Most of us have family stories that are either handed down to us or are stories that we have lived through. If your family is like mine, those stories tend to get embellished as time goes on and the facts around the story tend to get blurred. Some stories tend to be more significant than others. Some are just funny events or funny things that happen. Others might be stories that convey some sort of tragedy or loss. And every once in a while you get one that is full of meaning. It might not be apparent at the time the story was happening, but in retrospect, it turns out to be significant.
I have a story about my grandfather that is kind of worth sharing. My version of the story I am sure is tainted with embellishments. But, as an old Native American chief once said, “I don’t know if this story happened or not, but I know that it is the truth”.
My grandfather was a Baptist minister and the Senior Pastor at First Baptist Church in Columbia, TN during the 1950’s. He had gotten a call from his friend who was the Rector of the local Episcopal Parish requesting the use of First Baptist Church’s baptistery for a Baptism. You see, the Rector of the Episcopal Church was faced with a somewhat unusual request to perform a Baptism by full immersion. So the two colleagues got their calendars together and decided on a date for this to occur. The date coincided with a Sunday in which the Baptist Church was having their Baptisms. So the arrangement was that the Episcopal Rector would make use of the baptistery later that Sunday afternoon, so that the baptistery would not have to be emptied and refilled with water. So at the appointed time that Sunday afternoon, my grandfather in his wisdom, said, “ I should head down to the Church just to make sure that my friend from the Episcopal Church has all that he needs and has not run into any problems”. So when my grandfather arrived at the Church, he was a little shocked to find his friend, the Rector, standing on the back pew of the choir loft, reaching over the glass wall of the baptistery attempting to Baptize this person by full immersion. The problem was, for those of you not as familiar with the procedure in the Baptist tradition, is that the Baptizer usually gets in the water with the folks being Baptized. Also, it is the normal operating procedure that the Baptizer wear some sort of rubber chest waders in order to save having to get their clothes soaked with the process. Well my grandfather had neglected to tell the good Rector this detail, and naturally the good Rector did not see the point in getting himself soaked in the process of the Baptism. After all, he had already been Baptized himself, and his Baptism “took” the first time! Well, my grandfather was pretty a gassed by this sight of his friend attempting to do a full immersion Baptism without getting in the water. My grandfather then, without thinking about how he might interrupt the dignity of the service and the Baptism, blurted out and said, “No man! You gotta get in there with um...”
Our Gospel reading for this Sunday (Luke 3:15-16;21-22) is one of the four Gospel narratives of Jesus’ baptism. All four of the Gospels contain an account of Jesus’ Baptism, so needless to say, this is pretty important stuff! None of the narratives tell us how Jesus was Baptized or anything about John’s technique. So, the point of argument about whether we should Baptize by immersion or not is probably a moot point. Nevertheless, one thing we do know is that Baptism is universal and practiced by all Christian denominations in its various forms and fashion. And despite the differences in theology and doctrine, we all can agree that our lives in Christ begin with Baptism.
Jesus’ Baptism in the River Jordan marks the beginning of his ministry on earth. This is paradoxical for us too as followers of Christ. For you see, Baptism is the point at which we begin our ministry in the world as well. Baptism is a sacrament. Baptism is an outward and visible sign of inward and spiritual grace. It is a gift from God. Baptism is the sacrament by which we become part of the Body of Christ; we become inheritors of the kingdom of God. It is truly a gift. However, here is the caveat... We are required to do something with that gift. We are to follow Jesus’ example.
For those of us in the Episcopal Church, every time we have a Baptism or Confirmation we affirm or reaffirm the Baptismal Covenant (BCP p. 304) We enter into a covenant when we are Baptized. These words are also echoed for us too each time we say one of the Creeds during our regular worship or prayers.
This business of following Christ can be challenging to say the least. In our Baptismal Covenant, it asks us if we are willing to “persevere in resisting evil, and whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?” Then in the very next question, it asks if we are willing to, “proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?”. And here in lies somewhat of a dilemma. By affirming these two things as followers of Christ, it almost certainly takes us right out of our comfort zones.
I think most of us are pretty to willing to do these two things, resist evil and proclaim the Gospel. But at the same time, if you are like me, you have this sinking feeling that this is something that will be difficult to do. After all, it sounds messy and one could really be seen as some sort of “jack-leg” preacher if you got out there and started renouncing Satan and proclaiming the Gospel. I think most of us would want to keep our hands clean and sit back and enjoy all the grace and love that God’s gives to us. But following Christ and living into our Baptismal vows also requires us to act. Not act for the sake of somehow earning what God gives us. Afterall, that debt was paid on the Cross. But act because it is what God beckons to do. It requires us to go into the world. It requires us to take the risk of exposing ourselves to sinners.
Let’s jump back for a moment to the Baptism narrative. John the Baptist is out on the edge of town drawing crowds like crazy. But the crowd that John is drawing are not the best of characters. There is the savory lot of tax collectors and Roman soldiers that have gathered. For all practical purposes the place was teeming with sinners. A whole group of flawed and guilty human beings holding out all hope, that somehow, this loud and boisterous character named John the Baptist could give them some relief from the misery they were feeling in their lives. They were hoping that somehow, John could help them clean themselves up and turn their lives around. If this had been in our day and time, the list of folks gathered there would most likely read like the arrest blotter in the local newspaper. These would be people who had been arrested for bad checks, driving drunk, petty larceny, prostitution, assault and domestic violence. Needless to say, for most of us, these would be exactly the folks we would NOT want to associate with and we certainly would not want to be seen hanging out with them. But Jesus, in his typical fashion, does something radical. He gets in line with these folks to be Baptized. You see, Jesus was just not really well known at this point. The crowds of folks were not following him around as they would later. As I mentioned before, this story is at the beginning point of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus simply took his place in line and waited his turn. It was not until later, when the heavens opened and the Holy Spirit descended on Him that people realized who He really was. And even after it was made known who Jesus really was, He continued to walk and live among the sinners. That is really the bottom line of Jesus’ ministry. He came into the world to save sinners. Sinners just like you and I. We might not be some of the notorious sinners hinted to in the Gospel reading, but sinners nonetheless.
I truly believe that when we are Baptized, like with Jesus, the Holy Spirit descends on us like a dove and we are somehow transformed by that. And like it was with Jesus, our Baptism marks the beginning of our ministry on earth. Our Baptism also involves a covenant. The only way for us to truly KNOW Christ is to follow him through service to others. The Baptismal Covenant is how you DO Baptism. Baptism is a gift. In order to accept this gift and follow Christ it requires sacrifice. It means that we too must give ourselves. We too have to “take up the Cross”. Just like Jesus did at his Baptism, we have to be willing to get in line with a bunch of sinners. We have to risk getting out of our comfort zone and be willing to get our hands dirty. We have to risk associating with people that are hungry for the Good News of God in Christ. We have to respect the dignity of every human being. We have to be willing to associate with the homeless, the folks haunted by addiction, the criminals, the cheaters, the liars, the dirty, the sick, the neglected and all those other unsavory characters out there. So, like my grandfather said, “Man, you gotta get in there with um”...