Picture above is entitled "Baptism of the Lord Tapestry"
"Beloved Be Loved"
Rev. Paul Mitchell
Vashon United Methodist Church
Vashon United Methodist Church
January 13, 2019
Isaiah 43:1-7; Luke 3:15-22
It’s my habit when I address the congregation as a whole, such as when I’m nearing the conclusion of a sermon or in the salutation of the weekly email, to say “Beloved.” Here’s why.
Things get out of control whenever the Holy Spirit shows up. From the very beginning, when the Spirit troubled the face of the waters, the Spirit has been impossible to tie down, to control, to predict. And we don’t like that. I for one don’t like that. I’m not exactly a control freak, but I want to know what to expect. I don’t mind surprises, but I don’t want them to mess up my day. But sometimes I’m just praying for the Spirit to shake things up. Baptism should have at least a little taste of that. That’s one cool thing about infant baptism – you never know what’s going to happen, how it’s going to go, who is going to end up holding the baby, who is going to get wet, who is going to find themselves watered with tears.
Baptism is a sacrament – which is church-speak for “the outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual reality.”
The reality of baptism should be – no is a wild thing. The sacrament is usually not. The sacrament we practice has all kinds of meanings and rules. Meanings and rules often lead to problems – though they are meant to do the opposite. The official meanings of the sacrament we practice are incorporation into the body of Christ, forgiveness of sin, and the beginning of new life. Often it means many other things. It’s hard to tell a new parent that it does not make any sense to baptize their child if they are not an intentional part of a body of Christian practitioners, if they do not acknowledge the utter dependency we have on God, and if they do not intend to acknowledge that the lives we live would be more like what God desires for us if we were to start anew.
Baptism is often misunderstood as a kind of insurance policy against an eternal punishment, rather than a radical affirmation of our identity as beloved of God, rather than a sigh of relief that God’s love for us is unconditional, rather than an acknowledgement that the threshold of the true life of Christ is a form of death and resurrection. Baptism is a practice that people created to remember and reenact the reality that baptism actually is. It’s like communion, our other sacrament, in which we reenact the unity of Christ, celebrate forgiveness flowing like wine, share bread like the very abundance of God’s nurture and blessing, invoke the presence of the saints, and anticipate the realization of God’s promises in our very midst. All of those meanings do not wait around for us to get out the bread and juice, or bring out the font. They are the inward and spiritual reality, the real presence of the unruly Spirit. One of the reasons we acknowledge one baptism is that our competency, our actions, our virtuosity, though important, do not determine the efficacy of the Spirit
In the early years of the church, even before our practices were made legal by the empire, there was controversy over this. What does it mean if I have been baptized and then go off the wagon? Does that make baptism null and void? Or what happens if it turns out that the priest who baptized me recants his profession of faith under threat of martyrdom? Does that mean that my baptism is revoked? Fortunately, the church discerned that the reality of the sacrament takes place even if the instruments of the sacrament are corrupt. Some people don’t like baptism because it is a dividing line – some are inside the fence and others are not, some are part of the body and some are not, some are said to be forgiven and some are not, some are living the new life and some are not. As for me, I don’t think there is any way to tell for sure, and thus I suspect that the Holy Spirit is at work in a unique way with every single soul, working within the contingencies of embodied existence, to bring each into that unique fulfillment of human and divine that says, “You are mine! With you I am well pleased.” “Beloved – be loved!” I don’t think there is anyone who does not want to hear that!
The sacramental part is a convenience that allows me to say, “Hey, you’re baptized. That means you have said YES to integration as a functioning part of the Body of Christ, you have had the ultimate background check that says this soul is qualified for good, you have entered into the short list of those are ready to die and live again with Christ.”
Stretch your memory a bit and reach back a few weeks with me to the earlier part of Luke 3 that was our text on Advent 3. In the Advent context, we looked to John as the harbinger of the coming Messiah, and the exemplar of the prophet who was giving voice to the cries of the people. “How long O Lord must we wait under this oppressive life? What are we to do? How long can this go on?” We remember that John had very practical direction from God in regard to this situation: live ethical lives.
John answers those questions by calling his audience to simple ethical living so that they will be ready when the time comes to respond to the unexpected new thing breaking through the veil of our day to day routine. He invites them to be worthy of their baptismal roots, bearing the tree of their lives. It’s not enough to claim our heritage as good people. It is not enough to presume that as children of the church, as good citizens, or as persons of status, that we are secure before God. We should not confuse sitting on the limb of the tree with either being the tree or with bearing good fruit. The tree might not be as strong as we think. John says the unproductive tree is about to be cut down at its very roots. That’s radical.
