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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, January 14, 2018, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Mark 1:1-11 and Acts 19:1-7
Copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

When I was in seminary, I had a text book that was probably two inches thick.  It was on one subject:  baptism.  This sermon won’t be that long.  I promise.

Actually, I’m a little amused that the book on baptism was that long because there’s actually quite a bit of common understanding of baptism in the ecumenical community.  When the World Council of Churches decided to issue a collection of statements on the ecumenical convergence of theologies around baptism, communion, and ordination, the section on baptism was the shortest because it needed the least explanations.  Ecumenically, the understandings of what baptism is and means are pretty solid and widely shared.  The understandings about communion and ordination vary widely, but on baptism, there is a strong convergence.

I’m not sure how the convergence came about.  If you look at the book of the Acts of the Apostles (the book we heard a reading from today), you will see that the ways baptism was practiced by the early church varied.  Expand your search to the whole of the New Testament, you’ll find even more variation.  You will find stories of baptisms performed in the name of Jesus and in the name of God and you’ll hear a call that baptisms be done “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt 28:19).  You will find stories where it seems that a person needs to profess a faith in Jesus to be baptized and stories where, if the head of a household is baptized, the whole household is baptized regardless of what the other members of the household believe.  Sometimes it’s clear that the one baptized is immersed, is dunked under the waters of baptism, and sometimes it’s not so clear how much water is used.

There is an obvious connection between the baptisms John performed in the River Jordan and the baptisms practiced in the early church.  John’s baptism was a mark of repentance, of turning, of taking a new direction in life.  It was an act that forgave sins.  While the mark of repentance and entering a new way of life were (and are) definitely part of what baptism was (and is) in the Jesus movement, Christians see baptism as something more.

There is something about the Holy Spirit in baptism.  We heard about it in our reading from Acts.  Paul meets up with a group of people in Ephesus who think they’re following Jesus, but they don’t know anything about the Holy Spirit.  They’d been baptized, but only in the tradition of John.  They get baptized in the name of Jesus and they receive the Holy Spirit.

And then there’s the whole question about Jesus being baptized by John.  If John was preaching a baptism for the repentance of sin, why was Jesus baptized?  David Lose points out that in John’s gospel, there’s no report of Jesus’ being baptized.  Instead, the Baptist reports seeing the Spirit descend on Jesus.

The other three Gospels share an account of Jesus’ baptism.  They do not, unfortunately, resolve the question of why Jesus was baptized.  “In fact,” Lose says, “when you listen to the essentials of Mark’s terse account, perhaps what is most striking is that Jesus doesn’t really do or say much of anything that sheds light on what’s going on.  As Mark writes, ‘In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.  And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.  And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”’

“Do you see what I mean?  Jesus is rather passive in all that happens.  But, on second thought, perhaps that’s just the way it should be.  After all, this is the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry.  This is the start of his long and difficult journey toward Jerusalem and the cross.  And so at his baptism, Jesus doesn’t have to do anything, but rather simply receives the gift of the Holy Spirit and of God’s favor.  Indeed, it is a powerful word of acceptance, identity, blessing, and commitment”[1] that Jesus receives – “You are my beloved child.  With you I am well pleased” – and this points to another thing that baptism is all about.

In baptism, we are claimed by God.  Just as we are, God claims us.  And in that process, we receive a blessed identity:  beloved children of God.  And in that process, God makes a commitment to us and we make a commitment to God.

Let me share with you some of the key points about baptism – points about which Christianity in its many denominations agree.  These are from the World Council of Church’s document[2] on baptism.  Baptism is rooted in the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  It has been practiced from the earliest days of the Christian movement.  “Baptism is the sign of new life through Jesus Christ.  It unites the one baptized with Christ and with his people.…  Baptism is participation in Christ’s death and resurrection; a washing away of sin; a new birth; an enlightenment by Christ; a re-clothing in Christ; a renewal by the Spirit; the experience of salvation from the flood; an exodus from bondage; and a liberation into a new humanity in which barriers of division whether of sex or race or social status are transcended.”[3]

I’ll refer you to the World Council of Churches document if you want to unpack what those statements mean, but I want to dig a little deeper into one of them:  Incorporation into the Body of Christ.  This is an important understanding of the meaning of baptism.  Baptism brings us together into the community of believers.  It makes us part of the Body of Christ.  The document says, “baptism is a sign and seal of our common discipleship.  Through baptism, Christians are brought into union with Christ, with each other and with the Church of every time and place.”[4]

The first question a candidate for baptism is asked in liturgy for baptism that’s in the United Church of Christ’s Book of Worship is this:  Do you desire to be baptized into the faith and family of Jesus Christ?  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.  But that is the most basic thing we understand about baptism.  When one is baptized, they become part of the faith and family of Jesus Christ.

So, if baptism is becoming part of the faith and family of Jesus Christ, what is “membership” in a church all about?  Well, in some denominations, I think a fair answer is “not much more than a label.”  If you’re a Roman Catholic, you’re more a member of the Roman Catholic Church as a whole, than a member of a particular parish.  But as the polity, the way a denomination works politically, becomes more congregational (with a little “c,” meaning having local autonomy), membership takes on more meaning, and more responsibility.

When you join a congregation that is part of the Disciples of Christ tradition or the United Church of Christ tradition, you become a voting member of that church.  Members vote on church budgets each year, they vote on which members should serve in key leadership positions, they vote on calling their pastors, and they vote on the bylaws that govern how they function.

But being a member is more than voting.  We typically receive new members as part of the worship service because becoming a member is a prayerful and worshipful act.  Lillian Daniel describes it this way:  “You will experience real power in that moment [of joining a church], when you tell the people around you and God that this is now your spiritual home.

