First Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C
I often, and especially on Sundays like this coming one, find myself musing about the practice of Baptizing infants and small children. I'm supportive of families who do choose to Baptize their children; I believe that God often works through the intentions of families and congregations expressed in their preparation for and participation in Baptizing a child. I also think it's remarkable and quite sad that the decision to Baptize a child is so often made at least initially with more thoughts about pretty gowns and celebration with relatives than about the sign of the Cross that will be made on the child's forehead as the child is told, "you are sealed and marked as Christ's own forever."
Baptism is serious stuff.
Take Jesus' baptism, for example. We read about it during worship this week in a manner that mostly isolates that event from the context in which it takes place in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Mark's wording is particularly striking, as "immediately" after Jesus is baptized by John, Mark says, "the Spirit drove [Jesus] out into the wilderness." The verb Mark uses is ekballo -- the same word used of what happens to demons in exorcism.
Matthew and Luke tone that verb down, but still make clear that Jesus' baptism gives him not only a vision of God declaring him to be a beloved son, but also a vocation -- one that places him in conflict with spiritual adversaries, the powers that seek to enslave us, dividing us from one another and from God, and with very human adversaries, rulers and others who benefit from that oppressive order and fragmentation. And if the gospels present Jesus as in some ways being like the Baptizer but greater, John's execution at Herod's orders indicate the kind of dangers Jesus faces as he steps forward into public ministry empowered by his baptism.
It's not just about Jesus' baptism either. The book of Acts links Baptism in the Holy Spirit with great spiritual power, and also makes clear that the Spirit's power comes with conflicts with worldly authorities and worldly values. And yet we choose to Baptize our children, marking them with the otherness that marked Jesus, placing them on the path of the Cross. Indeed, we do it joyfully -- all the more joyfully, I'd argue, when we do it with eyes wide open to the challenges ahead of those who, like the Baptized child, have been set on the way of the Cross. Why?
I believe that joy in a Baptism chosen with eyes and heart wide open comes from being in touch with the audacious vision of God's dream for humanity, in which we participate as Baptized members of the Body of Christ. When we are immersed in and excited about what God is doing in the world, the challenges that arise from those who prefer the world order in which the poor, the sick, and those marked as 'other' stay on the margins can be seen for what they are -- the last gasps of an oppressive order that is passing away.
That's one reason I love the ways in which people of faith have embraced the vision of the Millennium Development Goals. It's a vision that's audacious and ambitious, yet meant to be realized in our hearing, in this generation -- and one I'll definitely be touching on in great depth, as Luke 4 is coming up soon in the lectionary. I hope it will suffice for now to note that when we talk about what it is we take on as our vocation when we are sealed with the weighty sign of Baptism into Christ, it includes taking on participation in Jesus' mission, that when we acknowledge Jesus as Lord (which is the most central confession of Baptism), we are investing our very lives -- body, psyche, and spirit, as well as any resources and gifts we have or will gain to offer -- in the mission of ordering the world God made such that it looks like what we say is true: that Jesus is Lord.
In other words, in Baptism we pledge our whole selves to ordering not only our lives, but to the best of our ability, the world in which we live in harmony with the reign or kingdom of God -- that is, what the world looks like when Jesus' lordship is fully consummated. And what does that look like? This Sunday prompts us to look at Jesus' baptism as a frame through which we might see what that moment might look like through the lens of Christian Baptism.
Jesus' baptism provided him with clarity about his purpose and his message. In Luke's terms, that message is about the realization of Isaiah's prophetic vision -- not in some distant future, not as something to be wished for idly or prayed for in pious passivity, but as present reality. The Good News of the present vindication of the poor, of release to prisoners, sight to the blind, freedom for the oppressed, and the jubilee year of God's favor is more and more for here and now as "this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing" (Luke 4:21). As the apostles live into the ministry of their Baptism, Luke characterizes their ministry similarly. Their testimony to Jesus is validated by their making real among one another what Jesus proclaimed:
With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all, for there was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. (Acts 4:33-35)
I ache to know what the world would look like if all of Christ's apostles today saw this as the economy -- which, not incidentally, is our adoption of the Greek work oikonomia, or household management -- of the household of God's people. And "apostles" is NOT (especially not in Luke's writings) a word designating twelve guys who lived in Palestine over two thousand years ago; "apostle" means "one sent," and every person Baptized into Christ is sent forth in Christ's name. If you're waiting for the church's permission to function as an apostle and the Baptismal Covenant doesn't seem to be enough, just wait until the end of the service, and a deacon (or someone functioning as one) will commission you as an apostle:
Go in peace, to love and serve the Lord.
