Sunday’s Scripture ~ Mark 1:9-11
Last January on a particularly blustery day at the Life Enrichment Center in Fruitland Park I interviewed for elder in full connection status in the Florida Conference of The United Methodist Church. This interview would be my last in a long line of interviews, written essays, recorded sermons, discernment, and constant prayer in pursuit of my call to ordained ministry – though I have learned that ordination is not the end – it is a new beginning.
In the interview any question about the applicant’s understanding of theology, leadership, proclamation, and/or personal development is up for discussion. I studied. I prepared. I knew my answers backwards and forwards. I had even prepared extended answers to what I had submitted as evidence that I am still seeking, still discerning, still discovering what God will reveal next in my understandings in these areas.
The interview went well – especially after one of my interviewers told me to take a breath! – and then my friend Melissa asked me about baptism. I had been discussing my understanding of the sacraments; I said quite a lot about Eucharist, which probably prompted curiosity about my understanding of baptism. So she asked…and all my studying and preparation and knowing answers backwards and forwards and extended answers flew out of my head faster than students fly out of school at the end of the year.
I stumbled for a minute or so, remembered again to breathe, and started piecing my answer together. Baptism is a rite of Christian initiation. Baptism is an outward sign of an inward and spiritual grace. The water of baptism symbolizes God’s grace being poured out upon us to cleanse us from our sins and incorporate us into Christ’s Body the church. At some point I think I gave a brief history of the theological and biblical roots of baptism from the First Testament…what exactly was Melissa seeking in my answer? She raised her hand to stop me and said, “Sarah, remember the devotion I led in worship before the interviews started; it was on baptism. What stands out about baptism and Jesus?” And the answer dawned on me. The baptism of Jesus was by water and the Spirit. The baptism of Jesus was something new and through the grace of baptism we are invited into this newness.
(Thanks, Melissa, for leading this nervous horse to water…what a drink!)
In the baptism of Jesus we experience something new. Baptism was a typical initiation rite for many religious and military sects throughout the Holy Land. It was an act through which a person would pledge their allegiance. The initiate would pass through water, or some other liquid, leaving the life before and starting the new life right now. John the Baptist called people forth for baptism as an outward and visible sign of repentance from sin, drawing, I believe, on the mikveh tradition from Judaism. This baptism rite drew the people away from the world so they would be prepared for the coming of the Lord.
Why then would Jesus present himself for baptism since we believe that he was without sin? Why is Jesus in need of repentance? I think that Jesus presented himself for baptism to connect humanity to God. Remember that Jesus is one person with two natures – fully human and fully divine. As fully human Jesus stands in solidarity with us who are in the line for baptism because we have some repenting to do. As fully divine Jesus connects us to God’s life-giving grace that is received through our baptism by water and the Spirit. At Jesus’ baptism a heavenly voice proclaims, “This is my son.” Jesus is publicly recognized as God’s child and so we believe in our baptisms we are recognized before the community of faith as God’s children. A bond is formed between the person baptized, the community of faith, and God that we are all in this together. We are family. We are called to something new and we will do it together.
We take time this week to remember our baptism not so we can parade our recent sins through our minds, but so we can remember the blessing of community that surrounds, the abundance of God’s grace, and that our dying to sin leads to new of life marked by union with Christ, receipt of the Holy Spirit, and inclusion in Christ’s Holy Church.
It is still early in the new year. What a wonderful reminder that God through Christ Jesus calls us to new life through our baptism. May we relish in this call this week and be strengthened for discipleship this year.
Prayer: “Father in heaven, at the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan you proclaimed him your beloved Son and anointed him with the Holy Spirit. Grant that all who are baptized into his name may keep the covenant they have made, and boldly confess him as Lord and Savior, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, One God, in glory everlasting. Amen.”*
*”Baptism of the Lord,” The United Methodist Hymnal, 253.