“When you join, you make a connection, you join a community.  The Bible’s word for that is ‘covenant.’  When you join, you make a covenant.  A covenant is an exchange of holy promises.  In making a covenant we promise to serve God together.  So it’s not just new members who join the church.  Rather, everyone – new members and existing members – joins one another.  As we make our promises to one another we remember God’s promises to us and promise to serve God as best we are able.”[5]

That’s why joining a church is different from joining a gym.  “When you join a church, you’re not just on the receiving end [of services, the way you are when you join a gym], but on the giving end as well.  You are promising to do more than show up and use the facilities.  Will you hold other people in prayer and in love?  Will you make a contribution to the community by volunteering as you are able and financially?  And let’s be clear, you [join a church] because somewhere in your journey, you sensed that there was more to this life than what you see in front of you.  You sense that God is still speaking.”[6]

That is why, traditionally in both the Disciples of Christ and the United Church of Christ, joining a church, becoming a member of a church, is seen as a reaffirmation of baptism.  The liturgy we currently use when we receive new members is based on the baptism liturgy.  The questions we ask people who are uniting with the church are questions we ask when someone is baptized.  That is why the bylaws of Niles Discovery Church say, “Any baptized person may seek membership in this church.  Uniting with the congregation is an act of reaffirmation of baptism.”


But perhaps it is time to change our bylaws.  More and more people raised without a church background.  So it is becoming more common for people to find a spiritual home in a local church and feel like they don’t know enough about the Bible or Christian history or theology to be ready to make the faith commitment that baptism calls us to.  I’m also finding more and more people who were baptized, typically as infants, are finding themselves to be questioning the most basic thing about faith – that there is a divine something that we call “God” whose love is made visible in the sacrament of baptism.

People from both of these groups may find a home, a spiritual home, at Niles Discovery Church and want to formally commit to being part of this community of faith, even though they have lots of questions about the “faith” part of “community of faith.”  Should we continue to see baptism as a requirement of membership in our church?

An Episcopal priest offered me this analogy:  When someone comes to our church, we immediately issue them a Green Card.  We say they are welcome to stay and be part of the community.  But if they want to be able to vote, they have to take a citizenship test, and that’s the sacrament of baptism.  Then they can register to vote, which is joining the church as a member.

The analogy is insufficient because it sees membership as merely a matter of voting, and as I just said, it’s much more than that.  Membership is a matter of covenant.  Still, is this (what the bylaws currently say about baptism and membership) how we want to function?

I’ll stop there and invite you into some reflection.  And then we’ll carry on the discussion during our Town Hall Meeting.


Questions for Reflection:

  • Reflect on a memory you have of a baptism (yours or someone else’s)
  • Whether you consider yourself part or not, what does it mean to you to be part of “the faith and family of Jesus Christ”?
  • Whether you’re a member or not, what does it mean to you to be a member of Niles Discovery Church?


[1] David Lose, “Epiphany 1 B: Powerful Words for a New Year,” …in the Meantime, (posted and accessed on 4 January 2018).

[2] This is actually from the first part of “Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry,” [BEM] adopted in Lima, Peru, in 1982.  You can find the document at

[3] Paragraph 2 of BEM.

[4] Paragraph 5 of BEM.

[5] Lillian Daniel, So You’re Thinking About Joining the Church, a brochure published by the United Church of Christ that is undated.

[6] Ibid.


A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, January 8, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Luke 2:41-52 and Luke 3:1-14, 21-22
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Our first lesson is the conclusion of the overture to Luke’s gospel. You may remember I talked about this a month ago, this idea that the birth and childhood narratives in Matthew and Luke serve a similar purpose as an overture to a Broadway musical. They act as a bridge to bring you into the story you’re about to hear and they introduce the themes you’ll hear later in the story.

So we heard the end of Luke’s overture. It’s his last chance to get you ready to hear the rest of his gospel. And as simple as the story is, it is rich with foreshadowing.

The setting is the Passover in Jerusalem. Passover is the most important festival of the Hebrew year. This is when the Jews remember how God led them from slavery to freedom, how God made them a people with the gift of the Torah. The Passover story is told in both the past- and present-tenses; God freed us and God is freeing us. So the story is about both Egypt and Jerusalem, both Pharaoh and Caesar. When Luke finishes his gospel, Jesus will be back in Jerusalem and it will be at the Passover and he will be facing down the Pharaoh of his day, Caesar’s representative in Jerusalem.

There’s a wonderful moment any parent can identify with in today’s first lesson. The family is returning to Nazareth with a big crowd of neighbors who also went to Jerusalem for the Passover. They assume Jesus is with his friends, somewhere in the crowd. When they discover that he is not, the search begins. For three days, they look for him, going back to Jerusalem. Three days. That will show up again at the end of Luke’s gospel.

When they finally find him, he’s in the Temple. He has to be in the courtyard, because his mother is present, and women were only allowed so far into the Temple. But he’s not playing tiddlywinks with some other kids. He’s with teachers, with rabbis, deep in discussion. He’s asking impressive questions and he’s giving impressive answers. Now, one assumes that the answers he’s giving are to the questions the teachers are asking. That certainly would be the Jewish style of exploring a text or discussing theology. Everybody gets to ask questions and everybody gets to offer their answers, and somewhere in the midst of all that, some word of God’s truth will emerge. But the text doesn’t say that – at least the English translation doesn’t say that. It could be that Jesus’ impressive answers are his answers to his own questions.

Imagine the setting. Learned teachers sitting around the Temple courtyard, talking theology. This 12-year-old joins the discussion and starts asking questions, deep, penetrating questions. A kid questioning men who are the authorities in the field. And his questions are wise, as are his answers. He is teaching the teachers and questioning their authority – a theme that will come up again and again in Luke’s gospel.

