A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church
A new church for a new day, in Fremont, California,
on Sunday, May 12, 2013, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture: John 1:19-34 and Acts 8:26-39
Copyright © 2013 by Jeffrey S. Spencer
Do you desire to be baptized into the faith and family of Jesus Christ? That’s the first question a candidate for baptism is asked in the United Church of Christ’s Book of Worship liturgy for baptism. In Chalice Worship, the Disciples of Christ worship book, there seems to be an assumption that the answer to this question is “yes,” since the person is standing there.
Do you desire to be baptized into the faith and family of Jesus Christ?
The Reformed tradition of Protestantism – the tradition out of which both the UCC and the DOC emerged – recognizes two sacraments. The Roman Catholic, the Anglican, most if not all of the Lutheran, and the Easter Orthodox traditions all recognize seven: Baptism, Eucharist (aka communion), Confession, Confirmation, Marriage, Anointing the sick, and Holy Orders/Ordination.
The Reformed tradition concluded that, as far as we know, Jesus never made a confession of sin; he was never confirmed; he was never married; though he healed the sick, he didn’t use anointing oil; and he was never ordained. He was, however, baptized and he instituted the Eucharist. So, in the Reformed tradition, only those two rites of the church are recognized as sacraments. And baptism is administered to a person only once.
Baptism can be renewed. The act of confirmation is a renewal of baptism. The act of joining a congregation is a renewal of baptism. Occasionally we might even celebrate a renewal of baptism that is strictly and directly that a renewal of baptism, but it’s not a re-baptism, no matter how much water is used. The sacrament itself is celebrated only once in a lifetime.
So it was a pretty big deal when, in January of this year, representatives of the Christian Reformed Church in North America, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Reformed Church in America, the United Church of Christ, and [wait for it] the Roman Catholic Church signed a carefully worded, one-page agreement to mutually recognize the sacrament of baptism as it is practiced in each other’s churches.[i] This agreement means that a baptism performed in a tiny UCC congregation is seen as equally valid as a baptism performed in a Catholic cathedral.
The baptismal question, “Do you desire to be baptized into the faith and family of Jesus Christ?” has a new ring to it. This agreement between these four Reformed tradition denominations and the Roman Catholic Church is a powerful and simple act of hospitality because it provides a deep, mutual understanding of what is fundamental to being received into the faith and family of Jesus Christ. And how appropriate for such an agreement to be about baptism, for baptism is, from the church’s point of view, an act of hospitality, of welcome.
For the newly baptized, baptism is also an act of welcome – and it is much, much more. To wade in the waters of baptism is to be immersed in Jesus’ perverse ethic of gain through loss. When we say, “Yes,” to the question, “Do you desire to be baptized into the faith and family of Jesus Christ?” we are saying “yes” to a life based on values that are radically different from the values of society.
The positioning of the baptismal font at Christ the Light Cathedral is Oakland signifies this. The main way into the cathedral involves walking up a ramp from 21st Street, straight into the front doors. As you step inside, you run right into the baptistry. It is a large, maybe 10 feet across; big enough and deep enough to be immersed in. It is also the point at which the path changes. Up the ramp, into the door, and up to the font, the path is straight, but it turns to the left at the baptistry and straight down the main aisle of the nave of the church.
The waters of baptism call us to change directions. They call us to a new way of life.
I don’t know how much thought the average parent takes before presenting a young child for baptism. I was impressed and deeply moved by this mother’s reflection on baptism as she struggled whether to baptize her eldest child, recognizing the claim that baptism puts on a person and, in the case when a child is baptized, on the parents, too.
“Water, words, community. Offering our child back to God. We would stand with Abraham at the sacrifice. We would give her to a God who models the cross. We would invite her to listen for a voice calling in the night, to vigil, to put herself at risk, to leave family and friends, to speak clearly a truth for which one can be executed. We would thereby invite her into the risks we have already elected and, by God’s grace, still will elect to take with our own lives. In the act of baptism we would wash away the possibility that our concern for her might justify a diminishing of our own obedience to our Lord’s perverse ethic of vulnerability and gain through loss.”[ii]
In this sermon series, we have looked at water. I have reflected on the waters of creation in Genesis’ first creation story, the waters of destruction in the Noah saga, the waters of freedom in the Exodus story, and the waters of renewal in Psalm 23 and John 4. Next week, we will look at the waters in Revelation 22. Today, we look at the waters of baptism.
These waters, the waters of baptism, are the most quintessentially and uniquely Christian of waters. These are the waters connected to the Jordan River. At these waters we see John the baptizer speaking truth to power, putting his own life at risk. These waters are wilderness waters. People came from the centers of society to meet John at the margins. Here, we encounter God, undomesticated, outside civilization, not in the vortex of power, but in the void. And here, John points to Jesus, who baptizes us not with water, but with the power of the Holy Spirit. The waters of baptism call us to the excruciating fire and exhilarating life of discipleship.