That's said, and you're sent. You and I, the Baptized, are sent forth, designated as apostles of Jesus Christ, sent to proclaim the new life of Christ Jesus not just with empty words, but with power -- with deeds that change lives, with the offering of all that we have and all that we are. That's appropriate enough for the Baptized. When we were Baptized, what part of us was left untouched? None. When we seek to follow Jesus, what part of us is reserved for someone else's cause? None. And when we are following Jesus with all we are, what part of us -- indeed, what part of our world -- will be left untouched and not transformed fully by grace? None.
That, I believe with all my heart, is why it's worth everything that we pledge when we are Baptized, when we Baptize our children, when we reaffirm our Baptismal vows. It's worth it all because it is more than the "all" we humanly thought possible; it is embracing the telos or "end" for which the Word was breathed and all things made in the beginning. It is the imagining that will stretch our imaginations for as long as eternal life lives.
I admit that hear often from a few people that most members of their congregations have no interest in stretching their imaginations in this way, that most are perfectly satisfied with their lives and the world exactly as they are. I have to say that this does not at all match my pastoral experience in the wealthiest, most privileged, most "secure," and most "successful" of congregations any more than it matches my experience in ministry with the homeless. There are a great many people in our culture who are by most measures wealthy, but who are tremendously economically insecure -- in a house that cost far more than they could comfortably afford, but that seemed necessary to buy given how good the schools in that neighborhood were in contrast to the terrible state of public schools in poorer neighborhoods not so far away. They are one paycheck away from disaster, and they know it; if one person in the family gets sick, if there's some unforeseen disaster in a single industry, if the wrong person gets elected or promoted or one rotten stroke of luck, it feels like everything will be ruined. The adults and children feel it almost equally, even if neither ever names or talks about it. And then there are the other kinds of disasters that our culture threatens us with seemingly at every turn. Perhaps it's more a function of child and adolescent literacy than of anything else, but I'm not convinced that's it -- I have never seen more cultural artefacts of anxiety from the young of any culture I've studied than I have when listening to the voices of young people in affluent communities today.
On some level, I think that we all know that the world as our worldly powers have ordered it is not working, is not giving the human family abundant life as we were created and still ache for.
And I believe this is part of the Good News of our Baptism. If some part of you believes that the world as it is on the front page of the newspaper is not the world as it was meant to be, you're not crazy and you're not just a starry-eyed idealist; you are feeling God's call in Baptism. If some part of you wants something more than the chance to achieve enough to feel pressured to achieve more or to defend what you thought you won, you're not just greedy or lazy or odd; you're feeling God's call in Baptism. And if you feel at times that the world and the life you're aching for is more than you could bring into being by your own achievement, even if you wanted it only for yourself and those you care about (and who can restrict caring to just a few?), you haven't run into the thing that makes the dream impossible; you just might be hearing the call of Baptism.
Baptism, after all, is not just about you. Not by a long shot. Luke, after telling us about Jesus' baptism, immediately gives us that most genre of lectionary readings most dreaded by lectors: the geneology. He tells us how Jesus is connected, via saints and sinners (and aren't they all some of both?), via the famous and obscure, to all humanity. And like Mark and Matthew, Luke tells us of the vision Jesus had in Baptism that empowered him to face what he faced in the desert and in the crowds, whether enthusiastic or angry: he heard God's call to intimacy as God's beloved child. There were many things about Jesus that were unique, but Jesus' intimate relationship with God as we hear in this story of his baptism was not one of them; it's something that God has offered to all of God's beloved children from the beginning. It's the call and the promise that Isaiah sang of along with those audacious visions of what the world could be, that in the midst of the world as it is, we could hear God say:
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.
For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.
I pray that this Sunday and every day, all those gathered to hear God's word can hear that word, can receive the truth of God's presence to empower us as ones sent to live into the truth of God's reign.
Thanks be to God!