And then there’s this. When his parents find him, he’s surprised that they think he is lost. “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” At the annunciation, Gabriel told Mary that her child would be called ‘the Son of the Most High’ and ‘the Son of God’ (1:32, 35). We know Jesus’ secret identity. And if we missed it there, Jesus says it here. “Luke’s Jesus is fully conscious of his divine status and asserts to his parents – but publically – that he is the Son of God and this is his Father’s house.”[1]

This theme of Jesus as the Son of God is one of the first themes we hear in the main body of Luke’s gospel. Our second lesson is about John at the River Jordan baptizing people and Jesus coming to be baptized. And it is in the act of baptism that heaven proclaims that Jesus is the Son of God. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Luke begins the main body of his gospel the same way he started his overture: by talking about John the baptizer. You’ll recall from the overture that John’s father, Zechariah, was a Temple priest. Brian McLaren says that this probably meant that John had some comfort and privilege growing up.[2] Priestly positions were clan-based, so one would have thought John would have grown up to become a Temple Priest. As a PK (a priest’s kid), John would have known all about Tevilah, a Jewish purification ritual of immersing in water in a Mikva, an indoor pool naturally sourced with water.[3] It was used as an act of purification and it was a central part of the conversion ritual in Judaism. This purification was required before entering the Temple, to allow Jews to present themselves to God free from the contamination of the outside world. McLaren points out that this ritual also “preserved religious identity during a time of occupation and domination by ‘unclean foreigners.’”[4]

“Can you imagine how shocking it was for Zechariah’s son to burst onto the scene, preaching and performing baptisms – not in Jerusalem, but over eighty miles to the north and east? Can you imagine the disruption of him performing ritual cleansing – not in the private, holy baths near the Temple, but in public, out in the countryside, along the banks of the Jordan River? Can you imagine the gossip about his choice to trade the luxurious robes of the priesthood for the rough garments of a beggar, and the high-class menu of Jerusalem for the subsistence fare of the wilderness? What would such actions have meant?

“John’s departure from both family and Temple suggested that John was protesting against the religious establishment his father faithfully served. Jerusalem’s Temple was not all it was held up to be, he would have been saying. A new kind of baptism – with a radical new meaning – was needed. Traveling to a special city and an opulent building could not make people clean and holy. What they needed most was not a change in location, but a change in orientation, a change in heart. People needed a different kind of cleanness – one that couldn’t come through a conventional ceremonial bath in a holy temple.

“According to John, the identity that mattered most wasn’t one you could inherit through tribe, nationality, or religion – as descendants of Abraham, for example. The identity that mattered most was one you created through your actions … by sharing your wealth, possessions, and food with those in need, by refusing to participate in the corruption so common in government and business, by treating others fairly and respectfully, and by not being driven by greed. One word summarized John’s message: repent, which means ‘rethink everything,’ or ‘question your assumptions,’ or ‘have a deep turnaround in your thinking and values.’ His baptism of repentance symbolized being immersed in a flowing river of love, in solidarity not just with the clean, privileged, superior us – but with everyone, everywhere.

“Like prophets of old, John issued a powerful warning: God would soon intervene to confront wrong and set things right, and the status quo would soon come to an end. Crowds started streaming out to the countryside to be baptized by John. His protest movement grew, and with it, expectations and hope.…

“John kept thundering out his message of warning and hope, week after week, month after month. He dared to confront the powerful and name their hypocrisy. (Herod Antipas, the son of the Herod who tried to kill Jesus [according to Matthew’s gospel], couldn’t withstand the agitation of John’s protest movement, so he ultimately would have John arrested and, eventually, beheaded.)

“Among the crowds coming to be baptized one day was a young man about John’s age. By receiving John’s baptism, this young man identified himself with this growing protest movement in the Galilean countryside.”[5] And by receiving John’s baptism, something radical and transformative began.

Retired Presbyterian pastor John Buchanan tells of baptizing a two-year-old boy in a Sunday worship service. After the child had been baptized, Pastor Buchanan, following the directions of the Presbyterian prayer book, put his hand on the little boy’s head and said to him, “You are a child of God, sealed by the Spirit in your baptism, and you belong to Jesus Christ forever.” It was a holy moment made more holy by the little boy’s response: “Uh-oh!”[6]

There is a deep element of “Uh-oh” in being baptized into the faith and family of Jesus Christ. The demands on our lives are not a trifling matter when we’re disciples of Jesus. We have to rethink everything our culture tells us. We have to question our assumptions about what is of value and where the boundaries of love should be.

Luckily, it’s not all burden. There is also a deep blessing in being baptized into the faith and family of Jesus Christ. When Jesus was baptized by John, he experienced heaven cracking open and God’s spirit pouring down. This man, this physical human body experienced not just the water moistening skin, but a bath of God’s love. And God’s voice called out to him saying, “You are my child, whom I dearly love. In you I find pleasure.”

God says the same thing to us.

We live in a culture that pushes us to take on labels to identify and define us, and often separate us – Democrat or Republican, conservative or liberal, American or foreigner, gay or straight or bi, rich or poor, Black or White, and the list of labels goes on. “Additionally, we are also and increasingly named and defined by the products we use or stores at which we shop. Nike, Apple, BMW, Tiffany, Hallmark – these are not just company names, but lend a particular sense of self, and increasingly the brand labels on our shirts, shoes, cars, and computers convey a great deal of our identity.”[7] Though we live in a culture that pushes us to take on labels, only one really matters and really defines us, once we’ve gotten wet. We are Christians, disciples of Jesus.

And like Jesus, we, too, are beloved children of God. Sure, the other labels may have some meaning to us. It’s just that “while all these other names, affiliations, and identifications may describe us, the dare not define us.”[8] Only the name we receive in baptism truly defines us: Beloved Child of God.

In Jewish culture, Jesus officially came of age when he was 12. But his real coming of age – of the new age he was bringing – happens at his baptism. He is now “a man with a dove-like spirit, a man with the gentleness of a lamb [as John called him], a man of peace whose identity was rooted in this profound reality: God’s beloved child.