The stories of Jesus’ baptism are powerful, moving stories. The story of the baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch is almost comical in comparison. But I also find it to be more approachable, more human in some ways. An Ethiopian rides down the road. He’s been in Jerusalem on a pilgrimage. He’s an Ethiopian, so there are two possibilities: either he’s a Gentile who is curious about religion, or he’s a Jewish convert.
If he is the former, a Gentile, it is interesting that Philip gives him the time of day, let alone that Philip engages him in a theological discussion. If he is the latter, a Jewish convert, then it would have been discovered that he was a eunuch when he was circumcised. This fact is important because eunuchs were a sexual minority in Judaism. Like women as a whole, eunuchs were not permitted to enter “the Israelite assembly,”[iii] there were sections of the Temple where they were not permitted to go.
And yet, after being schooled by Philip in the story of Jesus and what it means to be a follower, the Ethiopian asks that he be baptized into this community of disciples. “Why can’t I be baptized?” he asks.
Philip could have said, “I have two reasons, one of which applies. Either you’re not a Jew and Jesus’ disciples are Jews, or you’re not a whole Jew, and we can’t let sexual minorities be part of the Jesus movement.” But Philip doesn’t give either of these reasons as to why the Ethiopian should be excluded. They stop the chariot and Philip baptizes this surprising convert on the spot. The circle that Philip drew was wider than the circle conventional wisdom, tradition, and understanding would have advised.
The waters of baptism call us to be a radically inclusive community. The waters of baptism call us to see in each person, not matter who, not matter what, a sister or a brother in Christ. And the waters of baptism immerse us in Jesus perverse ethic of gain through loss, calling us to speak truth to power.
So, when I look at the Israel/Palestine conflict (which, to some extent is a water conflict), I see it through the waters of baptism. I see each Israeli and each Palestinian as my brother or sister (or at least I try to). And I see the suffering of people caused by injustice and cannot remain silent.
And I look at the so-called “immigration problem” through the waters of baptism. So I see undocumented people as sisters and brothers. And I see the injustice of our global economic system that at least in part creates this so-called “problem,” and I seek God’s word of truth that needs to be spoken to the powers that be.
And I see climate chaos – with all the thirst and hunger and suffering it is causing and will continue to cause – through the waters of baptism. And I need to care because those displaced by Superstorm Sandy from their homes on the Jersey Shore and those displaced by the flooding in Bangladesh from their homes along the rivers are my brothers and sisters.
Yesterday’s “Second Saturday Documentary”[iv] focused on how water could easily become and may in fact be turning into the next big commodity. Bottled water sales in the United States alone are on the order of $15 billion per year.[v] In the past decade, indexed funds focusing solely on water have appeared on Wall Street.[vi]
Corporations are trying to – and succeeding at – owning the water. All too often, this is happening in developing countries when public water works are privatized as a condition of a country receiving a World Bank loan. These corporations are actually owned by U.S. and European stockholders. Wanting to please their stockholders, the companies aim to sell the water for the greatest possible profit. This means that those who are poor and cannot afford clean water become ill from drinking contaminated water. Through the waters of baptism, I see that these are my brothers and sisters who are suffering and sometimes dying.
If you can remember your baptism, I invite you to really remember it. Remember where you were, what it smelled like, what it felt like for the water to soak your skin. And remember the commitments you made.
If you were baptized too young to remember it, remember nonetheless that you are baptized. Think about what it means, what the call and commitment of baptism is all about.
(If you haven’t been baptized and want to be – let’s talk.)
Consider how these waters claim you and change you like no other waters.
The waters of baptism are not just the waters of a church ritual. They are the waters we immerse ourselves in if we want to take on this amazing, troubling, powerful, dangerous calling from Jesus.
This question haunts me today: Are we living as if we’re really taken the plunge into the waters of baptism?
[i] Adelle M. Banks, “Catholic, Reformed churches agree on baptism,” Religion News Service, http://www.religionnews.com/2013/01/31/catholic-reformed-churches-agree-on-baptism/ (posted 31 January 2013; downloaded 12 May 2013).
[ii] Jeanie Wylie-Kellermann, in The Detroit Catholic Worker, quoted by Ched Myers in “Baptism’s True Claim,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/baptisms-true-claim (9 May 2013).
[iii] Deuteronomy 23:1
[v] “Bottle Water Statistics,” Statistics Brain, http://www.statisticbrain.com/bottled-water-statistics/ (verified 24 February 2012; downloaded 12 May 2013).
[vi] Cited in “Blue Gold.”
OTHER RESOURCES USED:
Suzanne MacNevin and Charles Moffat, “The Right to Water,” Earth Letter, Summer 2012, p. 12-13.
John Klassen, “One Baptism, One Faith,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/magazine/2013/05/one-baptism-one-faith (9 May 2013).
Edmond L. Browning, “Marked By Baptism,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/marked-baptism (9 May 2013).