The problem the Baptist saw was that the people lived in a passive relationship to God and grace. Grace was something that was perhaps secured on their behalf by the actions of others. John says, in effect, “No, it’s on you. Turn your life around, and the grace already present will flow.” So now, the people are excited. John seems to be saying, God will empower you for what needs to be done, and that’s got them excited, stirred up, troubled – like the waters of creation … or like the cruel despot in fear for his crown. “Could this be the one?” they thought. “Is John the messiah?” At least as it’s reported in the gospels, John was quick to dispel the rumor, but you know how rumors are. We are quick to assume we are hearing what we expect to hear, even if it isn’t what we think we want to hear. Nonetheless, the Baptist is calling everyone to repentance, and the reports are that he was quite effective. The people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, and John answered all of them.
Picture one great big mass riverfront party – all kinds of people from all walks of life. People who were skeptical showed up just to see what the commotion was, and they got drawn in. It’s a wonder nobody got drowned. Maybe it was like the people of New Delhi massing on the banks of the Ganges. Maybe children got separated from their families. Maybe there were some who drowned. I imagine it bright and loud and clamorous and wet. I imagine not only children were lost, but bearings were lost, and tempers were lost, and inhibitions were lost, and suddenly it was not about me or you or anyone in particular, but it was about everyone all together, and suddenly the Baptist’s message of ethical living for the mutual common good was the only thing that made sense out of life. And like a Billy Graham revival when he was at the height of his charisma, even the most skeptical could lose oneself in the fervor – could feel that the stuff of her life was on the threshing floor, with the wasteful bits – the chaff – being separated by the wind of the Spirit and then burned away by the fire of the Spirit – leaving only the good stuff – the ripe grain, a little toasted, but ready to nourish and nurture the world as it was meant to be.
And one of those present was Jesus – Luke says he was just one of them. The waters did not part to make way for him. Luke doesn’t say that John demurred at all – just that Jesus was baptized too, like the rest. Well, what sense does that make?
Jesus, who Luke has just gone through two whole chapters of creative storytelling to emphasize his astounding birth accompanied by angel choirs and worshipping beasts and shepherds – now Jesus is to go through the same “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins?” What sense does that make? It makes no sense at all if the point of baptism is merely personal, merely spiritual, merely ritual. It only makes sense if baptism is about the common good, the embodied experience, the actual stuff of the actual lives that we actually live – the gritty, joyous, excruciating, wonderment of life.
Let’s look a little more closely. John is doing his thing, baptizing, evangelizing, exhorting, getting everybody cleaned up and ready. Jesus happens along rather quietly. Everybody is baptized in an undifferentiated river of humanity – not in some orderly progression with the pastor at the font calling them up one at a time. And it’s voluntary. Nobody is called out, “You over there, Silas, come here.” Or “Miriam, what’s that mark on your brow, wash it off.” The religious authorities certainly aren’t leading the people out by hand and saying, take this class and when you pass it, I might let you get dunked. Folks are there because they want to be, and they are ready for something big to happen in their lives. So as if to warn the reader, Luke takes a little three verse detour from the mass baptism, in these verses that for some reason the lectionary authorities suggest we should omit – for the moment.
“But Herod the ruler, who had been rebuked by him because of Herodias, his brother's wife, and because of all the evil things that Herod had done, added to them all by shutting up John in prison.”
Just when everyone is about to drink the Kool-Aid, Luke warns the reader, here’s what will happen if this baptism thing takes hold of your life. You will become helplessly ethical. You will do the right thing no matter its cost to you. You will speak truth to power, and you may even, probably will, almost certainly will, end up with your head on a platter – and that’s the good news! There’s a reason we don’t call it nice news or easy news. Dangerous stuff happens when the Holy Spirit gets loose in your life.
Then Luke cuts back to the current action. “Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the sky was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from the sky, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” A more wooden and literal translation of the first part of that would be, “it happened in all the people being baptized and Jesus being baptized and praying the sky opened.”
A real thing happened. God’s affirmation to Jesus comes in that moment when Jesus has identified himself with the people – seeking redemption, seeking to turn things around, seeking to make sense of the collective misery and the collective responsibility for life gone awry, for life not according to plan, for life out of balance, for life held captive by sin and death.
It’s like this. God sees this amazing thing. This Jesus has done what God sent him to do, he has become the people.
Jesus has become the people.
God sees, and sighs, and says,
“Oh…. My child! It’s you! Beloved – be loved!”