“When we awaken within that deep relationship of mutual love and pleasure, we are ready to join in God’s peace movement today – an adventure of protest, hope, and creative, non-violent, world-transforming change.”[9]

As we move into our time of quiet, I invite you to reflect on …
… anything from the sermon or scripture that caught your attention; or
… the memory of your own baptism or some other recognition of a milestone in your life; or
… the idea of John the Baptist breaking with tradition and what that would look like in your life; or
… this message from God to you:  “You are my child, whom I dearly love. In you I find pleasure.”

[1] Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The First Christmas (New York: HarperCollins, 2007), 255.

[2] Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking [Kindle version], chapter 19, page 87. Retrieved from

[3] “History of Baptism,” Wikipedia, (accessed 7 January 2017).

[4] McLaren, op. cit.

[5] Ibid, 87-89.

[6] From an email from dated 3 January 2017.

[7] David Lose, “Baptism of Our Lord A: Family Name,” … in the Meantime, (posted and accessed 4 January 2017).

[8] Ibid.

[9] McLaren, op. cit., 89.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, January 19, 2014, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Isaiah 49:1-7 and John 1:29-42
Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

The high school I went to had somewhere around 2000 students.  There were three lunch periods, so there were as many as 700 students eating lunch at any one time.  And in New England in the winter, one really needs to eat indoors.  The way they dealt with this hoard was to have six lunchrooms scattered across the campus in six different buildings.  With six different lunchrooms, there was enough room for each clique to find their own space.  So I never had to eat with the jocks or the druggies or the motor heads.  I usually ate with the theatre and music geeks or the math nerds.

Like in every high school with a sizable student body across the United States – and maybe in any high school no matter how small – every kid had a place.  A few knew their place before they came to the school.  Most found their place very quickly, as if some divine hand was guiding us.

I wonder how many kids actually enjoyed being in their group.  If we could have picked a group, would we have stepped outside our self-perceived and peer-perceived caste and entered into another realm?  Would we have purposefully created a diverse group?  Maybe we weren’t mature enough to do so, but can you imagine a group of high school youth in your high school who would have welcomed any kid, no matter who they were or where they were on their life’s journey?

I can’t imagine that happening at Lexington High School – at least not while I was there more decades ago than I care to count.  No, we ended up in a group to which we were somehow assigned.  “We wouldn’t have used these words in high school, but we were living out what we assumed was our calling.  And it was very hard, next to impossible, to transition out of your group into another one.”[1]

Unlike what we assumed in high school, none of us are assigned to a clique or caste or station in life.  That is the last thing it means to receive a call from God.

In our reading from Isaiah, we hear the voice of a prophet singing about his calling.  (I say “his” because, given the social context, we assume this prophet was male.)  This is the second of four poems in the book of Isaiah that we call the “Servant Songs.”  We heard one of the four last week.  It is believed that all four were written during the exile.  In this song, the servant sings about human failings in the midst of a desire to fulfill the calling which the prophet senses existed from before birth.

Exactly who this servant is is unclear.  The servant is named “Israel” and is later sent by God to Israel.  Jewish interpretation tends to identify the servant as the community of Israel.  Classical Christian interpretation (as in John Calvin, among others) has found an anticipatory allusion of Jesus.  Historical criticism has attempted (and failed) to identify a nameable, known historical figure.[2]  But I think rather than trying to figure out who the servant is, we should just listen to the text itself and consider if we find ourselves.

The calling described here is not just to bring Israel back to God – that calling is “too light a thing,” too small a thing.  The calling described here is to be “a light to the nations” so that God’s “salvation can reach to the end of the earth.”  Imagine that.  Called by God to be a light to the nations.  That’s a mighty big task.

When it comes to our community, the Niles Discovery Church community, I’m hoping that being a light to the tri-cities is enough.  And if you’re like me, you may find even that narrowed-down task still to be a little daunting.  And if you’re like just about anybody God has called, your initial response is to say, “Who me?  I’m not good enough.”  Prophet after prophet says, “I’m not enough.”  I’m not old enough.  I’m not brave enough.  I’m not a good enough speaker.  So if you say, “I’m not enough,” you’re in good, called company.

Even in today’s reading, the Servant says, “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing.”  In other words, I’m a failure.  And God says, “I’m calling you to be a light to the nations.”

Niles Discovery Church – a light to the tri-cities.  Okay, so if we accept that calling, how do we do it?  I suggest we turn to the reading from John.

This encounter by the River Jordan is “very different from last week’s text from Matthew about the Baptism of Jesus.  Last week, the sky opened, the Spirit descended, and the voice of God testified about who this Jesus is.  This week, we move from divine words to human testimony, the ‘fragile and vulnerable testimony’ of John the Baptist, who admits that he didn’t even know who Jesus was at first.”[3]

John the Baptist performs two pastoral functions in this gospel:  baptism and testimony, and baptism is downplayed.  He doesn’t give any scathing sermons or dire warnings in this gospel.  There is mention that John has baptized people, including Jesus, but the gospel writer focuses on John the Baptist as one who offers testimony about Jesus.  “Here, the Baptists is an unimposing preacher who is ‘not the light’; his sole purpose is to bear testimony to the light.”[4]

John’s testimonies are lacking in content and a bit repetitious:  “Look!  The Lamb of God!”  When John identifies Jesus, he calls him ‘the Lamb of God,’ many, maybe even many of you, interpret those words to mean that Jesus is a “sacrificial lamb,” and start thinking about penal substitutionary atonement.[5]  It has been pointed out, however, that lambs weren’t used for sin sacrifices by the Hebrews.  The lamb is only for the Passover sacrifice, which remembers the liberation and deliverance of the people by God.  John the evangelist is portraying Jesus as the new Passover Lamb, an image that will be repeated toward the end of John’s gospel.  Jesus liberates the world from slavery.[6]

But John the Baptist (and John the evangelist) don’t unpack the testimony.  All the Baptist says is, “Look!  The Lamb of God!”  But that seems to be enough.  By pointing to Jesus, John even succeeds in getting two of his disciples to leave him and follow Jesus.

