by Michael UseyActs 2. 37-41; Romans 6. 1-11, The Message
Baptists like to call their ministers “preachers.” Whenever a minister begins his or her ministry at a church, other Baptists are prone to remark, “Well, I see that you got a new preacher at your church.” “Yeah, that’s right.” Nowadays they might add: “A right pretty one too” although this is said more often about female/nonbinary ministers than men. To call us “preachers” is fine, because what we are about is proclaiming God’s word—in music, deed, and word. And, at churches such as College Park, you have a 50-50 chance of being called “preacher” as you will being called “rabbi.” Some of you remember Jack Edwards, of blessed memory, who since I arrived called me (affectionately I hope) “Ayatollah.” Salespeople ask ministers what we want to be called; I tell them the title I prefer is Uber Kahuna, but my mail never comes addressed to “Uber Kahuna Usey.”
We’re going to baptize Maura Toole today, and the vid of that event will be in our worship on Pentecost. But her moment is a good time to reflect on baptism, and what we intend by it. Religious acts don’t hold a single meaning, any more than theological words do, which is why at every College Park baptism we ask the candidate to write a baptismal statement. These are remarkable pieces and are most often the highlight of any baptismal service. We pair the candidate’s statement about what they mean by saying Jesus is Lord, or what it means for them to follow Jesus, with the ancient ritual words of the church. The two-sided coin of freedom and form is actually at the heart of all Baptist worship.
I would remind you that what we practice here is called believers’ baptism. Meaning that each person gets to choose for themselves whether or not to be baptized. They get to choose to follow Jesus. Baptists who refused to have their babies baptized were imprisoned and even killed, sometimes quite cruelly. This is because refusal to have your baby baptized into a state religion was understood as treasonous. Early baptists were saying the state had no business deciding what someone believed. So at the very heart of baptist baptisms is a deep affirmation of the separation of church and state.
If you’ve never been baptized and would like to be, or have questions about it, please let me, Lin, James, Kari, or Mike know. We all would welcome the opportunity to listen to your faith story. If you were baptized as a baby, you do not need to be rebaptized. Baptism is not magical, and we do not practice rebaptism here (except in very rare cases). Our offer of baptism is opportunity, not obligation. You are always, always welcome to be a part of our congregation wherever you are on your faith journey, because here at the heart of our congregation is our desire to follow Jesus’ way in the world.
We preachers are never called “chief dunkers,” or “full immersers” or “those who are all wet,” or “baptism surfers.” But immersing people in water is also an important part of our calling as ministers. We who are now called Baptists were once called “Anabaptists” meaning those who do not baptize, since we refused to allow our infants to be baptized. Some might think of us as “soul washers,” but that’s a title that really belongs to God.
One of the old catechisms explains forgiveness as cleaning: The forgiveness of sins is a kind of washing by which our souls are cleansed from their defilements, just as the stains of the body are washed away by water. Baptism reminds us that our souls, like our bodies, need cleansing. If we cannot live in this world without getting our hands dirty, neither can we go about our daily business without our souls needing a good scrubbing too.
Washing is one good metaphor for what baptism means. There are many other images in scripture, however; in scripture, for example, baptism is presented as a kind of drowning of the old, sinful self. This is why, whenever we celebrate baptism here, we begin with a passage like Romans 6.4, which James recited this morning: We were buried with him through baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead … we too may have a new life.
Before baptism, what dies within you when you commit your life to Christ is a great attraction to sin, which is another word for self-destructive acts. What is born within you when you commit your life to Christ is a great attraction to God and all things divine. It is as though a switch is thrown deep within you, and you turn from all that makes you less of a person, and you turn towards God, the one who makes us truly ourselves and truly free. From your baptism on, I believe you are God-haunted–in a good way.
I have said before that I am skeptical that we are simply born with a soul; rather, the point of our life is soul-making. We create a soul out of our choices and our loves, both those that make us more of a person, and those that make us less. Our souls are built out of what we promise and what we love. Peter says to those who first heard the good news, This promise is for you and your children, and for all who are far off—for all, whom the Lord will call. Peter is preaching on Pentecost, opening up the gospel to the entire world. Acts is the story of how the good news of Jesus spread beyond the first Jews to everyone.
In baptism, three sets of promises are made: one by the candidate, one by the congregation, and one (the main one) by God. I present these three to you this morning. First, the candidate makes promises. Of everyone who comes to these waters, we ask them to make three pledges. These three are not arbitrary but based on those first formulated by the early church, as early as the end of the first century. So we ask each one, Trusting in the grace of God, do you turn from the ways of sin, and renounce evil and its power in the world? This renunciation assumes that life is a choice, and that one may choose either good or evil. It speaks plainly that evil has power in this world, power to destroy or unmake what a good Creator is making. Anyone who has read or heard the news in the last week surely knows that evil is alive and kicking.
Furthermore, the candidate is asked to turn away from sin, which, in essence, what baptism is all about: turning from destruction to God. It is, more crucially, moving the spotlight off of oneself and on to God. This is not a promise not to do evil—we could only wish it were that easy—and I make this point clear to each person whom we baptize. Rather, it makes pointedly clear what is implicit in being baptized: we turn away from some things—self, evil, sin—to turn towards God, trusting in God’s grace. We symbolically drown the old self.
Which leads to the second question: Do you turn to Jesus, accepting him as your Lord, trusting in his love? To follow Jesus as Lord is to accept the sometimes- difficult-but-often-joyful charge of looking to Jesus’ life and teachings as one’s guide for living. In the first question we trust in God’s grace; now we trust in Christ’s love. Accepting Jesus as one’s Lord means that Christ is large and in charge of our lives, and not culture, fashion, our appetites, or anything else the supposed sovereign self can dig up. Our ego is not to be on the throne of our lives any longer. Although in most people’s lives, ego tries a coup or two along the way.
