Today, this commemoration of the baptism of Jesus is a leap forward in time. It seems like we just celebrated his birth, and now here’s the adult Jesus down at the Jordan River getting baptized. They grow up so fast, don’t they?!
What is it about this event that the Church calendar creators, in their wisdom, have put it right after Christmas and right at the beginning of the Epiphany season? Evidently, they thought that baptism was an important topic for us to think about, especially since a version of the story of the baptism of Jesus is told in three of the four gospels.
Baptism is one of the two sacraments of the Lutheran Church, and Martin Luther famously repeated often the admonition to “Remember your baptism!” But what did he mean by that? What do we mean by it? Baptism is one of the two sacraments of the Lutheran Church, and Martin Luther famously repeated often the admonition to “Remember your baptism!” But what did he mean by that? What do we mean by it?
Sometimes stories are the best way to get at meaning, so I’m going to tell two. The first comes from Pastor Janet Wolf of Hobson United Methodist church in Nashville, TN. She describes her congregation as wildly diverse, including “…people with PhDs and folks who have never gone past the third grade; folks with two houses and folks living on the streets; and, as one person who struggles with mental health declared, ‘those of us who are crazy and those who think they’re not.’”
As Pastor Janet tells it, some years ago, a woman named Fayette found her way to the church. Fayette was homeless and was living with lupus and mental illness. She joined the new member class and was particularly taken with a description of baptism as “this holy moment when we are named by God’s grace with such power it won’t come undone.” In the class, Fayette would interrupt to ask again and again, “And when I’m baptized, I am…?” And the class would respond, “Beloved, precious child of God, and beautiful to behold.” “Oh, yes!” she’d say, and they’d go back to their discussion. The day of Fayette’s baptism came. This is how Pr. Janet describes it: “Fayette went under, came up sputtering, and cried out, ‘And now I am…?’ And we all sang, ‘Beloved, precious child of God, and beautiful to behold.’ ‘Oh, yes!’ she shouted as she danced around the fellowship hall.
Two months later, Pr. Janet got a phone call. Fayette had been beaten and raped and was at the county hospital. When she arrived at the hospital, she says: “I could see her from a distance, pacing back and forth. When I got to the door, I heard, ‘I am beloved.’ She turned, saw me, and said, ‘I am beloved, precious child of God, and….’
Catching sight of herself in the mirror – hair sticking up, blood and tears streaking her face, dress torn, dirty, and rebuttoned askew, she started again, ‘I am beloved, precious child of God, and…’ She looked in the mirror again and declared, ‘…and God is still working on me. If you come back tomorrow, I’ll be so beautiful I’ll take your breath away!’”
That is what baptism is.
The second story comes from Dr. Heather Murray Elkins, Professor of Worship, Preaching, and the Arts at Drew University. This is how she tells it:
It was the last day of a pastor’s retreat. I had given them an assignment. They were to look through scripture over the three days and find the name that belonged to them. Or the story they couldn’t live without. I explained that Abraham Heschel talks about scripture: We do not say the Word, the Word utters us. There are pieces of scripture we belong to.
To prepare for closing day, we made a circle of chairs, with one chair in middle. And we’d hear each other pronounce our names to all there, to identify the way the word had uttered them. It was going very well, with really powerful testimonies coming right out of scripture. Then a young man, young to ministry anyway, sat in the chair and didn’t say anything. We waited and waited. It got really uncomfortable. Finally I said to him,” Is there something you’d like to share with us, some name or some story?” He didn’t look at me or the group, just at his hands.
He said, “I looked for three days, and there were names I wanted. But none were strong enough to replace the name I have, that I’d been given. I was given this name when I was very young, and it was repeated to me as I grew. My father gave me this name.” Then he fell silent again.
After a moment I said, “Would you be willing to share, what is that name, what is your name?
And he said, he said, “My name is ‘not good enough’. That’s my name; my father gave me that name. ” Then he began to cry.