Jesus asks them, “What are you looking for?”  “Asked a momentous, life-challenging question by the one proclaimed as the Son of God, the followers reply by asking for Jesus’ address.”[7]  At first glance, that’s kind of funny.  But the disciples may not have missed the mark, whether they realized it or not.  Rather than getting themselves tied up on deep theological conversations or self analysis, they ask a question that will move them into relationship with Jesus.  Where are you staying?  They are seeking a person.  They are seeking Jesus, “to be with him, to know him, and to follow him.…  Their simple question challenges the church today to examine what we are seeking – Jesus or something else.”[8]

Jesus’ response is pretty pithy, too.  No long-winded sermon or theological discourse – just three simple words:  “Come and see.”  Rather than first asking these people to come to a full understanding of who Jesus is and then setting out to follow him, Jesus’ invitation brings these seeking close to him, into relationship with him.  “Come and see.”  Come to where I live.  Come to where I am.  And in coming to where Jesus is, lives are transformed.

When I got off of BART last Tuesday night in the City, the stairs I usually take from the platform were blocked off, so I walked down to the next staircase.  When I got up to the next level, I had to walk past the blocked-off stairs, and there was a crowd gathered around the stairs, looking down.  “Jeff,” I said to myself, “you really don’t need to see what they’re looking at,” thinking that maybe some interesting maintenance was going on.  But I stopped anyway and looked down into the stairwell.  And do you want to know what I saw?

As I was writing this sermon, I really wondered whether I should tell you what I saw.  I suspect that most of you are, at this point, with me as I got close to the railing, wondering what I will see.  That’s how it is when someone says, “Come and see.”  Our curiosity gets to us.  Karl Barth is supposed to have said that that anybody who stops on the sidewalk and points upward will draw a crowd of onlookers, each one looking up to see what’s captured another’s attention.[9]

Well, what I saw was some paramedics tending so someone on the stairs.  The stairs had been blocked off to allow the medics tend to the injured person without people walking past.

I’ve heard people say that what they would really like is a neon sign.

They would like for the sky to open and the voice of God to provide dramatic and clear instruction.  But maybe we’re missing the myriad ways that God is still speaking around us.  And maybe we’re missing the myriad ways that God is still speaking through us.

This gospel passage illustrates the call of the followers of Jesus to listen carefully, to live faithfully, and to tell the story of what God has done in the midst of their own transformed lives.

John the Baptist points toward the One who is salvation rather than drawing attention to himself.  Most of us would have to admit that one of the challenges of discipleship is not to lose sight of the true center and focus of our ministry:  Jesus.  Especially in the life of the church, it’s easy for the center and focus of our ministry to become all about us – or all about the building, or all about the program, etc.  Above all, it is not about loss, right?  We want to grow, to gain, to expand.  And yet, we hear, and feel, that discipleship costs.  What losses are we willing to suffer for the sake of the gospel?  Are we willing to forego recognition and popularity when we so easily enjoy both in the life of the church?

“Our calling, most of all, is to know and enjoy God.  Anyone who responds to this grace-filled call discovers freedom from anyone or any social group that tries to be a god in our lives.”[10]  After that, our calling is simply to be a light to the nations.  And we do that be giving our testimony of our stories of meeting Jesus.

The notion of predestination – at least in this life – that comes out of Calvinism is wrong, except for this:  We are all predestined to be loved by God.

We are not even predestined to experience that holy, gracious love.  I think we are given the freedom to accept that love or not.  Aside from being predestined to be loved by God, everything is quite open.  God does not assign us to a particular, unchangeable lot in life.  We are free to get up and eat at any table in any lunch room we choose.

And I choose to eat at this table,[11] Jesus’ table, because this is one of the places where I meet him and where I am nourished for my calling.



[1] M. Craig Barnes, “Life after high school,” Christian Century, 11 December 2013, 35.

[2] Karen Georgia Thompson, “Sermon Seeds,” United Church of Christ, (16 January 2014), citing Walter Brueggemann, Isaiah 40-66 Westminster Bible Companion.

[3] Kathryn Matthews Huey, “Sermon Seeds,” United Church of Christ, (16 January 2014).

[4] William H. Willimon, “Reflection on the lectionary,” Christian Century, 8 January 2014, 19.

[5] Penal substitutionary atonement is the belief/theology that says that Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross was necessary for any of us to be forgiven by God.  This is a belief/theology that I reject.  If Jesus’ death were necessary for God’s forgiveness, how could Jesus tell people, “Your sins are forgiven,” something the gospels say he did regularly, before his death?  The opening paragraph on penal substitutionary atonement on Wikipedia ( explains this theology and the page has a ton of information (which I haven’t read).   You might also like to read this ( blog post (read the whole post, please) and maybe even the links that go from it.

[6] Huey, op. cit.

[7] Ibid, quoting Charles Campbell, The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels.

[8] Ibid, again quoting Campbell.

[9] Willimon, op. cit.

[10] Barnes, op. cit.

[11] the communion table.

A sermon[i] preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, January 12, 2014, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Matthew 3:13-17
Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

For context, you might find it helpful to read my Christmas Eve sermon available here.

It’s been a quiet week in Mount William, New Hampshire, my hometown.  Most of the chatter at the Chowder House was about the weather.  The temperature’s been bouncing all over the place.  Days of frigid cold.  Snow enough to close the schools.  A few days warm enough that the snow doesn’t bother melting; it just goes right to vapor.  “Subliming” I remember my high school chemistry science teacher calling.  Is there something sublime about the snow disappearing without leaving a puddle?  I don’t know.

There is something sublime about water, especially when it’s used in church.  This morning, Jessica Wilson-Russell was baptized.  Now you probably don’t know who Jessica Wilson-Russell is.  That’s not too surprising.  She’s a brilliant, beautiful five-year-old who is still pretty new to Mount William.  But you may know one of her fathers.  And I think you know that father’s mother and father.

