In nomine Jesu!
We are now firmly ensconced in my favorite Gospel (Use the force, Luke!); and we'll remain firmly ensconced in Luke's Gospel until November 22! (Alleluia!) Except for next Sunday when we'll jump back into John's Gospel, but then Pastor Stahler will be preaching and that's his favorite Gospel and so everything will be OK. Luke is my favorite Gospel, it's the one I think most directly addresses the "waste of our wraths and sorrows" in these days, and so it won't surprise you that Luke's account of Jesus' baptism is my favorite too.
Don't get me wrong: I like each of three baptismal accounts. Each serves a purpose. Mark begins his story with it and uses this event to identify who Jesus is. Matthew has all that interesting back and forth between John and Jesus about who should baptize whom: his claim is that baptism is necessary "to fulfill all righteousness" and the dialogue leads to that.
But Luke makes one important point: His is the only account in which the Spirit is described as descending "on [Jesus] in bodily form as a dove." As we just heard: "The heaven was
opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven..." for all to see, for all to hear.
It's a communal event. Everyone can see it and everyone can hear the voice from heaven.
For Luke this is the moment of public recognition. This is the moment in which Jesus becomes who he already is, the moment in which he publicly assumes his identity; the beginning of his new life as the Son of God. From now on, whatever Jesus says and whatever Jesus does acquires new meaning. From this moment, as far as the public is concerned, Jesus' acts and Jesus' words are the works and words of the "beloved Son of God." It's a commissioning â€” an ordination to service; an empowering to carry out God's mission with the people, among the people and for the people.
So it is for us: Baptism is, among other things, a sign of public recognition, when all see us publicly assume our identity as children of God; the moment in which as children of God we are commissioned and empowered for service. Baptism is the sign for all to see that God loves us and chooses us as members of the family that
is Christ's Church and pours upon us all God's gifts of grace. Once we go public as children of God, our words and actions acquire new meaning. We are "sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever;" and, if we so choose, with Baptism we begin a journey toward our true selves; we acquire a new identity, we begin becoming who we really are. Quite a responsibility, isn't it?
But, you see, we don't have to do anything if we don't want to. Baptism is a gift. No strings attached. We don't need to do anything to deserve it. As theologian Paul Tillich put it: "You are accepted, what you have to do is accept the fact that you are accepted."*
Baptism is the public sign of that God accepts us, unconditionally; our life after baptism is the sign of our acceptance of God. Or not. That's why we talk â€” incessantly here â€” about "living out" our baptism. That's why we live in a community of faith: because we need a community to help us live out our baptism, to help us learn and grow in faith and in faithful living.
Baptism is not a private affair. Just like our whole journey in Christ is not a lonely one.
We are empowered and sustained by prayer; we are supported and lifted up by people around us. We live out our baptism through service and solidarity.
Every time a community participates in a baptismal rite all are reminded of our inclusion in the Kingdom of God. More than just reminded, we are asked again and again to respond to it in faith and solidarity to one another.
But wait, there's more. In his Small Catechism, Martin Luther tells us that "clearly the water doesn't do this alone, but the word of God which is with, in, and among the water and faith which trusts this word of God in the water."
When we gather to hear the Word, when we trust this word by faith, when we offer ourselves in thanksgiving and praise, we continue the process of becoming instruments of forgiveness, redemption and transformation for all those who pass by and see us from outside, for all those we touch in our daily lives within and without these walls. In a way we become baptism. We gather here and then we go out there with a message of love and grace and inclusion for all which is very much at odds with the message of this world.
St. Augustine once noted that when we eat any other food that food becomes, upon consumption what we are, but when we eat the bread and drink the cup of the Eucharist, we become what we eat. That, he wrote, is the real miracle of the mass.
In a similar way, I think, because we were drowned in the waters of baptism once and because we continue to be splashed, even to splash ourselves, with baptismal water, we become the waters of baptism; we become the means by which God touches the world with all-inclusive love. We become Christ-like; we bring the design of God's great love closer to all around us; we become in the sight of the public what God says that we are in God's sight: Beloved children of God. And that is who we are.
Amandus J. Derr
Saint Peter's Church
In the City of New York
*Tillich, P The Shaking of the Foundation. Scribner's, New York, 1942, p162