We were in that room, we were watching him, and he was crying and it was like he was drowning right in front of us. We’re a bunch of lifeguards, and we didn’t know what to do. How can he not have a name or how to break the power of that name?
And then it was I think the Spirit did its work, because it was like a wind or maybe just an impulse. A group of us got up, without a word, without making eye contact and went to where he was on the chair, sitting weeping. And we laid hands on him. And then it wasn’t just one voice, it was several voices, like one voice coming up all together, like one flow, one stream. And what we said, to him, sitting weeping in our midst, with our hands on him was this: “You are my beloved child. In you I am well pleased. “
And then we just paused. We just let the blessing rest. And then we all sat down.
When we packed up and finished our business and got ready to go home, I saw him in the parking lot. I went over and said, “I need to know, I really need to know: will that make a difference to you, will what happened make any difference?”
And he said, “You know, I don’t know. But I feel as if something in here was broken. And it isn’t now. But I promise you, every time I put my hand in the water to help name another human being in front of God, I’ll remember who I am.“
She ends her story by saying, “See, I think that’s the secret of our baptism.”
Martin Luther is said to have often exclaimed, “I am baptized” when he felt his energy flagging, his doubt growing, or his fear strengthening. The story is told that when he was hidden away for safekeeping in the Wartburg Castle, he struggled with loneliness and anxiety. It’s said that he would scribble on his desktop ‘I am baptized’ in order to battle back his despair. His story reminds us that baptism is not an empty ritual or a one-time welcoming party. Nor is it a requirement for salvation, a way to determine who’s in and who’s out, who’s saved and who’s not. It is a way of life, a way of being in the world that’s informed by a moment in time when we were sealed with the same Holy Spirit that came to Jesus in his moment in time. To scribble or say “I am baptized,” especially in times of loneliness, anxiety, despair, weariness, fear, illness or fatigue, is our greatest resource when our light is faltering or the fire of our passion for life is in need of rekindling.
OK, you say. But how does that work? You mean if I just scribble “I am baptized” on my desk, all my troubles will go away? No, it’s not a magic potion. The Holy Spirit’s not a genie in a bottle to grant your every wish. Baptism is a lifeline – for a lifetime. Martin Luther said baptism is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that takes our entire lives to fulfill.
The most important thing to remember about baptism is that it’s about identity. That’s what this day is about. Epiphany is the season of revelation. Who was this Jesus who was drawn down to the river for John’s baptism? We get so caught up with the dilemma of why Jesus had to be baptized if he never sinned. We could argue about the validity of that assumption another time. Suffice to say for now, for Jesus, there was more to it than having his sins washed away.
In all three gospel accounts, the voice of God speaks: “You are my beloved.” No mention of forgiveness of sins, just “You are my beloved.” That’s the revelation. That’s the gift Jesus took away from his baptism: his identity. Imagine what an epiphany that was for him – to be so known, so affirmed, so loved. Well, actually it’s the same thing that you were called in your baptism, so imagine that, savor that for a moment. You, yes you, are God’s beloved.
For Jesus, secure in his identity, could then go into the wilderness to discern what his ministry would be and then follow through with it no matter where it took him or how difficult it would become. And it’s the same for us. The revelation is that we are beloved and the way forward is how we live out that identity.
In the wilderness, as he was spiritually tempted and toughened up for the ministry he was about to undertake, Jesus knew his ministry would be all about preaching and teaching what he called the Kingdom of God. Martin Luther King would come to call it “the Beloved Community,” which according to the King Center “is a global vision, in which all people can share in the wealth of the earth. In the Beloved Community, poverty, hunger and homelessness will not be tolerated because international standards of human decency will not allow it.
“Racism and all forms of discrimination, bigotry and prejudice will be replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood. International disputes will be resolved by peaceful conflict-resolution and reconciliation of adversaries, instead of military power. Love and trust will triumph over fear and hatred. Peace with justice will prevail over war and military conflict.”
