The chaos of baptism

The astute student of the Lectionary will note that the opening verse of Genesis 1 are appointed to go alongside Mark’s version of the Baptism of our Lord.  Being less astute this week than maybe some others, when I read the lessons yesterday morning, I scratched my head, thinking how odd a choice that was.  For the life of me, I couldn’t make sense of what the beginning of creation had to do with baptism.  Thankfully, I do not sermonate in a bubble, and as I read my go-to resources this morning, it all began to fall into place.  So, in case you are suffering from the dullness of a week away from the office, a late kick for the Sugar Bowl, and household pets going bonkers over the Super Moon, I offer you, dear reader, the connection I have made.

In her Lectionary column for the Christian Century, Kat Banakis, an Episcopal priest in Evanston, IL, turned my attention to a further ramification of the heavens being torn apart than I had seen yesterday.  “But by splitting the heavens,” she writes, “God is going back earlier, to the beginning when the earth was separated into day and night, form and void, heaven punching out into the firmament above and sea below, back to that originality – and laying claim to Jesus within that.  In the rite of baptism, the same elemental water touches us and initiates us into the tribe of people who believe in Jesus’ Messiahship.”  In the margins, I wrote “water as chaos.”

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All of a sudden it hit me.  Not a new insight, mind you, but an insight in a newly profound way, that our baptism, in the model of Jesus’ baptism, tie us all the way to that moment when God made chaos to be order.  In the Hebrew, the word translated in Genesis 1.2 as “the deep” is tehowm, and it means deeper than deep.  It is the abyss, the chaos in which fear and darkness and death exist.  Nothing can exist in the deep.  It is formless and void.  Into that overwhelming nothingness, God speaks creation into being.  From the depths of chaos, God brings order.

If that isn’t a metaphor for our lives in Christ, I don’t know what it.  In our baptisms, we are pulled out of the overwhelming nothingness of the world and brought into the order of the Kingdom of God.  Yes, we still live our lives on this plane, where the is still sadness, darkness, and death, but in baptism, we are also welcomed into holiness, where God’s will bring all things into joy, light, and life.  In the water of baptism, we enter into that place where the heavens have been rent asunder. We are welcomed out of the chaos, having been brought into the light.

Come Holy Spirit

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St. Paul’s Indianapolis worships under an installation of hundreds of paper doves. (via hoosierbishopxi.org)

One of my favorite details in the story of Jesus’ baptism is the decent of the Holy Spirit.  All four gospels tell us that the Spirit came down in the form of a dove, though who could actually see it is open to a wide variety of interpretation.  This Sunday, we’ll hear Luke’s account of Jesus’ baptism, which is scantly detailed, but is certain to mention that the Spirit descended “in bodily form like a dove.”

Truth be told, I’ve never seen the Holy Spirit come down from heaven.  I’ve seen a few doves in my day, but never one that seemed to hover over someone, offering them the gift of tongues or miraculous healing or compelling them to spend 40 days fasting in the wilderness.  Of course, just because I’ve never seen the Holy Spirit visibly descending, doesn’t mean that I haven’t experienced the manifestations of such an event.  In fact, one of the coolest parts of my job is honing my ability to see the Holy Spirit at work in someone’s life, often when they can’t see it themselves, but let’s be honest, the ability to see the Holy Spirit at work isn’t strictly the purview of the ordained.

One of the great gifts of the Cursillo Movement in The Episcopal Church is the way in which it teaches Pilgrims to learn to watch for the Holy Spirit.  By recapturing the ancient prayer invoking the Holy Spirit, tens of thousands of Christians have begun the process of having their eyes open to the Spirit at work in the world around them.  This ability to see beyond the normal scope of time and space is a gift of faith, and one that grows stronger each time a manifestation of the Spirit is seen and acknowledged.  May God open your eyes to the gift of the Holy Spirit, this day and for evermore.

Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in us the fire of your love.

V. Send forth your Spirit and we shall be created
R. And you shall renew the face of the earth.

O God, who by the light of the Holy Spirit did instruct the hearts of the faithful, grant that by the same Holy Spirit we may be truly wise and ever enjoy his consolations. Through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen

The trouble with Jesus’ baptism

The Baptism of Christ #2 by Daniel Bonnell

I have a love/hate relationship with the Feast of the Baptism of our Lord.  I love it because I love that Jesus, though he knew no sin, insisted on being baptized anyway.  I love that it was for him, like for all of us, a moment of communion with God and the reception of the Holy Spirit.  I hate that it is so unlike a baptism that anyone other than Jesus could ever have.  I hate that we have to preach it every year, on top of hearing the story of John the Baptist three, or even four, times in a year.

