Seward United Methodist Church
Wednesday, November 21, 2018
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Remember Your Baptism

Luke 3:15-22

In the United Methodist tradition, we have two sacraments that we practice, baptism and the Lord’s Supper. By sacrament, we mean that this is a place where the sacred touches the ordinary. But we find ourselves more and more in a world where these things are no longer understood. And sometimes even within the Church, we may not have a firm grasp on what these sacraments mean or why we do them or what to do in response to them.

Since today is the day when we remember the baptism of Jesus, it’s probably the best day of the year to talk about baptism and its significance. I think baptism is a profound theological tool for helping us to understand our identity as Christians. But I think the caveat today is that baptism is also so rich and varied in its expressions in the Christian faith, that we really can’t sum it up in one sermon. So what I say today will be an attempt to hit the “high points” on baptism, and also an attempt to talk about what baptism especially means for us Methodists, in the Wesleyan tradition.

Let’s start with the baptism we have right in front of us, the baptism of Jesus.

The story begins with John the Baptizer, who preached a message of repentance that was represented by baptism. It was a message to challenge a nation that did not necessarily see their need for repentance, because they took God’s love and acceptance of them for granted. But people responded to John, and many even wondered if he himself might be the Messiah they’d been waiting for. He was obviously a genuine prophet, and there had not been a real prophet in Israel for 400 years, so could that mean he was also the Christ?

John denied it by saying the Messiah to come was far greater than he was. He was unworthy even to be a servant to the true Messiah. Luke doesn’t mention it, but we know from the other Gospels that John even tried to refuse to baptize Jesus on the basis that he was not fit for such an honor.

John also differentiated himself from the Messiah on the basis of the baptism he performed. He said his baptism was “only” one of water, but the Messiah would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire.

All three of those things, the Holy Spirit, water, and fire, are related. They can all be used as images of cleansing or purification. Water can be used to wash oneself. Fire

can be used to purify metal. And the Holy Spirit is a purifier of the human spirit, cleansing us from sin.

They can all three also be used as symbols of judgment. Fire is a frequent picture of judgment. In the story of Noah and the Ark, water was used as the instrument of judgment. And while we may not often think of the Spirit in terms of judgment, he does judge. He judges our thoughts and hearts. And this makes sense because purification and judgment are so closely related. The purification of our lives is God’s judgment on sin. It should not be tolerated in our lives. In sanctifying those he loves, God is judging their sin and putting it to death by his Spirit that lives within us.

Fire and the Spirit can also be understood as empowering us. We are empowered by the Spirit to serve God. The disciples were baptized with the Spirit and fire at Pentecost to be empowered to serve God. In the same way, we are empowered to serve.

So this was John’s message as he performed baptisms. His baptism was only an outward display of one’s desire to repent, to flee from sin, to be sanctified. But one day Messiah would come to offer a more complete baptism by which a person was also transformed by the Spirit.

And then Jesus came to John to be baptized. The big question is: If Jesus was without sin, and if John’s baptism was to express one’s desire to be free from sin, why was Jesus baptized by John? Several suggestions have been made.

The easiest explanation is that Jesus was simply baptized as an example for us to follow. We are baptized because he was baptized. But that’s too easy an explanation.

A second explanation is that Jesus’ baptism was simply a marker along the way, a starting point to his ministry. It defined the transition from his private life to his public ministry. And it certainly did that, but I think there was more to it.

A third explanation is that Jesus’ baptism was a confirmation to him of God’s love and acceptance and calling on his life. Jesus was being assured of his identity and his purpose. He was, after all, fully human, and to share fully in the human experience meant that even Jesus had moments when he wondered about his identity and his purpose. I think that’s a good explanation, but I also think there’s more.

I think Jesus’ baptism was foremost a way for him to show his solidarity, his identification with sinners. Though he was without sin, he became like a sinner, so that he might save sinners. If we want to serve others, the most effective way for us to do that is to take our place with them. Jesus’ ministry was an incarnational ministry. He came in the flesh among those he served.

In the same way, we are called to be incarnational, to be the presence of Christ among people. I’ve always been of the opinion that the best way to serve people is to be among them. It’s the reason why missionaries move into the place where they are serving. That is their incarnational ministry. And you have an incarnational ministry, too. Wherever you go, you are the presence of Christ in that place.

I think Jesus’ baptism is also a pointer to us about how we should understand our baptism. So let’s talk about that. What does our baptism mean?

First, just as Jesus’ baptism was a starting point for his ministry, our baptism is a starting point for our life of discipleship. Baptism should not be seen as an isolated event. It’s just the beginning of what it means to be a Christian. And if baptism is not followed up with a lifetime of Christ-following, then it loses its meaning. And I think that’s true whether baptism is done as an infant or as an adult. It’s easy to see adult baptism as the beginning of Christ-following, but it’s also true of infant baptism. It’s also a calling on the church to help those who are baptized as infants to live into that life of Christ-following.

Second, baptism is an outward sign of a persons’ entrance into the community of faith. In that way, it is very much the equivalent of circumcision in the Old Testament, a way of identifying a person as belonging to the people of God. It is a sign of the covenant of God with us.

Third, baptism is a sign of God’s love and acceptance, just as it was to Jesus. When we are baptized, God makes his love for us and his acceptance of us known through that sacrament. God’s love and acceptance is not based on our worthiness, but based only on his grace and redeeming love, seen in Jesus Christ.

Fourth, baptism is a sign of cleansing from sin. It is not the thing itself. There’s nothing magical about baptism that takes away our sin, but it does point to God’s desire to take away our sin. We believe baptism is more than just a symbolic act. We believe

that God is at work in the sacraments. The water is a sign that points to what God is doing by his Holy Spirit; cleansing us from sin.

And finally, baptism is a claim of God on our lives. We are his people. And we are called by our baptism to a life of Christ following. So we should remember our baptism.

Now maybe you’re like me, baptized as an infant, and when I say, “Remember your baptism,” you say, “I can’t. I was six months old. I don’t remember it.” But when I say, “Remember your baptism,” I don’t mean remember the event. I mean remember that you are baptized. Remember that God has claimed you as his own, accepted you into his covenant, begun his work of sanctification in your life, empowered you to serve him, and called you to a life of Christ-following. Remember what your baptism means, even if you can’t remember it as it happened. Remember whose you are because of your baptism. That’s what is truly important to remember.

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