Pie-in-the-sky fantasy? Dr. King didn’t think so. He believed the Beloved Community is “a realistic, achievable goal that can be attained by a critical mass of people committed to and trained in the philosophy and methods of nonviolence.” Jesus didn’t think so either. When he read from the prophet Isaiah in the synagogue, he debuted his mission: “to bring good news to those who are poor, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim release to those held captive, and liberation to those in prison.” Obviously, there is still a lot of work to be done in service to the Beloved Community. If the events of recent weeks have told us anything it’s sin and brokenness are alive and well in the world.
But just as Jesus knew himself as Beloved of God and was able to face the hatred and violence he later encountered, and as Martin Luther King, as a follower of Jesus, also knew himself deeply as Beloved of God and was able to carry on the work of non-violent resistance in the name of the Beloved Community, it is our foundational identities as Beloved people of God that, as the old Powdermilk Biscuits jingle from “Prairie Home Companion” used to say, “gives you the strength to get up and do what needs to be done.”
To remember that you are baptized is to know – even if you don’t remember it or didn’t hear the voice of God say it – it is to deeply know that you are beloved. Can we even begin to appreciate the wonder of that? To be beloved – all the time, not just when you’re being loveable, but in your very worst moments. To be beloved – when you’re all alone with your thoughts and feelings, some of which you can barely admit to yourself, let alone to anyone else. To be beloved – when you can’t forgive or love yourself. To be beloved – when you’re tired, when you’re afraid, when you’re lonely.
Remembering your baptism is allowing yourself to hear the words “I love you” and to allow them to sink down deep into your souls and permeate your every cell. But I suspect, most of us don’t take the time –at least not very often – to do that. Even as I was writing these words, I stopped and realized that it’s too easy to say this and know it on a rational level. But that’s not enough. It’s got to get down into the heart and soul if we are to be true followers of Jesus. So I stopped writing and I took a few minutes to meditate on those words. I already had my Epiphany candles lit, so the mood lighting was just right. The best way to describe those minutes is that it was like being in a Divine embrace. Yes, thoughts intruded. But coming back to the words, “I love you” or “You are beloved” was easy enough, especially concentrating on the light from the candles. The words that came to me were “Sleep in heavenly peace.” Or as St. Paul called it, “the peace that passes all understanding.”
This is baptism, our lifeline. And yes, we will get called back into the world of personal problems, national dysfunction and international violence. In Mark’s gospel, Jesus immediately goes into the wilderness to be tempted, in other words to face the realities of the world. And so do we. But we go as precious children of God. No more special or precious than anyone else. Baptism doesn’t make us some kind of elite God squad. But remembering our baptism is our way of holding onto the lifeline, intentionally allowing the Spirit of Divine creativity and possibility to work in and through us – even when we’re weary, discouraged or afraid.
Affirming our baptism together solidifies our citizenship in the Beloved Community – along with Martin (both of them), Fayette, the young pastor at the retreat, and all the beloved children of God, born of water and kissed by the Spirit of God. May we remember that we have been named by God’s grace with such power that it won’t come undone. May we live in such a way that others will know themselves as beloved of God – especially those who have been given cause to think they are less than loved, less than children of the One who created them.
May the revelation of Jesus as Beloved light our way through this Epiphany season, so that we can clearly see who we are, and reflect to others their true identity: beloved, precious child of God, and beautiful to behold. Amen
John the Baptizer appeared in the desert, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to John and were baptized by him in the Jordan River as they confessed their sins. John was clothed in camel’s hair and wore a leather belt around his waist; he ate nothing but grasshoppers and wild honey. He proclaimed, “One more powerful than I will come after me. I am not fit to stoop down and untie his sandal straps. I have baptized you in water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
It was then that Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized in the Jordan River by John. And immediately upon coming out of the water, Jesus saw heaven opening and the Spirit descending upon him like a dove. And a voice came from the heavens: “You are my beloved, my Own. On you my favor rests.”