OF JESUS Acts 19:1-7 & Mark 1:4-11
We were going to be having a baptism today but sadly, the baby’s
grandfather died at Christmas after a long illness and understandably
her parents decided to postpone the ceremony to the Spring. Today’s
readings would have been appropriate for the occasion. But we can still
take a cue from them to consider the meaning of baptism, and especially,
of Jesus’ baptism.
Why do they
As with couples who come to me to be married, I talk through with baptism
parents why they want the ceremony. Somewhere buried in other reasons
there is usually a sense, however vague, of wanting God involved. It is
easy to be cynical about the many other reasons. Couples sometimes want
their baby 'done' so that they can invite their friends for a drink 'to
wet the baby's head'. It has been increasingly observed with unmarried
parents, that their first child’s baptism is a kind of substitute
wedding – a time to gather family and friends together for a special
occasion. Maybe they believe, quite wrongly, that the godparents will
adopt the baby if the parents die. Or they want a ceremony to give the
child a name even though that's already happened when you register the
birth. Some parents may say that they want their child to be able to marry
in church later in life or even that he or she would go straight to hell
if they died unbaptized. Now that's absolute nonsense. Babies can be pretty
naughty at times, but nobody would call them sinners. The church is partly
to blame for this misunderstanding: we used to teach that baptism washes
away something called 'original sin'. The truth which that phrase conveys
is that ever since human beings appeared on earth they've been making
wrong choices, and as a consequence of this we all suffer from living
in a sinful society. But God isn't going to blame or punish us for the
effects of other people's sins, nor does he regard water as a magic that
will cancel guilt.
In our particular situation we also have to include the understandings
of baptism from different Christian traditions as part of our ecumenical
life in this parish. While some believe it is okay to baptise a baby or
young child, others convinced that only believers baptism is right –
that baptism should be administered to someone who understands and accepts
the faith for themselves. (This is often, incorrectly called “adult
baptism”). As with other aspects of different church traditions,
we agree to accept each other’s firmly held convictions and do all
we can to accommodate both versions. That is why it is a joy to have full
immersion baptisms from time to time, especially in the context of a confirmation
one sticky problem which must be mentioned, too. What do we do when someone
who has been baptised as an infant, wants to receive baptism as a believer?
If we say we believe in one baptism, isn’t re-baptising someone
inappropriate. But if that person says their infant baptism didn’t
mean anything to them and they now have a strong conviction that they
should be baptised as a believer, how do you respond? The answer we keep
to in this parish is to say that that person may receive believer’s
baptism, but be regarded from that point on as being a Baptist, because
it is the Baptist doctrine that they are aligning themselves with. Ironically
enough, I feel that if someone comes to their own conscious faith later
in life having been baptised as an infant, it just shows the efficacy
of that original baptismal sacrament! As happened when Paul prayed with
the people in our first reading, those who had received the baptism of
John then baptism in the Spirit, or formal prayer for the Holy Spirit
which we now call confirmation. Talking of which, I know that a number
of our congregation who are long-standing regulars only receive a blessing
at the rail. If you have not been confirmed or would like to renew your
confirmation, have a word with me, as a confirmation service is coming
up this March.
But what was the original idea of baptism and why was Jesus baptised?
The Jews went in for washing in a big way. Yet they knew that washing
was symbolic, not magical. What we need when we approach God is not just
germ-free hands, but purity in heart and single-mindedness. Baptism was
the Greek word for washing and literally means soaking or dunking. In
Greek you'd ask your family, 'Have you baptized the dishes?' When non-Jews
wanted to enter the Jewish religion, they had to symbolically wash away
all their pagan wrong beliefs and deeds; they called it 'proselyte baptism'.
What was novel about John the Baptist was he said even Jews must be washed,
or baptized. 'Don't rely on having the right parents, to be part of the
Chosen People', is what he meant. 'You have to show you want to change
from the inside, you have to enter the family of God with no rights or
privileges, but on the same basis as everyone else: as sinners needing
forgiveness and responding to the call to believe.'
Then Jesus came and asked John to baptize him. John had a problem with
this: what was he washing away? John said to Jesus: ‘I need to be
baptized by you, and do you come to me?' Jesus answered John, 'Let it
be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness.'
In other words, 'This is how God has planned for us to be members of the
Chosen People - so that's how we'll do it.' The emphasis has switched
from washing away sins, to joining the family of God. The sinless Jesus
came down to earth, on the same level as the rest of us, and joined the
family of God as our elder brother in the same way as any sinner.
I think that shows us that Jesus doesn't want us to put him on a pedestal,
but to love him as a friend - there's no 'side' to Jesus. In that way
he makes the unapproachable God approachable. 'Why does your teacher eat
with tax-collectors and sinners?' asked the Pharisees. You and I are the
family of God gathered round his table - all equal, because we're all
sinners. Although Jesus never disobeyed his father or rebelled, which
is what sin really means, he chose to come down to earth, be baptized
like us, and then share the table with us as a friend. There may not be
any tax-collectors here, but there's an awful lot of us sinners, and Jesus
is about to share a table with us.
How to be
Sinlessness isn't achieved by baptism, but by what baptism symbolizes.
When you get home, and chat with Jesus, will you thank him for sharing
baptism with you, and sharing his table with you? Though we can never
make ourselves equal with Jesus, he's made himself equal with us, so that
he can be our friend. Will you thank him for being your friend, and tell
him that you want to be his friend, and that you love him? Then you'll
have taken a long step along the road to becoming as sinless as he is.
Before we all go home, we share around the Lord’s Table in this
service. As we come forward, we accept that invitation to be at one with
the Lord, to recognise that he came down to our level.
© Rev Paul Smith