement. In Luke, Jesus has already been baptized and is praying when God speaks to him. Jesus was in transition, he was about to start his ministry. This was the first day of the rest of his short life. He needed to be assured of his place in God’s heart. At that moment, Jesus was the one who needed the reassuring presence of God.
Some of us remember well our baptism, some of us were too young to remember. Some of us have not yet been baptized. But all of us should frequently “remember” or anticipate our baptism.
We should anticipate or remember not the act, not the moment, not the place or the temperature, not who attended, not the date, but God’s claim on us. Whether we see baptism as a new start, a washing of sins, a sign of repentance and forgiveness, becoming part of the body of Christ, becoming a member in the eternal community, God’s grace, or all of the above, it was and IS God’s claim on us that we must feel and know when we remember our baptism. It is God’s claim on us that we must remember each time we gather around the Lord’s Table. It is God’s claim on us that we must carry in our hearts and minds each and every moment of every day. We are not just loved, we are the beloved of God. We, who were made in the image of God, by our baptism, claim what God offers to every man, woman and child – to be part of God’s family, to be claimed by the Father to be claimed as beloved.
And so now we will remember our baptisms in a physical way.
Will the Elders please come forward to the communion table. The elders will hold a bowl of water that has been prayed over. I prayed that each person touching this water will know through the Holy Spirit that you are God’s beloved. You may come forward by the center aisles, touch the water and return by the side aisles. You may put the water on your head, you may make the sign of the cross, or you may rub it into your hands. Do whatever is most meaningful to you. As you touch the water remember what God said to Jesus and God also says to you, “You are my beloved with whom I am well pleased.”