Andy and Pamela Wilson are the couple who moved to Mount William from Ohio after their farm went bust a few decades ago.  They came seeking a new start.  The start they got didn’t go exactly to plan.  Andy had that job as a night watchman at the Jordan Marsh in Manchester when he worked the 15-hour shift on Christmas Eve and came home with a baby boy that someone had abandoned on the loading dock.

A Christmas miracle, he was sure, and it only took a few moments for Pamela to fall in love with the baby.  Her heart was nearly breaking when she called the Manchester police to report what had happened.  She would have called the Mount William police department, but he was home with him family celebrating Christmas Day and she didn’t want to disturb him.

“My husband found an abandoned baby on the loading dock at the Jordan Marsh early this morning,” she explained to the police sergeant.  “We’re taking care of him just fine, but thought we should make an official report.”

All the detectives were off duty, so the sergeant said that someone would come out the next day.  The detective came and took their statements and the box that Andy had found the baby in.  By the time the social worker from the Department of Children, Youth, and Families showed up, Andy and Pam had started calling the baby ‘Joshua.’  They wanted a name associated with Christmas, but ‘Jesus’ seemed a bit presumptuous to them.  ‘Joseph’ wasn’t right; that was Andy’s job.  They imagined the teasing the poor tyke would get if they picked ‘Melchior,’ ‘Gaspar,’ or ‘Balthazar.’  ‘Joshua,’ they thought, was somehow related to the name ‘Jesus,’ so they tried it out and it stuck.

Regulations weren’t as tight then as they are now.  The Social Worker was able to name the Wilsons as temporary emergency foster parents, so Joshua stayed with the Wilsons while the investigations took place.  The police had to do their investigation to try to figure out who had abandoned the baby at the Jordan Marsh.  The Department of Children, Youth, and Families had to investigate the Wilsons to see if they could be permanent foster parents to the child.  Pam and Andy decided they wouldn’t talk about adoption to anyone official at that point, but the next Sunday the three of them were in church and before they knew what had happened, the Women’s Fellowship had a baby shower arranged.  Before the week was over, there wasn’t a baby item the Wilsons needed to buy.  And by the end of January, the congregation was praying regularly that the Wilsons would be allowed to adopt Joshua as their own.

“He’s not ours,” Andy said to Pam one night.

“I know he’s not,” she said.  “But if they don’t find the mother –“

“No, that’s not what I mean.  I mean he’s not only ours.  The whole church seems to be adopting him, too.”

That’s how it was that whole year.  The congregation was there for the Wilsons that first week, and all year long it seemed Joshua had 29 grandparents.  They would drop by with a new onesie or a case of formula – at least that was the official reason.  Pamela was pretty sure they really came by to pinch Joshua’s cheeks.  When the doctor said there was a mole on Joshua’s shoulder that would become cancerous if it wasn’t removed, the church rallied ’round the Wilsons.  It wasn’t a simple nip, tuck procedure.  A skin graft was involved.  And this young couple who didn’t have any family around had a huge family around them.

Andy and Pam were named permanent foster parents in just a few months, but it wasn’t until November that the search for the baby’s birth parents was abandoned and Joshua was declared eligible for adoption.  The Wilsons immediately started the adoption process, and once they started hearing noises that the judge would probably rule in their favor, Pam said they could talk to Rev. Friend about the baptism.

Pamela had grown up in a Disciples of Christ church and wasn’t baptized herself until she was 12.  But there wasn’t a Disciples congregation anywhere near Mount William, so they went to the Mount William Congregational Church, and at the Congregational Church, they baptized babies.

Pam had insisted that they not baptize Joshua until they were at least made permanent foster parents and were on the road toward adoption.  She really wanted to hold out until the adoption was final, but Andy pressured her.  “He’s not only ours.”  So they spoke with Rev. Friend who was only a year into his call at the Mount William Congregational Church.  They picked the first Sunday after Epiphany, the day the baptism of Jesus was celebrated, as the day for Joshua to be baptized.

Rev. Friend got through most of the baptismal liturgy pretty well.  But when he saw this little baby in his father’s arms and he came to the words about being adopted into the family of God – he was done with words.  No one offered to take over for him, so the congregation just worshiped a while with tears as silent prayers of gratitude.  And then Rev. Friend poured the water of holy covenant across Joshua’s head.  Everyone was a mess.

In Matthew’s gospel, we don’t hear Jesus speak until his baptism.  And he doesn’t speak to the crowds.  John is used to speaking to the crowds, but here it’s just Jesus and John talking to each other.  Oh, and then there’s one more voice:  the first person of the Trinity, claiming Jesus as beloved child.

Don’t know if the sky opened and Joshua saw God descending like a dove, but the congregation heard God’s voice loud and clear speaking within themselves, “This is my beloved son.”

I don’t know if it was the voice or if it was that in the Wilsons the whole congregation could see the pathos of the world – or perhaps it was because they all knew that they all had issues and that somehow in that water they saw God’s love flowing out over them as well.  What ever it was, just about everybody’s baptism was reaffirmed with the waters of their own tear ducts.

In the legal adoption, Joshua was being made an heir of his parents.  No one in the congregation missed the metaphor.  Perhaps that is why they went to pieces when they saw the water poured out and splash across Joshua’s head and into the baptismal font.

Joshua didn’t ask to be adopted.  He didn’t earn it or deserve it.  He didn’t know enough to want it or to object.  It just came as a grace that changed him from an orphan to a son.  That’s the way grace works – it’s free, unmerited, and unexpected.  But then it expects a lot from us.  We don’t make changes in our lives to get adopted; we make changes because we have been adopted.

That’s how it is in church.  Every time we baptize a baby or a believer, we are launching that child of God on this journey through the issues of faith and life.  We receive the grace of God, but we then spend the rest of our lives learning how to respond to it.  And maybe that’s why we have churches:  to give us the language of faith, to teach us faith’s great traditions, to inspire us with holy missions for our lives, to constantly point us back to the gospel for our healing, to help us learn how to respond to the grace of God.

