Sermon Title “All In” by Pastor Rosanna McFadden
Good morning! A frigid day in January may seem like the wrong kind of weather to be talking about baptism, or being immersed in water — it certainly not a service I’d want to officiate outdoors any time this month. But the lectionary texts and the structure of the Christian year give us a watery interlude between Christmas and the beginning of Lent: a time to contemplate our own commitment and calling. This week we will be considering baptism — a gospel account of Jesus’ baptism, but also an understanding of baptism in Christian history and especially in the Church of the Brethren. Next week we will join some fisherman along the Sea of Galilee who heard Jesus’ call to “Follow me.” If you haven’t noticed, these watery themes and colors are picked up in the second stained glass window which is part of the set which was installed last week. All I can say is this confluence of biblical theme and worship environment is not a coincidence.
I mentioned at our morning service on December 24 that 300 years ago on December 25, 1723, the first Brethren baptisms in North America — what was not yet the United States — happened in the Wissahickon Creek. They had to break the ice in order to wade in and immerse the 6 men and women who were baptized that day. Let that serve as a reminder of the importance of that witness and the personal commitment of the first Brethren who immigrated to Pennsylvania.
Back about 1650 years and to a warmer climate, we have the gospel accounts of Jesus’ baptism. I say ‘accounts’ plural, because each of the four gospels includes the story of Jesus’ baptism. Unlike, for instance, the story of Jesus birth, which is only in Matthew and Luke, and where the details vary widely, the accounts of his baptism are fairly consistent between the gospels. We can assume a couple things from this: 1. That Jesus’ baptism was important to each of the gospel writers, and to the first Christians when these gospels were written 2. These accounts were all likely based on the same material, an early gospel manuscript which is no longer in existence, but which Matthew, Mark, Luke and John all borrowed material from.
Jesus and his cousin John (the Baptizer) were observant Jews. Judaism did not have a ritual of baptism, but there were a lot of purity laws around washing and being ritually clean. Many of these had their origin in issues of personal hygiene and food safety; these came out of a desert culture where water was not plentiful; people had to be intentional about washing and bathing. Jewish purification rites called tvilah called for immersion in naturally sourced water, and this is likely what John’s audience understood that they were signing up for when they went out to the Jordan River and heard his message of prophecy and repentance. Immersion for repentance from sin and turning around is probably what John understood he was doing, too, until the Messiah joined the line of folks at the river and asked to be baptized, and the Spirit of God descended, and John realized that they were witnesses to something unique and new.
Jesus’ baptism was the beginning of his ministry; a new chapter in the life of the Beloved Son of God. It wasn’t his going under the water or coming up from it which made him beloved; Jesus was always God’s beloved child, but this is the first public proclamation of that eternal truth. There have been different understandings and emphasis and practices of baptism, but the bedrock fact that every person is loved by God is something we should never forget. The words from heaven, “This is my Child, the Beloved” are more than affirmation; they are identity. They establish who we are and whose we are. I would guess that most of us here have been baptized — at some time in our lives. There are some folks here whom I have baptized, and it is one of the highlights of pastoral ministry to be part of that service. Baptism should always be a statement of our identity as a child of God.
Different Christian denominations have emphasized baptism in different ways. We don’t have any biblical account of Jesus baptizing anyone, but he instructed his disciples to baptize in his name, and they did. Acts tells us of entire households who came to faith in Jesus and were baptized. Christians in the early church were baptized — often on Easter Sunday — and were dressed in white robes when they came up out of the baptismal water. Baptism was about conversion; leaving behind an old life and old practices and becoming a new person in Christ.
Christianity when through a dramatic change in fortune and theology when Constantine, Emperor of Rome, converted to Christianity in 312. By the fifth century, the church and the state were becoming the same institution, and baptism took on a different emphasis. Baptism was about forgiveness of sin and being saved from hell, so of course people should be baptized as soon as possible — ideally shortly after they are born, just to be safe. Full immersion is not the best method for infants, so baptism became ritual sprinkling with holy water. Baptism also became associated with membership; membership in the Church, yes, but also membership in the Roman state — because they were the same thing. After the Reformation, when other Christian groups arose besides Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christianity, baptism became a mark of religious and political affiliation. It was illegal to choose when or into which Christian body you would be baptized; the state made that decision for your parents when you were born.
The Anabaptist movement came out of that tension in Western Europe, and Anabaptism is the stream in which the Brethren are standing. The prefix Ana- means again, not against. The Anabaptists were folks who had been baptized as infants, but felt the call to be baptized again as adult believers. For these believers, baptism meant repentance and new life in Christ, but in addition to that, belieber’s baptism was illegal. Choosing to be baptized as an adult was an act of civil disobedience punishable by death, and some of the early Anabaptists were tried and killed for their decision to follow the example of Jesus in this way. This was part of the reason the Brethren movement, which began with an adult baptism service in 1708, came to America in 1723: they were seeking a place where being baptized as an adult was not a capital offense. When we consider that history, breaking the ice to get into the Wissahickon Creek may have been the least of their worries.
I hope that fly-over of millenia of church history and 300 years of Brethren history helps explain the Brethren theology and practice of baptism today. I’ve heard baptism in the Church of the Brethren described as “hokey-pokey” baptism, meaning, you put your whole self in, and that’s what it’s all about. With baptism by immersion, as is described in this text from Matthew, Jesus came up from the water, we literally put our whole selves in. It’s a dramatic event — and for some people an anxious one. It is a re-enactment of dying and being born again, of claiming the promise of new life in Christ. And that’s what it’s all about. The decision to believe in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and the commitment to follow him is a personal decision: no government or pastor or family member can make that decision for you. But a personal decision does not mean a private decision. Baptism in the Church of the Brethren — in part because of its history of civil disobedience — has always belonged to the community, to the family of faith. We celebrate the parents and teachers who have nurtured us in faith, and the mentors and companions who walk the path of discipleship with us, and hold us accountable and love and encourage us. Going all in on discipleship is public witness: it is inspiration to the community, and challenge for us all to remember and recommit to the vows of faith in Christ and commitment to his Church which we made at our own baptism.
Next week will be receiving three new members at Creekside. They are all coming by transfer of letter from other congregations, but they will stand before us to repeat and renew their commitment to Christ. We are going to make a fuss about them, as we should. It is also an opportunity to remember our own identity as God’s beloved children, and the privilege — and sometimes challenge — of being brothers and sisters in Christ.I will offer the service of anointing this morning. As part of that service, I try to remind each person that they are God’s beloved, and God’s children. This is at the heart of blessing one another as we are sent out to follow Jesus and to be his disciples in the world. That blessing is at the heart of who we are; coming forward for anointing doesn’t make that true — it has always been true. Anointing is a chance for me to remind you of your identity as God’s child, and to pray for the confession of sin, strengthening of your faith, and healing of mind, body and spirit. This Sunday, we have a hymn of blessing at the end of the anointing service, so once you are anointed, you may return to your seat, and after our hymn of blessing, I will offer a prayer for all of us.