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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, June 22, 2014, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Matthew 10:24-39 and Romans 6:1b-11
Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I was chatting online with a friend in Seattle this past week as today’s gospel lesson bubbled in the back of my mind.  Joe has had two careers, one professional, the other volunteer.  His volunteer career has included helping with various youth programs that serve lgbt[1] kids and young adults.  I asked him to share a story with me.

I’ll call the boy Juan.  He was living in Yakima, Washington, when in mid-November, his father caught him chatting online with another boy in a gay chat room.  “His incensed father threw him out of his home, with only the clothes he could gather within 30 minutes and stuff in his school backpack.  His father threatened him bodily harm if he remained in Yakima with other family members or friends, forbidding him future contact with his mom, siblings, or other relatives of his extended family.”[2]

Apparently, Juan wandered the streets of Yakima that night and managed to get a bus ticket to Seattle.  Wandering, lost, not knowing what to do, Juan spent at least one more night on the Seattle streets with nothing to eat.

The next day Juan approached Jim Aiken, one of Joe’s friends, who had had an accident that left him disabled.  Jim lives in an Assisted Living Residence and gets around on a scooter, typically traveling with “his trusty mongrel dog Sunny perched on his lap.”  It was a blustery, dreary, wet, chilly day – in other words, a normal Seattle November day – when Juan approached him.   Disabled, “Jim is on a limited income, but is regularly accosted by street people asking for a handout.  As this teen approached, he brusquely said, ‘I’m sorry, but I don’t have anything to give you.’  Juan was taken aback, commenting that all he wanted to do was pet Jim’s dog.

“The fastest way to Jim’s heart is to like his dog, so he melted, and permitted the boy to pet Sunny.  The dog responded with tail wagging and happy sounds – which clued Jim in that the boy was ‘all right.’”  It didn’t take Jim long to sense “something was out of place.  The kid looked tired and haggard, not the normal kid on Seattle’s streets, so as they chatted Jim began fishing for this Juan’s backstory.”

When he learned the details, Jim sprang into action.  He called his caseworker who connected them up with Child Protective Services, and Juan got placed in a foster home with a lesbian couple.  What a difference in environment.  Knowing he was on his way, his foster moms made sure there was a hot meal waiting for him.  “He had a chance to take a hot shower, and was bundled up in robes and blankets. They stayed up for several hours getting acquainted.  Then he had a warm bed, in what was now his bedroom, in which to sleep.”

Juan’s foster moms have created a sea of love for him and he is thriving.  He is enrolled in school and should be graduating in a year.  Things are looking up for Juan, but Child Protective Services has advised Juan that he not reveal his location or his school to his birth family.
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.  For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.  Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”[3]

This is one of the “hard sayings” of Jesus, one of those sayings one wishes he hadn’t said, or at least that it didn’t get written down.  And I have a tendency to suspect that the harder the saying, the more likely it is to be authentically Jesus (as opposed to the community’s remembering or creation of a saying of Jesus).  It is a saying that I suspect Juan and his father hear quite differently.  How sad that Juan’s father thought his hating the fact that Juan is gay was a faithful act that led him to reject his son.

The sword that Jesus brings is not a literal sword.  When Jesus is arrested and a literal sword is drawn, he tells his disciples to put away the sword.[4]  This sword is figurative.  It represents the conflict that discipleship can create – be it discipleship that embraces Jesus’ message or somehow corrupts it.

Leaving Juan’s father aside, I want to focus on discipleship that embraces Jesus’ message of love, on ministry that turns social norms on their heads and embraces the outcasts and the marginalized.  As one commentator put it, “Readiness for this kind of ministry requires a fair amount of fire in the bones.  Decisions about parlor carpet only require us to be practical.  The ministry … encompassed by Jesus depends on resolve that can sustain a person even from the bottom of a well.”[5]

If you’ve ever been at the bottom of a well, you know what you want.  More than anything else, you want the people who are supposed to love you.  You want the community and the family that you have called home.  Jesus is saying that if you really follow him, if you really allow your first allegiance is to him, you may not have that home any more.