Which brings us to the third question: Do you promise to be Christ’s faithful disciple, obeying his word and showing his love? I believe that a person can become a Christian without completely becoming Christ’s disciple. In fact, North America churches are full of Christians who are not yet disciples. In many of our lives, we experience another significant conversion after we become a Christian, when we decide whether or not we will be a disciple. Simply put, a disciple is a person who takes responsibility for his or her spiritual life. She knows how to nourish herself spiritually, and she does not neglect attendance in worship; reading & studying the Bible; fellowship with other Christians; listening and talking to God in prayer, giving back to God a portion of her money, to name the basics. Showing Christ’s love means to live out God’s justice and mercy, in an echo of the radical ways in which Jesus did. It means doing the hard on-the-ground work for racial justice, for LGBTQ rights and protections, for waging peace against the wars that empires love to forment, for making education, health care, housing, and food available to every human, not just Americans. Matthew 25’s story of the last judgment with the sheep and goats gives us a beginning (but not all inclusive) blueprint.
This is what the so-to-be-baptized promise: to turn from sin, to turn towards God, and to be Christ’s disciple. If you’re here this morning and you’ve never promised these three things, then I ask you, why not? As Peter said, This promise is for you and your children (Acts 2.39).
Secondly, WE make promises to one being baptized. At the end of a baptismal service, we offer again our welcome to a new wet one to this group of people, God’s church. Let’s face it: sometimes we are noble and wonderful and kind, and sometimes we are not. Each of us can be odd and angular and exasperating, to say the least. We are a group of travelers, journeying together through this predictably unpredictable life. We are bunched together for warmth and safety, care and company. We are at our best when we are singing together as we walk, or when we work together, and we are at our worst when we are grumbling and stepping on the back of another person’s shoe.
In the three churches I have served as a minister to youth, I’ve noticed something that may seem obvious to you. I noticed that those young people who join a church stay connected to that church, and that, generally speaking, those who do not join, do not stay connected. Those who become a part of this fellowship as a young person—either by baptism here or by baptism as an infant in some other tradition and joining here—tend to return here again and again. They feel in some sense that this is their spiritual touchpoint.
For too many people without a faith community, life can be more like “Survivor,” the CBS campy endurance contest involving castaways on a rat-infested island. Do you know there have been 41 seasons of this stupid show, based largely on greed and betrayal, and a complete lack of wilderness skills? Matt Groening, creator of the Simpsons and Futurama, said about Survivor: This is what real life is like. Sure you get a team, but you can’t really trust them. They will bicker with you. They will act like big babies. They will wash their underwear in the communal cooking pot. But you all have to stick together, at least until it’s time to vote one of your teammates off the island. Hardly a noble vision of life together. (Come to think of it, it might make church life more interesting if we could vote people off our island.)
This is what we in this congregation promise: companionship along life’s road, be it bumpy, smooth, or detoured, surrounded by flowers or snipers. We offer a place to serve, a share at Christ’s table as a full partner. We pledge ourselves to be the family of God for you in this place. We offer our love, our care, our kinship, and our hopes. We hope to learn from each new fellow traveler, giving and receiving from him or her, in God’s grace. We say it like we mean it, because we do.
Lastly, God makes promises to us in baptism. I don’t presume to know all that God promises us. But I’ve come to believe that God promises us these things, among others:
- To be with us, so that we are never alone again in this life, or the next.
- To empower us to overcome the evil within each of us, so that we might be freed from our racism, our greed, our pride.
- To be filled with God’s own wild spirit, a holy fire that burns within all people of good faith.
- God promises us a life of meaning and joy, a life worth living, a life of joyful service to others in Christ’s name, a life that is sometimes extremely difficult because we listen to God and not ourselves.
- God promises that the character traits which almost all persons crave can be ours as a result of God’s spirit loose within us: wisdom, love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, gentleness, self-control.
These are just a few of the things God promises. There are many things that I believe God does not promise.
- God does not promise protection, nor does God pledge freedom from pain. Quite the opposite, Jesus promised that, if we follow him, we will have more troubles, not less. This is because if we follow Jesus, we will oppose evil, and evil will not like that opposition, or us.
- God does not promise a life of ease, or of success, or of popularity. Maybe you saw the list this week of the multi-millionaire preachers, some worth over 100 million. Somehow my name was left off that list–actually, I’m on the thousandaire list somewhere. Yes, following God’s way of life leads to good things, but I’m dubious that big bucks is one of them.
- Nor are we promised a life totally free from evil—either our own or others. We drown our old self in baptism, but the rest of us is still “being redeemed.”
This promise is for you and your children, Peter said. When we were all together for a baptism it’s our custom to sing John Ylvisaker’s 1996 hymn, “I was there to hear your borning cry,” The words say so well what God promises, and the words are God’s musings:
I was there to hear your borning cry. I’ll be there when you are old.
I rejoiced the day you were baptized, to see your life unfold.
I was there when you were but a child, with a faith to suit you well,
In a blaze of light you wandered off to find where demons dwell.
When you heard the wonder of the Word I was there to cheer you on.
You were raised to praise the living Lord, to whom you now belong.
If you find someone to share your time and you join your hearts as one,
I’ll be there to make your verses rhyme from dusk to rising sun.
In the middles ages of your life, not too old, not too young,
I’ll be there to guide you through the night, complete what I’ve begun.
When the evening gently closes in, and you shut your weary eyes,
I’ll be there as I have always been, with just one more surprise.
I was there to hear your borning cry. I’ll be there when you are old.
I rejoiced the day you were baptized, To see your life unfold.