January 8, 2017—Epiphany 1
Baptism is something that I fear a great many Christians take for granted. Most Christians today, having received baptism in infancy, were not aware of what God was doing for them at the time. And many of them still, decades later, are no more aware now of what a great gift they were given at baptism than they were then. You would think that children growing up would have a burning curiosity and desire to learn about the sacred mystery of his or her baptism and to explore the full range of its meaning. But seldom is that the case. All too often baptism is greeted with a yawn; few seem to take much interest in it. Many think that baptism, or the “christening," as some call it, is nothing but a rite of initiation into a club called “the church." To many it’s just an ethnic custom, something parents do for their children because it’s expected of them. Their parents did it for them, as their parents before them. We carry on a tradition. And by participation in this ancient rite we indicate that we are, nominally at least, Christians.
But few, I think, really understand the magnificence and the grandeur of this supernatural event; that it’s not something we do to each other, it’s something God does to us. In one sense, I have never baptized anyone. Yes, as the priest, I pour water on the person’s head and pronounce the words, “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Mt.28.19). We do it that way, using those words because that is how Jesus instructed his church to do it. But still, all I can do as a minister is pour water and offer a prayer, God gives the grace. And it’s the grace of God applied to our souls that makes baptism more than a rite of initiation into a human organization. Grace makes it a sacrament of the church, a holy mystery by which the human soul is washed clean of original sin and restored to primal innocence we had with God in Eden.
Baptism effects a new beginning in the most important relationship each of us has with God, our Creator. By it, we who were from birth marked with the sin of Adam and Eve on our souls are marked as Christ’s own forever through baptism, our second birth (John3.1–8). The mark of Adam’s guilt is washed away in baptism and we are “born anew," as Jesus put it “through water and the Spirit." And the new life given to us in baptism is the life of God’s only begotten son, without which, Jesus said, no one “cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John3.5).
As we share his life, we share his privileges. The chief privilege Christ has is that of calling God “my father”; a privilege Adam originally had but lost because of his sin. Through baptism it becomes our privilege also. And just as God looking upon Jesus proclaimed, “This is my beloved son with whom I am well pleased, today I have begotten thee” (Mt.3.16; Psalm2.7), so too in baptism God pronounces us to be in relation to him as Christ is. In other words, through the miracle of baptism the privilege of sonship that belonged to Christ by virtue of his divine nature becomes ours by grace. This is why Christians have always prefaced the Lord’s Prayer by saying, “As Our Savior taught us, we are bold to say, Our Father…”. We have no right to call God “Father” apart from Jesus, the Son, who by making us his own in baptism has given us that right.
We exercise this great privilege through faith, provided we have faith. And by faith I mean not just a sentimental feeling that God adores us but a conviction strengthened by knowledge and experience that the revelation of God in Christ is true: not true in the sense that Bach was a greater genius that Brahams but true in the sense that the sun rises always in the east. You can count on it. Sadly as we go through life many of us lose faith. Many poo-poo baptism as a lot of hocus-pocus—Christian superstition and nothing more. Others insist, like pagans, that we are all children of God by birth, that there is no such thing as original sin and that we do not need “the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit” of which Paul reminded Titus (Titus 3.5). What we need, they say, is to use our inner potential to become like gods. Still others think the religion that bears Christ’s name is just too exclusive for a modern inclusive society. Many think its offensive to claim that we need the baptism of Christ to be saved. “What about Jews? What about Muslims? What do you say to them?” they ask. Jesus had an answer for them. “Blessed are you who take no offense at me,” he said. They didn’t like his attitude then, they like it even less today. But Jesus never said that everyone would accept baptism. And indeed, many will not.
But many do receive baptism and many take it as they take their marriage vows, as a sacred bond in the most important of all relationships. So for those of you who take your baptism as a precious gift, I wish to encourage you this morning to keep the faith and to keep your baptismal vows. The best way to do that is to remember what God has done for us. Jesus’s baptism served God’s purpose as a revelation of Christ’s divine nature and a fulfillment of prophecy. God did not give to Jesus in baptism something he lacked, because he lacked nothing. But God does give us something in baptism that we lack. He gives us the Holy Spirit and the forgiveness of sins. “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2.38). It is the Holy Spirit that allows us to call God Father (Rom.8.14-16), a privilege we claim only because Jesus, the only begotten son of God, claims us in baptism as his own and shares with us the privileges of his sonship. In other words, when it comes to our relationship with God we are nothing without Jesus. We owe him everything; a debt we can never repay. But in giving us the Holy Spirit he has given us everything we need. And thus, paradoxically, he even helps us pay the debt we owe, a debt we pay by receiving the Holy Spirit and allowing the Spirit through faith to guide us in everything.
There is one way to honor our baptism and it is this: “Do not get drunk with wine,” Saint Paul admonished the church, “but be filled with the Spirit!” (Eph.5.17). And then, “Be imitators of God and walk in love as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us” (Eph.5.1-2) and so as we have been comforted by him we may give comfort and consolation to others (2Cor.3.1). Christ did not run from our suffering but took up his cross and embraced our human sorrow; so we must also take up the sorrow of others and not run from the suffering of others but in empathy and solidarity embrace them in their suffering. Have no fear of others in their suffering. The Holy Spirit is perfect love and perfect love casts out fear (1John4.8).
Do you see where I am going with this? With Christendom now, like Camelot, a memory; with a secular nation now engulfed in a guerrilla war with an ancient foe; and with new ISIS-inspired slaughter making headlines each week at home or abroad, the world needs the Spirit of Christ more than ever. Our greatest weapon in the war against evil is the Holy Spirit, the agent of the grace of God. A divine grace that is powerful enough to cleanse a human soul of sin can foil a jihadi plot before it is even hatched.
But the Spirit only responds to faith. If America would be great again, if we would be safe and sane again, and drug-free again, we must have faith. Faith can move mountains, Jesus said, when nothing else can. We are facing a mountain range of troubles: of twenty trillion dollars of debt, drug dealers in every alley, ISIS cells in every state, and decades of such flagrant disobedience to God that virtually every institution in this nation is corrupted. This nation has to change or God is going to say, “To hell with it. I don’t need these people.” God doesn’t need us. We need God.
We can’t do much about our neighbors, but we can change our minds and our ways of being in the world. The number one change we all need in this country is to value our baptism above everything else and resolve each day to keep the faith and be filled with the Spirit. The spirit will do for our nation what ten-million police can never do. The Spirit will return peace and dignity to our chaotic airports and our blood-soaked city streets and to our broken homes and to our agnostic schools, to our decadent theaters and our foul-mouthed concert halls. America, look to the Spirit to lead you and guide you and pray for the churches. As the pews fill up marriages will strengthen, crime will dry up, debt will dwindle down and terror will retreat. God who gave us the Spirit in baptism will do this. But God responds to faith.