Kari Jo Verhulst points out, “To follow the one who loved unto death is to embody the one whose radical redefinition of who belongs and what matters denounces all previous sets of priorities.  To hold up this ‘dangerous memory [of freedom]’ is risky business.  By doing so, we are reminded that perfect love takes sides, and that it demands nothing less than our lives.”[6]

Remember, Matthew’s gospel was written to Jewish followers of Jesus, probably about the time these Jesus-followers were getting kicked out of the synagogue.  Following Jesus had real consequences.  Much like Juan experienced for embracing his identity, Jesus-followers could get kicked out of their families for embracing their identity.  We’ve heard about the martyrs of old, people who were killed because of their faith, but we forget about the “lesser-known Christians, the everyday, ordinary ones like most of us, who suffered loss of family, place, security, ‘respectability,’ because they embraced a faith that challenged social structures.”[7]

Paul writes, “we have been buried with [Christ Jesus] by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”[8]  “To be baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, in Paul’s thinking, is to die to one’s previous identity in order to be reborn into the ‘newness of life’ (Romans 6:4).  The Greek baptizestai literally means ‘to drown.’  It was used in Hellenistic Greek to describe death-by-shipwreck.  For Paul, baptism is a far more radical thing than even the ‘remission of sins’ …  Though we ritualize this incorporation into the body of Christ at a given moment of dedication, experientially we are forever being drawn more fully into the life of God, which, in turn, draws us more deeply into the world.”[9]

Barbara Brown Taylor offers this reflection:  “I am a daughter, a wife, a sister, an aunt, and each of those identities has shaped my life, but none of them contains me.  I am Barbara.  I am Christian.  I am a child of God.  That is my true identity, and all the others grow out of it … [Y]ou are God’s child first.  That is no role.  That is who you most truly are …”[10]

Paul’s point, and Taylor’s and Jesus’, is that “claiming that identity, and living faithfully into it, can have consequences in a world of empire and fear, in the first century and the twenty-first as well.  As much as we all long for family, in whatever shape or form that takes …, Taylor says that ‘Jesus’ demand remains the same.  We are to love him above all other loves, and if that means losing those we love, we are not to fear, because buried in the demand is a promise:  that what we lose for his sake we shall find again, returned to us more alive than ever before.’”[11]

Jesus invites us into the waters of baptism not just to clean up our act, not just to wash away the residue of sin from our lives.  We’re invited to step into the waters and drown, to drown in a sea of love that will not leave us as we once were.

I can’t imagine the death that Juan has experienced (and probably still is experiencing) by needing to let go of his attachments to his birth family.  Yet I know that the sea of love that his foster family has created for him has led to his transformation.  He once was lost, but now he’s found.  He once was a street kid, rejected, pushed aside, chased out of his hometown.  Now he’s a leader in his school and is thinking about colleges.  That’s what the sea of love can do, if we’ll let ourselves drown in it and allow that love to raise us to new life.

Joe finished telling me this story by reminding me that there are an estimated 1,000 teens and young adults living on the streets in Seattle, doing whatever is necessary to survive, and that about two-thirds of these homeless, mostly boys, are gay, kicked out of their usually fundamentalist Christian homes upon discovery of their sexual orientation.  “This is happening now, it is real,” Joe said.  “Juan was one of the fortunate ones.”