My real trouble with Jesus baptism is how unlike ours it is, but the reality is that this has less to do with Jesus and a whole lot to do with us and our ancestors in the Church.  It is the direct result of more than a thousand years of bad theology that has created a cultural norm of infant baptism.  Infant baptism is good, both of my girls were baptized at a young age.  It can even be pedagogical, as my friend and colleague Evan Garner noted yesterday, but the fact of the matter is that it should not be the norm.  The norm, as it was in the early Church and as it is now at least given lip-service to be in The Episcopal Church’s 1979 Prayer Book, is for older children or adults who are ready, willing, and able to take the vows of baptism for themselves.  The need to “get the baby done” as Louis Weil so eloquently puts it, in order to save them from the stain of original sin lest they die and end up in limbo, purgatory, or worse yet, hell, has robbed most Christians of the opportunity to be an actual part of their own baptisms, other than looking cute and cooing at the appropriate points, of course.

Very few Christians have had the opportunity to come up from the water, literally in the case of immersion (again the historic norm) or figuratively in the case of ye olde sprinkling (the prevailing cultural model in Episcopal Churches) to see the heavens torn open and the Spirit descending like a dove.  We’ve had the chance to remember God calling us “beloved” stolen from us by Augustine’s inability to keep it in his pants, and that’s a real shame.  As I’ve said before, I don’t believe baptism to be a salvific event, but I do think that an ontological change can occur in baptism through the gift of the Holy Spirit, if we’d only give neophytes the opportunity by getting over our own anxiety and bad theology and return to the norms of the Christian Church from the very beginning.

The whole sale revision of our baptismal theology that came with the 1979 Book of Common Prayer is older than I am (by at least a few months), but I don’t see even the beginning states of a real trend away from infant baptism now 35 years later.  I hope it’ll change in my lifetime.  I hope others will have the chance to experience baptism like Jesus did. I hope that in due time, the Church can get over the trouble with Jesus’ baptism.

Thin Places

Modern day mystics, as well as plenty who wish they were, are fond of using the term “Thin Places” to speak about places on earth where it feels like the boundary between earth and heaven has faded away.  The term is often used to describe retreat experiences like those available on the Island of Iona, at Taize, or even at our own Beckwith Camp and Retreat Center.  I’m not a fan of the term, per se, but I understand its meaning.  There have been several places in my life where I’ve been aware of the boundary between heaven and earth has faded away: in the 1881 Immanuel Chapel at VTS, at my ordination at Saint Thomas’ Church in Lancaster, and standing behind the altar at Saint Paul’s in Foley; to name but a few examples.  The truth of the matter is that one need not travel to a far away place to experience a thin place, but rather, one simply needs to be open and receptive to the Spirit of God at work in the world.

This term, “Thin Places” came to mind this morning for a very different reason, however.  It came as I read the Propers for the Feast of the Baptism of our Lord in Year B.  Talk about a thin place, there seems to be little, if any, real meat in these lessons.  They beg for the preacher to thrown caution to the wind and dive headlong into a dense theological treatise on the Trinity (Gen 1:1-5), Baptism by the Spirit (Acts 19:1-7), or the role of John the Baptist (Mark 1:4-11).  I beg you, dear reader, please don’t try to make a Thin Place thick this week.  Instead, maybe you could engage the thin place, be open and receptive to the Spirit of God at work in you, and preach about that.

Sometimes the process of writing the sermon is the sermon itself.  Sometimes the prayerful study, the wrestling with the words, the agonized listening for God is the word our people need to hear the most.  The Collect for the First Sunday after the Epiphany has us asking for God’s help to “boldly confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.”  Maybe more than any theological ruminations on the nature of baptism, our people need to hear what that looks like in real life: how confessing Jesus as Lord and Savior is about more than paying him lip service, but about every thing we do; how when we live our lives for Christ, everywhere we go becomes a Thin Place, an opportunity to bring heaven to earth; and most especially, about how unbelievably hard it is to live that way, unless we’re tapped into the Spirit and open to God’s grace and favor.

It is a tough preaching week, and thankfully I won’t have to do it, but I am praying for you, dear reader.  May your find your sermon prep to be a Thin Place, where the boundary between heaven and earth simply slips away.

What Does Baptism Mean for Us – a sermon

You can listen to my sermon at the Saint Paul’s website, or just read on.

Two weeks ago, I was scheduled to preach on what I think is the hardest lesson in the Church year: The Prologue to John’s Gospel.  When The Episcopal Church decided to let go of its three-hundred-fifty year-old Book of Common Prayer Lectionary and join with Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Methodists, and others in the Revised Common Lectionary, General Convention decided that in The Episcopal Church, Christmas 1 should still include John 1:1-14, no matter what anybody else said.  That means that every preaching resource based on the RCL is focused on a passage that isn’t what Episcopal Priests get to preach on.  It really is a crummy situation, and thankfully, I got sick on Sunday morning so you didn’t have to put up with the C-minus sermon that you would have heard preached.