Joshua Wilson is married now and he and his husband Ken Russell have been going through the adoption process.  Jessica came into their lives this past spring and the adoption was final on December 23rd.  They live in Mount William, not far from Pam and Andy.  Joshua is a firefighter in Concord; Ken is taking a leave of absence from his teaching job in the next school district.

And today, the first Sunday after Epiphany, when the baptism of Jesus is celebrated, Jessica Wilson-Russell was baptized.  Rev. Friend, who is still at the Mount William Congregational Church, did the honors.  And this year, when he got to the part in the baptismal liturgy when he talks about being adopted into the family of God, everyone was smiling.

Pamela still thinks her son and son-in-law should have waited until Jessica was old enough to decide for herself to be baptized.  She reminds me of the old joke about the Baptist and the Episcopalian who were discussing religion.  The Baptist asked, “Do you mean to tell me you really believe in infant baptism?”  “Believe in it?” the Episcopalian replied.  “Why I’ve seen it!”[iii]

Once again, the congregation watched God’s grace poured out on a little child and on themselves.  And during the sermon this morning, Rev. Friend told the story of the Christmas miracle that brought Joshua into the Wilson home and into the home of the Congregational Church, and of the first baptism he performed there.

During the sermon, Missy Albertson leaned over to her husband.  “Steve, I love you, but you bring home a Christmas miracle like that and I’ll shoot you.”  The Albertsons are still negotiating with Missy’s parents on a date for the baptism of their triplets.

That’s the news from Mount William, where all the women are strong, the men are good looking, and all the children go to Sunday School every week.


[i] This sermon was inspired by, and I paraphrase from, M. Craig Barnes, “Faith Matters: After adoption,” Christian Century, 25 July 2013 edition, p. 33.

[iii] Bruce Trammell, “Pretty Good Jokes,” A Prairie Home Companion, (11 January 2014).

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church
A new church for a new day, in Fremont, California,
on Sunday, January 13, 2013, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Luke 3:15-17, 21-22 and Acts 8:14-17
Copyright © 2013 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

            Have you ever noticed that people tend to get into the water one of two ways?  Whether it’s the swimming pool or the swimming hole, people either plunge right in or they dip in a toe, then a foot, then the leg, and slowly lower themselves into the water.  I have an memory from my childhood of my father diving into the lake, rolling onto his back as he surfaced so he could look at us on shore, and saying, “Brisk!” before anyone could ask, “How’s the water?”

One of the things I noticed as I studied our scriptures this week is that in Luke’s version of the baptism of Jesus, we don’t see him in the water.  In Luke’s version, John is preaching and answering questions, and then we cut to Jesus praying:  “Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying …”  Apparently, at some point, Jesus got baptized, we assume by John, but we don’t get to hear about it.  We don’t get a chance to ask Jesus, “How’s the water?”

It’s as if Luke assumes we’d assume that Jesus was there in the Jordan with everyone else, there in the wilderness, there in the margins of society, removed from the centers of power.  He gets wet like everyone else, but then he starts praying.  And as he prays, heaven opens and the Holy Spirit descends on him like a dove flying down from heaven.  And he hears a voice coming from heaven.

Earlier in Luke’s gospel, angels come from heaven to deliver messages.  Zachariah gets a visit.  Mary gets a visit.  The shepherds get a visit.  But this is a voice directly from heaven.  We assume it’s God’s voice and this assumption is confirmed when we’re told what the voice says:  “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

The story of Jesus’ baptism in Luke’s gospel isn’t about the water; it’s about what happens out of the water.

There is other stuff going on here.  Right after we hear that God has called Jesus “Son,” claiming Jesus as part of divinity, Luke goes into the very human genealogy of Jesus.  I assume Luke is making a point about how you can’t put Jesus in a box.  Yes, he’s the son of God, but he’s also the son of Mary and Joseph.  Yes, he’s the son of Mary, but he’s also the son of God.

There’s other stuff going on here, but central to Luke’s understanding of baptism is not the ritual of the water.  Central to Luke’s understanding of baptism is the action of the Holy Spirit.

Jesus is praying, absorbed in the ancient spiritual practice, when heaven opens, he looks up Jacob’s ladder, a cosmic wormhole opens.  It’s a pillar of fire.  It’s the eye of the storm.  It’s a holy moment of divine activity.  And the Holy Spirit slams into him.

“In this event Jesus accepts a role with reference to God and to humankind.”[i]  We will get into what he understood this role to mean in a couple weeks.  Today, let’s stay in this moment.  Let’s stay with Luke, looking at what God is doing here.

We hear echoes of the baptism of Jesus in our reading about an early baptism of the life of the church.  In our reading from Acts – also authored by Luke – the candidates were convinced of the news of God in Christ, so they are baptized in his name.  The apostles apparently think this is pretty cool, because Peter and John go to these new believers.  Now this is a bit of a stretch because these new believer were Samaritans and there was that Jewish-Samaritan animosity that Jesus liked to use in his story telling.  But when they get to Samaria, Peter and John discover that these new believers haven’t received the gift of the Holy Spirit.  So they pray over these newest members of the movement, and the gift of the Holy Spirit is bestowed.

Luke separates the ritual of baptism from the action of God.  It’s as if Luke is saying to me, “Jeff, you can get them as wet as your want, but it’s the action of God that really matters.”

We shouldn’t be surprised by this separation.  Luke tells us that John realized that what he was doing and what God was doing were different things.  He’ll baptize you with water as a symbol of your desire to repent.  But only Jesus “will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”

Listen to the first two verses of the reading from the Hebrew Scriptures assigned for today.  Isaiah 43:1-2:

But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel:  Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.  When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.