I checked online last night for Bay Area statistics.  “In addition to the 6,436 homeless adults counted during one night last year [just in the city of San Francisco], a separate daytime count specifically of homeless youth found 914 children and young adults living in San Francisco without parents or guardians and without a roof over their heads.”[12]  San Francisco has just 350 beds available for homeless youth on any given night.[13]  I wasn’t able to find statistics about homelessness in the Tri-Cities last night.  I’d like to think that the number of youth living on the streets of Fremont without a parent or guardian and without a roof is miniscule, but I suspect I’m wrong.  And I bet there are kids who are couch surfing because living at home isn’t safe.
Are these readings meant to be reassuring?  I think so, though at first blush they aren’t.  Who wants to lay down their life?  Baptismal death is comfortable if it’s just symbolic.  But to really let a part of ourselves die – whether it’s letting our sense of self that comes from our family ties die or something as basic to the spiritual journey as letting our egos die – that’s scary.  No wonder Jesus keeps saying, “Fear not.”  I like the way Eugene Peterson translates these verses in The Message, reinterpreting “fear not”:

“Don’t be intimidated.  Eventually everything is going to be out in the open, and everyone will know how things really are.  So don’t hesitate to go public now.
“Don’t be bluffed into silence by the threats of bullies.  There’s nothing they can do to your soul, your core being.  Save your fear for God, who holds your entire life – body and soul – in [God’s] hands.
“What’s the price of a pet canary?  Some loose change, right?  And God cares what happens to it even more than you do.  [God] pays even greater attention to you, down to the last detail – even numbering the hairs on your head!  So don’t be intimidated by all this bully talk.  You’re worth more than a million canaries.”[14]

“To really lay down our lives,” writes Shelley Douglass, “we risk what is most precious to us.  It is a real risk.  Marriages end, parents and children are estranged, livelihoods are lost or damaged – not to mention jail sentences served, beatings endured, lives lost.  Jesus doesn’t promise to keep our lives comfortable.  He promises just the opposite:  We will walk into the wall.

“The comfort is not that we won’t die, but that if we die for his sake we will live again.  Like Jesus we will live a transformed life.  We cannot know as we begin to act what the outcome will be.  We can only know that as we respond to the mercy shown us by showing mercy, we invite the death of our former selves.  And we believe – sometimes barely – that when the dust has settled we will be acknowledged by Jesus, and will regain our lives.”[15]

So step on in to the sea of love with me.  The water’s fine.  Amen.


[1] LGBT is an initialism that stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender.

[2] The quotes I use here are direct quotes from Joe Hopkins’ retelling of the story of this boy.

[3] Matthew 10:34-38, NRSV.

[4] See Matthew 26:47-54, NRSV.

[5] Jennifer Copeland, “Living By the Word,” Christian Century, 11 June 2014, 20.

[6] Kari Jo Verhulst, “Love Takes Sides,” Sojourner, (accessed 17 June 2014).

[7]Kathryn Matthews Huey, “Sermon Seeds,” United Church of Christ, (accessed 19 June 2014).

[8] Romans 6:4, NRSV.

[9] Kari Jo Verhulst, op. cit.

[10] Barbara Brown Taylor, “Learning to Hate Your Family,” God in Pain: Teaching Sermons on Suffering; quoted by Kathryn Matthews Huey, op. cit.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Heather Knight, “S. F. homeless youth count nears 1,000 despite spending,” SFGate, (posted 12 March 2014; accessed 21 June 2014).

[13] Ibid.

[14] Matthew 10:26-31, The Message.

[15] Shelley Douglass, “Walking into the Wall,” Sojourners, (accessed 17 June 2014).

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, 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, (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, (9 May 2013).

[iii] Deuteronomy 23:1

[iv] We screened “Blue Gold: World Water Wars.”  See for more information.

[v] “Bottle Water Statistics,” Statistics Brain, (verified 24 February 2012; downloaded 12 May 2013).

[vi] Cited in “Blue Gold.”


Suzanne MacNevin and Charles Moffat, “The Right to Water,” Earth Letter, Summer 2012, p. 12-13.

John Klassen, “One Baptism, One Faith,” Sojourners, (9 May 2013).

Edmond L. Browning, “Marked By Baptism,” Sojourners, (9 May 2013).

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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