Not so luckily, the next day on the preaching schedule for me was today, The Feast of the Baptism of our Lord, another one of those Feast Days that came into being in the middle of the 20th century.  All four gospels include a story featuring Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist in the River Jordan, it really was an important inaugural moment in his life and ministry, but for two-thousand-ish years, the Church has struggled with how to handle this event.  Up until about 1955, the lesson was lumped in with the Magi and the miracle of water and wine at the Wedding in Cana of Galilee in a three-for-one special on Epiphany.  Nobody has ever really wanted to have to deal with the Baptism of Jesus because it raises all sorts of doctrinal issues.  The big concern is what baptism means for the perfect nature of Jesus.  If Jesus is the sinless Son of God, then why did he have to be baptized for the forgiveness of sins?  In Matthew’s account, which we hear in Year A, the question is more about who is in control.  If John the Baptist’s job was to point people to the Messiah, a person so great that not even John was worthy to tie the thong of his sandals, then why does Jesus come to him to be baptized?  Couldn’t Jesus just baptize himself?  Shouldn’t Jesus be the one baptizing John?  Matthew is so uncomfortable with the whole situation that he adds in a little back and forth exchange between Jesus and John.

As any good, unassuming Messiah would do, Jesus stands in line with everybody else, waiting his turn to get dunked by John.  When it finally is his turn, John looks up from the River, sees his cousin at the front of the line and “quietly pulls Jesus aside. ‘What gives?’ [he says,] ‘What are you doing in this line? Now’s your moment, Jesus! You take [the reigns]. You do the sermon. You do the baptismal dunking, and then I’ll get in line [and get] baptized by you.’ But Jesus responds, ‘Shhhh. Don’t make a big fuss [about this]. Let’s just do [it this way] for the sake of righteousness. I know this feels like the wrong thing to do, but it’s right. It’s righteous.’  Confused but obedient, John goes through with it, baptizing the one man he knows for sure has no sins of which to repent. John gives a bath to the only truly clean person who ever lived.”[1]  Of course, we all know what happens next: the sky is torn in two and the Spirit descends like a dove and a voice speaks from the heavens saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased,” and then, almost instantaneously Jesus is thrust out into the wilderness for forty days of fasting and temptation.

It is no wonder that the Church doesn’t really know what to do with Jesus’ baptism.  The sinless one is washed clean by his very uncomfortable cousin and then declared God’s beloved Son in an amazing theophanic event.  Think back to your baptism, if you can even remember it, do you remember doves and voices?  I didn’t think so.  It is impossible to match our baptismal stories with Jesus’s baptism: his is just too spectacular, but at the same time, if the Feast of the Baptism of our Lord, doesn’t lead us to ponder what Christian baptism means, then we have probably missed the point of it all.  This Feast, once lumped in with Epiphany, now a part of the larger Season of Epiphany, invites us to ponder what our baptisms mean for us.  “Holy Baptism,” The Book of Common Prayer tells us, “is full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ’s Body the Church.”[2]  It is, for all intents and purposes, the beginning of our Christian journey, whether you were baptized in extremis at three hours old, in a pretty white heirloom gown at six months, or waited until you could make the decision on your own at eight, eighteen, or fifty-eight.  For the thirty year-old Jesus, his baptism marks the beginning of his three years of active ministry, it is, in effect, a commissioning for the difficult work he is about to begin.

Though the odds are pretty good that we won’t find ourselves hanging on a tree for our faith, it is our baptism and especially the gift of the Spirit that comes along with it, that readies us for a lifetime of following Jesus.  This morning’s Collect encourages us to reflect on our own baptisms as it names a deep truth: the life of faith isn’t for the faint of heart.  After a brief reminder of the story of Jesus baptism, we pray that God might “grant that all who are baptized into [Jesus’] Name may keep the covenant they have made, and boldly confess him as Lord and Savior…”  Not unlike a graduation ceremony, baptism is a beginning rather than an end.  In baptism, whether as infants, older children, or adults, we are incorporated as members of the community of faith and welcomed into the household of God.  While some would argue that baptism permanently punches our ticket to heaven, making it a convenient end to the whole “being saved” process, I’d like to suggest that baptism is our Genesis moment: the journey begins at the font.  Baptism is where the hard work of living in the Kingdom starts, which is why we went through the extra effort to move the font from tucked neatly out of the way over there to right at the front door.  You can’t come to worship here without being reminded that as the baptized children of God, you’ve got work to do.

The Collect this morning asks for God’s grace to help us, the baptized, to keep the covenant and confess Jesus as Lord.  That covenant, subscribed to at every baptism after 1979 and reaffirmed over and over again, requires us to do things like: put our faith in God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; take part in the community of faith; work toward sanctification, and when we falter, to seek true repentance; proclaim by word and example, the good news of Jesus; love our neighbor; and respect the dignity of everyone.

