Into What, Then, Were You Baptized? (w/audio)

. Posted in Sermons

Acts 19:1-7; Mark 1:4-11


On this Baptism of the Lord Sunday, that always comes early in January every year, our worship focus regularly turns to the sacrament that our Confession of Faith says, “… symbolizes the baptism of the Holy Spirit and is the external sign of the covenant which marks membership in the community of faith.”

Like many of you, I have no recollection of my baptism. There is not even the faintest memory of the time my parents decided to take me, a babe in arms, from our home in Memphis back to the little church in Cord, Arkansas, where my Uncle Blake Warren, a Cumberland Presbyterian pastor, sprinkled a little water on my head and baptized me in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

When I was an adult, my aunt gave me the small crystal compote dish that held the water with which I was baptized. Frankly, it looks more suitable for holding a scoop of ice cream than containing water meant for such a holy purpose. I don’t know why they didn’t have a baptismal font in that church. Maybe like a lot of rural Cumberland Presbyterian Churches in those and earlier days, the most common font that was used for baptism was a nearby pond or creek.

One thing I have learned over the years is that God’s usual way into our lives is through what is common and ordinary—a compote dish filled with well water, a pinch of bread and cup of juice, a gathering of everyday, imperfect folks called the church.

Many people are a little uncomfortable with this reality. They like God in the grand idea, the wisdom from on high, the big event with the incredible music and unbelievably inspiring speakers, the ecstasy that lifts us out of the realities of every day life. But ours is the religion of Jesus—of calls on dusty roads, and transformations taking place around tables with wine and common food, and a Savior offering his call to folks casting fishing nets and collecting taxes, and God breaking in among people who cry out crazy things in synagogues and on road sides.

There was nothing particularly miraculous about my baptism. No status was conferred that I didn’t already have. No salvation was offered that was not already mine. But my baptism mattered. It mattered quite a lot.

It mattered to my parents. I was my parents’ first child, and I came along later in their lives than they had hoped. It seems that I was always destined to be late! My father was 39 when I was born; my mother was 33. I was the child that they were afraid they might not be able to have.

Later I was to run across a little piece that my mother wrote for a denominational publication about my baptism. She said she felt a little like Hannah in the Old Testament story who sort of made a deal with God: “You give me a child and I’ll give him to you.”

I realize baptism has a lot of unfortunately syrupy and sentimental connotations for some parents in our culture—a kind of coronation ceremony for their little Christ-child. Not for my parents. They were turning me over to God. They were proclaiming as I was baptized that I was not their possession to shape into the image pleasing to them. I was not their possession to be used to fill the emptiness in their lives or in their marriage. I was God’s. In baptism they were stating what they already believed: I belonged to God. And they were committing themselves to be the kind of parents that would do everything in their power to help me grow up knowing the truth about myself, and living accordingly.

My baptism mattered. It mattered quite a lot. Not just to my parents, but also to God. We think of baptism, like most things we do in the church, as, well… as something we do. We get the baby or our youthful or adult selves all dressed up for the occasion. We invite family and friends. We fill the font with water for the minister to pour out with the properly mandated words. We say the prayers. We dedicate our lives. We are so happy about it all.

But baptism is not primarily what we do. It is a testimony to what God does. As our Confession of Faith makes clear, baptism witnesses to God’s initiative to claim us in Christ, God’s initiative to forgive our sins, God’s initiative to grant us grace, God’s initiative to shape and order our lives through the work of the Holy Spirit, and God’s initiative to set us apart for service. As scripture makes clear, Christian baptism testifies that the presence of the Holy Spirit (God’s Spirit, the same Spirit that was and is in Jesus) is with us.

If you don’t count whatever cooing or crying I was doing, there were two primary voices at my baptism. One was that of my parents and the church saying, “This is the child you have entrusted into our care. He is yours.” The other voice was God’s answering, “You’ve got that right!”

But of course baptisms seem to happen in a flash, and then they are over. Even the most elaborate of baptismal liturgies hardly take more than 10 minutes. And Cumberland Presbyterians in Cord, Arkansas, didn’t do elaborate. In a matter of minutes I was baptized, the service was over, and my parents and I were on our way back to Memphis.