In Isaiah, the waters threaten to overwhelm us and the fires threaten to consume us.  In Luke, water initiates us and fire refines us and makes us ready to truly serve God and one another.

It’s like the story of the egg, the carrots, and the coffee.[ii]  A young woman went to her mother and told her about her life and how things were so hard for her.  She did not know how she was going to make it and wanted to give up.  She was tired of fighting and struggling.  It seemed as one problem was solved, a new one arose.

Her mother took her to the kitchen.  She filled three pots with water and placed each on a high fire.  Soon the pots came to boil.  In the first she placed carrots, in the second she placed eggs, and in the last she placed ground coffee beans.  She let them sit and boil, without saying a word.

After a while, she turned off the burners.  She fished the carrots out and placed them in a bowl.  She pulled the eggs out and placed them in a bowl.  Then she ladled the coffee out and placed it in a bowl.  Turning to her daughter, she asked, “Tell me, what you see?”

“Carrots, eggs, and coffee,” she replied.

Her mother brought her closer and asked her to feel the carrots.  She did and noted that they were soft.  The mother then asked the daughter to take an egg and break it.  After pulling off the shell, she observed the hard-boiled egg.  Finally, the mother asked the daughter to sip the coffee.  The daughter smiled as she tasted its rich aroma.  The daughter then asked, “What does it mean, mother?”

Her mother explained that each of these objects had faced the same adversity … boiling water.  Each reacted differently.  The carrot went in strong, hard, and unrelenting, but after being subjected to the boiling water, it softened and became weak.  The egg had been fragile, its thin outer shell had protected its liquid interior, but after sitting through the boiling water, its inside became hardened.  The ground coffee beans were unique, however.  After they were in the boiling water, they had changed the water.

“Which are you?” she asked her daughter.  “When adversity knocks on your door, how do you respond?  Are you a carrot, an egg or a coffee bean?”

Baptism doesn’t protect us from the hardships of life.  Being a follower of Jesus doesn’t give us a “get out of hardships free” card.  “At baptism we proclaim our desire to walk with God.  When we receive the Holy Spirit, God responds, assuring us that our primary identity has already been decided:  ‘Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine’ (Isaiah 43:1).  Luke confirms this most clearly with Jesus’ own baptism.  Jesus’ step toward God is reciprocated with God’s acknowledgement of Jesus:  ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’”[iii]

I’ve listened to a lot of sermons over the years.  Yes, most of them were mine.  In all honestly, I only remember a few of them – including the ones I preached.  One that I remember was preached as the consecration of an Episcopal bishop I was attending to help represent the ecumenical community about two decades ago.

The event was one of pomp and circumstance as only the Episcopalians can do.  This was a big deal.  Becoming a bishop in the Episcopal Church is a big deal.  From a liturgical point of view, consecrating a bishop is a rare event.  Ordinations of priests happen with some regularity.  Baptisms are a dime a dozen.

The bishop who preached at the service made a point of this.  To illustrate the point, he spoke about the certificates that you get at each occasion.  At baptism, a card is issued with the baptized’s name.  At ordination, a certificate is issued – suitable for framing, but it’s the size of a piece of standard paper.  At a bishop’s consecration, a grand certificate is issued that embossed and ornate and big and substantial.

And then he said that we have it backwards.  Of these three liturgical events, the important one is the baptism.  Yes, we pray for the Holy Spirit to act in all three of these events, but the event that claims us, that makes us know who we are and whose we are is not the consecration or the ordination.  It’s the baptism.

Studying these scriptures has made me think about how the Holy Spirit has been at work in my life.  I was an infant when I was baptized, so I don’t remember it.  I believe the Holy Spirit came and whispered in my ear that I, too, am a beloved child of God, just as I believe that Holy Spirit whispers this good news to everyone who is baptized.  But I have no memory of that experience.  Likewise, I don’t remember any heaven-rending epiphany at my confirmation.  The hoard of us (there were four or five dozen in my confirmation class) stood before the congregation, answered some questions, and received certificates.  And as much as I wanted to feel the Holy Spirit doing something at my ordination, mostly what I felt was hands pressing on me as prayers were recited.

My deep Holy Spirit experiences have happened outside the confines of those liturgical moments.  You could have filmed what seemed to be the action at those rituals, but the real action took place at other times.  In many ways, baptism is an out of water experience.

My baptism was happening when I received a Bible during worship in fourth grade – a moment of connection to God that sill rests with me.  My baptism was happening when I heard a scripture read and I left the sanctuary and was one the road with Jesus, only to be disappointed with how the reading ended.  My baptism was happening again when I heard my call to ordained ministry.

Earlier this week, representatives from three of the five congregations associated with the United Church of Christ in Fremont met to do some initial brainstorming for UCC-wide mission effort that will start on April 1.  “Mission 4/1 Earth” will focus us for 50 days on caring for the earth.  We will have opportunities to contribution toward the national goals of:  1 million earth care hours; 100,000 trees planted; and 100,000 advocacy letters written.  Some of this work we will do on our own and some of it will be done in community.  All of it will be an opportunity to live out our baptisms, and if we’re open to it, the Holy Spirit just might use it to keep your baptism happening.

You see, ultimately, baptism isn’t about sin and forgiveness and getting some good after-life insurance.  Baptism is about claiming and being claimed, about accepting who we are and whose we are … and about how that changes how we live.

As holy a moment as baptism is, the importance of baptism is what happens after we’re baptized.  It’s an out of water experience.



[i] Walter Brueggemann, “Fearless Submission,” Sojourners, (12 January 2013).

[ii] Author unknown, “A Carrot, An Egg and a Cup of Coffee,” Deep Thoughts, (12 January 2013).

[iii] Michaela Bruzzese, “Receiving the Spirit,” Sojourners, (12 January 2013).


Jim Rice, “‘You Are My Beloved,’” Sojourners, (12 January 2013).

Ched Myers, “Baptism’s True Claim,” Sojourners, (12 January 2013).


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