Even the easiest parts of this list are impossible to do alone.  And so, in baptism, not only does our work begin, but so too does our relationship with God who will assist us by grace, and through the Holy Spirit, will guide us in the life of faith.  Nobody promised it would be easy, if it is, you’re probably doing it wrong, but the true end of the life of faith is the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven, and that’s worth every bit of struggle along the way.  Grant us, O Lord, the grace that we who have been baptized into the Name of Jesus Christ, may keep the covenant we have made, and boldly confess him as Lord and Savior from this day forth and for ever more.  Amen.

It’s Hard Work

I love the Collects of the Church Year.  Sure, some are better than others, and some seem to match the readings for one lectionary year and not the others, but generally speaking, I think the Collects, many of which have been handed down from Cranmer’s first Prayer Book, are edifying for the life of Church.  In the same way, I’m not sure that the Daily Office gets much use outside of seminary and monastic communities, I’m kind of doubtful that many of the faithful pray the Collects themselves, but I do think that there is great power in praying and reflecting upon them daily.

Take, for example, the Collect for The Baptism of our Lord, as it names a deep reality for the life of faith.  “Grant that all who are baptized into [Jesus’] Name may keep the covenant they have made, and boldly confess him as Lord and Savior…”  Not unlike a graduation ceremony, baptism is a beginning rather than an end.  In baptism, whether as infants, older children, or adult, we are incorporated as members of the community of faith and welcomed into the household of God.  Some, myself not included, would argue that baptism permanently punches our ticket to heaven, which makes it a convenient end to the whole “being saved” process.  In reality, baptism isn’t the telos of faith, but rather the genesis.  Baptism is where the hard work of living in the Kingdom begins.

Hence, the prayer for Sunday asks for God’s grace to help we, the baptized, to keep the covenant and confess Jesus as Lord.  The covenant, at least for Episcopalians, includes things like: putting our faith in God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; taking part in the community of faith; working toward sanctification, and when we falter, seeking true repentance; proclaiming by word and example, the good news of Jesus [see the confess piece above]; loving our neighbor; and respecting the dignity of everyone.

Even the easiest parts of this list are impossible to do alone.  And so, in baptism, not only does our work begin, but so too does our relationship with God who will assist us, and by the Holy Spirit, will guide us in the life of faith.  Nobody promised it would be easy, if it is, you’re probably doing it wrong, but the true end (telos) of the life of faith is glory everlasting, and that’s worth every bit of struggle along the way.

So What?

One of the questions that David Lose raised in the link I posted yesterday has been haunting me for 24 hours now.  It is a question that haunts most preachers these days, one that will hopefully be raised again and again at this weekend’s Emergence Christianity Conference in Memphis, and it is the title of this post.

So What?

For all the crummy things the RCL editors have been accused of doing to the lessons for this week by me and many others, they have worked hard, I believe to force the preacher into asking and answering this very pointed question.

So What that Jesus was baptized?  What difference does it make?

In my tradition, The Episcopal Church, the RCL gets some help from both the order in which lessons are read and from the Collect that starts the whole things off.  First, we hear these words prayed on behalf of the whole congregation:

Father in heaven, who at the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan proclaimed him your beloved Son and anointed him with the Holy Spirit: Grant that all who are baptized into his Name may keep the covenant they have made, and boldly confess him as Lord and Savior; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

Then, we hear from the prophet Isaiah:

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.

Followed by the Psalmist:

The voice of the LORD is a powerful voice; * the voice of the LORD is a voice of splendor.

And the cautionary tale from Acts 8:

The two went down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit (for as yet the Spirit had not come upon any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus).

Finally, then, we hear the story of Jesus’ baptism from Luke:

Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

In his Baptism, Jesus hears the voice of the LORD, the powerful voice full of splendor.  In his Baptism, Jesus receives the Holy Spirit who descends upon him like a dove.  In his Baptism, Jesus is called by the name “Beloved Son.”  In his Baptism, Jesus is given the power and authority that will carry him through the temptation in the wilderness, through his near death experience in Nazareth, through his three years as an itinerant Rabbi and miracle worker, and most importantly, through his arrest, trial, crucifixion, death, and resurrection.  In his Baptism, Jesus is given everything he needs to carry out the work he is called to do.

In our Baptism, we too are given everything we will need to do the work God has given us to do.  Even those of us baptized as infants, having been welcomed into the household of God, are blessed to be “beloved children” and “heirs of Christ.”  By the power of the Spirit (who, BTW, does the baptizing in Luke’s version of this story) each of us is given the gift and responsibility of being named by the powerful voice of God.  This is the “so what?” of Baptism.  We are proclaimed as beloved children, and expected to live as such.  What a blessing.  What a challenge.