But something had happened—not only with my parents and God, but also with me—that would forever change my life. I wasn’t just baptized and sent merrily on my way with my parents, assured of my special status with God. I was baptized into something. I was baptized into the workings of the Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—in the life of the church. That question Paul asked of the Ephesian Christians (“Into what then were you baptized?”) had a clear answer for my parents and later for me. I was baptized into the church of Jesus Christ. I was baptized into a community that lived by the power of the God revealed in Jesus through the Holy Spirit.

To be sure, I was not very old when I first began to learn that this community was made up of very human and fallible people who make mistakes, sometimes hurt each other, and frequently do not live up to the faith they profess. But this fallible community gave me a faith to live by that had substance and power, and most especially a love for which I hungered at the center of it all.

We live in a time and setting in which people often speak of being spiritual and not religious. We live among children and youth, not to mention their parents, who are left to sort of cobble together a spirituality and a way of life that they feel meets their needs and enhances their lifestyles—that includes maybe a little dose of Oprah and pop-psychology, maybe some 12 steps, maybe a yoga principle or two, maybe the Golden Rule thrown in for good measure, and of course plenty of good-ole-fashion American consumerism to round it out.

I was baptized into a faith that I did not invent. I was baptized into a faith I didn’t have to cobble together the best way I knew how. It is a faith that has stood the test of time, that has been through torture and martyrdoms, that has withstood the evil machinations of crusaders and inquisitors and pedophile priests and corrupted preachers and incredible foolishness and banality. It is a faith that encompasses the whole world and holds up a vision for that world that is grand and glorious because God is at the center of it all. It is a faith that is as large as creation and as small as the struggles of a hurting child. It is a faith that offers the answer to our deepest needs as humans.

And, century after century, this faith has been passed on and formed in the lives of people through the church’s liturgy and song, its scripture and sacred traditions, and its very imperfect people who nevertheless come to know Jesus and say yes to his call through the ministry of his church.

On that Sunday in that little church in Cord, Arkansas, I was baptized into the church of Jesus Christ. It did not save me from a whole host of mistakes and failures. It did not save me from the struggles and hurts that have been a part of my life. But it did give me a faith through which I have found forgiveness for every mistake and failure, and divine strength and love to see me through every struggle and hurt. And, above all, the church into which I have been baptized has led me to the abundance of God’s love so many times that I have come to see all of life, and all the many wonderful people in my life (my wife, my family, you, everyone) in the light of this love.

I heard a story some time back about a couple, Fred and Cheryl, who adopted a little girl, Addie, thirty five years ago. Addie was five years old and lived in Haiti. Both her parents had been killed in a car crash. As Addie walked across the tarmac towards the plane that would take her to her new home she reached up and took the hands of her new parents. That act of trust was to Fred and Cheryl like a “birth moment,” every bit as powerful as when their two sons came out of the birth canal 15 and 13 years earlier.

That night at home in Arizona the family—Fred and Cheryl, Addie, and older brothers Thatcher and Graham—gathered for their first dinner together. It was quite a feast. There was a platter of pork chops and a bowl of mashed potatoes. Thatcher and Graham, being the growing teenage boys that they were, piled it on. Soon all the food was gone.

Fred and Cheryl noticed a look of concern on Addie’s face. She looked worried, afraid even. Why? Then it occurred to them that maybe she was afraid that they were out of food. She had lived in a place where a table empty of food meant there was a good chance that there was no more food left in the house.

So Cheryl took Addie by the hand and led her to the refrigerator. She pointed to and spoke the names of the different types of food that was there. She took her to the pantry where there were cans of soups and vegetables, and then to drawers where there were fresh fruits and vegetables. She invited her to touch the fruits and vegetables and to hold them. She invited her to know that there was enough. There would always be enough. Her brothers were no longer rivals at the table. She was home. She would never go hungry again.

I’ve never been in the shoes of Addie. But I do know something of what her experience might have been like. In baptism I found hands to hold and people to love who loved me. And I was given a family, a church family, with whom there has always been an abundance of love and a faith that continues to teach me that I live—that we all live—amidst the abundance of God.

—William E. Warren, Cumberland Presbyterian Church of Germantown, January 7, 2018

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