Monday, January 13, 2014

What do you say to the newly baptized?

Epiphany 1, Year A, 2014, All Saints’
                What do you say to someone after they have been baptized?  What is the proper greeting to the newly christened?  We know what the prayer book says, “Let us welcome the newly baptized.  We receive you into the household of God. Confess the faith of Christ crucified, proclaim his resurrection, and share with us in his eternal priesthood.”  But suppose you don’t want to get all liturgical about it, suppose you don’t want to sound like a theologian, what then?
Do you say, “Congratulations”, do you say, “Good Job” or maybe you just say, “That is a beautiful baptismal gown”? 
                It feels kind of awkward to say, “Congratulations!”  You say congratulations after someone wins an award or gets married.  Saying congratulations suggests that you have accomplished something.  It’s not that baptism isn’t a really big deal, but baptism isn’t about what you have accomplished.  Baptism is about what God is accomplishing in you through Jesus.
                Saying, “good job” is a little better.  After all, most parents are worried their child is going to break a liturgical vessel or cry hysterically.  And some parents are worried they themselves will cry hysterically.  Thankfully, our daughter Mary Katherine just smiled and giggled throughout her baptism.  So saying, “good job” will certainly help reassure the family that everything went well.
                Or you can make the mommas and grandmammas happy by simply saying, “That is a beautiful baptismal gown!”  It is hard to know what to say isn’t it? 
                Before we know what to say to each other, before we can really find meaning in our baptism, we need to know what Jesus’ baptism is all about.  We do know what God says to Jesus after his baptism.  “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” 
                To begin to understand Jesus’ baptism we must ask, “Why does Jesus need to be baptized anyway?”  It is pretty clear that we need to be baptized so that we can leave the old life of sin and enter the new life of grace.  But Jesus was made perfect from the flesh of the Virgin Mary his mother.  There is no such thing as an old life of sin for Jesus. 
John the Baptist, a prophet, is even confused by Jesus’ need for baptism.  John says, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”  Jesus replied to John, "Let it be so now;      for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness."
I heard someone say, “Jesus wasn’t baptized so that he would become holy.  Jesus was baptized so that he would make the water holy.”  Jesus was baptized so that he would make the water holy.  How wonderful is that?  Before Jesus’ baptism, baptism was only about the repentance of sins.  But now baptism means much, much more. 
Think about what water touches.  Water touches everything!  Through his baptism, Jesus is touching all of creation and making it holy.  Baptism is the real, tangible, physical way that God is making our world new through Jesus.  And it is by no coincidence that water is used.  I want to remember for a minute how water is used in God’s salvation history. 
Over water the Holy Spirit moved in the beginning of creation.  The parting of the Red Sea led the Hebrew people out of bondage in Egypt.  The waters were parted again when Joshua led the people into the promise land.  And in the book of Revelation we get a beautiful image of a river flowing out of the restored garden city into the rest of creation.  This river symbolizes how the New Jerusalem will irrigate and bring healing to all the nations.
And in the story of Jesus’ baptism, God is again using water as means by which to bring about his plan for salvation.  This is what God does.  God takes the ordinary, everyday stuff from our creation, like water, and uses it for His divine purposes.  This bottom line is…Jesus is baptized so that when we are baptized we too can be a part of God’s plan to cleanse and heal the world. 
Baptism is much more than our ticket to heaven.  Baptism marks our entrance into God’s new world; our baptisms become the door by which we enter the household of God.  Somehow we literally, physically, and mysteriously become citizens of the kingdom of God that Jesus is establishing right now, today.  Baptism is our ticket to help God make the reality of heaven come alive on earth.
Over the last several months we have been blessed to have a couple of adults baptized.  After every baptism at All Saints’, it is tradition for one of the priests to escort the newly baptized down the center aisle while the choir and congregation sing, “Jesus Loves Me.”  While all of this seems very appropriate for an infant, I had my doubts a grown man being serenaded by Jesus Loves Me.  Boy was I wrong.  It was a vivid reminder that we are never too old to be called children of God. 
One of the coolest things I witnessed in 2013 was watching an adult walk down this aisle while all of you pushed your way to the center so that you could welcome the newly baptized with a handshake or a hug.  It was almost as if someone famous came to visit the church.  It was as if Jesus himself moved his way through the congregation.  After all, our baptismal promises call us to treat everyone as if they are Jesus.  One of the questions we always ask says, “Do you promise to seek and serve Christ in all persons loving your neighbor as yourself?”
Ultimately, our baptisms are meant to teach us how to love others in the way Jesus first loved us.  Loving others can be the hardest we will ever have to do especially in the imperfect world we live in.  The world we live in too often moves us to a place where we are held captive by fear and guilt and shame.  It’s hard to love from a place of fear and guilt and shame isn’t it?  The good news is that Jesus came to help us love from a better place. 
Many have said that baptism foreshadows what Christ does on the cross.  To put it plainly, Christ on the cross is how God is releasing us from fear, guilt and shame.  Christ crucified is cleansing us and the world from sin.  So in baptism, we are released from the bondage of sin and death. We don’t have to have to be held captive by fear and guilt anymore.   In other words, fear of sin and death no longer has the power to tell us how to live.  Instead, we are freed to love out of a place of gratitude and thanksgiving because of what Jesus did for us when he willingly gave himself up for death. 
As many of you know, God did not make it easy for me to learn how to sing.  Not that I have it all figured out now, but I have had to work really hard to get to a point where I sound halfway decent.  For most of my life, people poked fun at my singing voice.  Honestly, it was hard to argue with them!  I often contemplated trying out for American Idol so that would make the blooper real.    
After deciding to become a priest, I realized that I would need to know how to carry a tune especially since many churches require their priests to chant.  So I took an entire year of music and chanting in seminary.  Through that experience I learned my singing voice wasn’t so bad after all.  The reason I was so bad at singing was because I was afraid. 
When I stopped being afraid was exactly the moment when the teacher interrupted my practice session in class and said, “Jack, that was beautiful…you may continue.”  After that day, I was able to have fun with singing.  I did not become a perfect singer because I took these classes.  Instead, taking these classes freed me from feeling like I needed to be perfect and taught me to simply enjoy singing.  I promise this story connects to the gift of baptism…Like this singing class, baptism frees us from the stronghold that fear can have on our lives.
Because of our redemption through Christ, we can stop focusing on what we are afraid of, sin and death, and instead focus on the things that really matter.  We can focus on living, on loving others as Christ loved us.  We can surprise someone with the gift of God’s love in Christ.  We can learn what it means to respect the dignity of every human being.  We can focus on worshiping God in the beauty of holiness.  We can turn our attention away from being so consumed with ourselves and focus on living a life devoted to serving Jesus in all people.  Loving others as if they are Jesus is how God is healing us and making us whole.  This is how God is healing the world and making the world whole.    
                What do we say to the newly baptized?  Perhaps we should take a tip from our Heavenly Father when he says, “you are my beloved.”  To the parents and godparents of Doss, who will join us in the household of God in just a few minutes: in the many different ways that you know how, tell Doss that he is one of God’s beloved—all the time.  Love him like he is Jesus so that he will learn to love others like they are Jesus.  Love everyone in this way and watch how Jesus is making this world new through the waters of baptism.  Amen.