I was baptized when I was 4 or 5 and dressed in a scratchy dress and tight shoes. I stood at the front of an Episcopal congregation along with my younger brother and sister. The priest went to baptize us and screwed up my name….he transposed my middle name with my sister’s. This might have been a quickly forgotten incident had I not, some time later, decided to share this funny story with a friend at a sleepover. When I finished talking she looked at my with concern and said “You know what that means don’t you?” “No” I replied, “What?”. “It means you are not going to be able to get into heaven, because God is not going to know your name.”
I was also ‘baptized’ in seminary. I use air quotes around the word baptism because this was not my baptism, that happened when I was little. But water and oil were poured on me one June day in the courtyard of our CDSP in Berkeley. It was part of what is affectionately known as the ‘magic hands’ class in seminary, where we learn the sacramental acts we called to perform as ordained people. My friend, David, was assigned the rite of baptism and he asked me if I would be willing to be baptized by him. I immediately said yes, he is one of my dearest friends.
One of the gifts of this class was the freedom our instructor gave to just try things out…to go for it, as it were. So my friend David decided to baptize me with, um, generous abandon. As I knelt down in front of him he took huge bowlfuls of water and dumped them over my head three times, so much water I was gasping for breath a little and completely soaked through. Then took a bottle of olive oil and began pouring it over my head. I smelled like a caesar salad and it took about 3 days of washing my hair with dish soap to get all the oil out.
Baptism is one of what are called the two ‘great sacraments’ in the church, the other being the Eucharist. These are considered the primary sacraments because they were modeled by Christ in the scriptures and given to the Church. When we are participating in baptism and communion we are participating in the very acts which Jesus himself initiated over 2,000 years ago.
Which all sounds pretty straightforward, Jesus did it and now we do too, but the history of the sacrament of baptism is a complicated one indeed. Ritual immersion was a part of the Judaism that Jesus was raised in, as an act of purification that could be participated whenever necessary. John the Baptizer (and the Jewish sect called the Essenes, of which he may have been a part) took this practice but shifted it and made it less about a ritual purification and about metanoia, repentance.
Amongst early followers of Christ, in the first couple of centuries after the death and resurrection of Jesus, baptism continued to be a sacrament marking the entrance of one into the faith. But the theology of baptism remained fraught. In the 4th century deathbed baptism was a fairly common practice as people were afraid that they might sin again after the washing away of their sins they received in baptism. In fact, Constantine himself was baptized this way. And as families began to have their children baptized, the theology of original sin, that all humans are born sinners, was clearly articulated by Augustine as a rationale for the practice of infant baptizing.
During the Reformation even more visions and theologies of baptism began to flourish. Many reacted against the practice of infant baptism by arguiung that there is little scriptural warrant for the practice and instead a believer’s baptism, requiring someone to be of an age where they can articulate their beliefs and understand the sacrament they are participating in, became the norm in some denominations.
Baptism is a big thing. And all the controversy, all the passion around how and why and when one should be baptized is all because it is important …it is transformative…it is a holy and sacred act.
And this is clear in today’s Gospel. There is a lot going on in these few short verses from Matthew that tell us what is happening is very important. This is the first time we hear Jesus speak in the Gospel of Matthew. This is Jesus’ first act before beginning his ministry. This scene of Jesus being baptized is one of only two in the Gospel of Matthew in which the heavens open and God’s voice is heard (the other being the Transfiguration which occurs right before he turns toward Jerusalem and certain death). And this incarnated, physical manifestation of the Holy Spirit, described as being ‘like a dove’ is unique and appears in all four of the Gospels only during Jesus’ baptism.
Something big is going on here, bigger than the forgiveness of sins because what would Jesus need forgiving of anyway? And also, given that all these things are happening in this scene (the dove, the voice, the heavens opening up), it seems to me that the text is trying to tell us that something more is happening than just forgiveness.
When we consider this scene of Jesus’ baptism, perhaps we might look at it as offering us a vision of a new way of looking at baptism beyond a simple washing away of sin; in the story of me being baptized with the wrong name, what my childhood friend articulated is a theological view of baptism that is pretty common I think: that baptism is a gateway to salvation, that through baptism we become beloved of God.
But today’s Gospel story points to something else I think. I think it suggests that rather than being primarily about forgiveness, baptism is primarily about relationship. It is about our relationship with God and our relationship with the Church and our relationship with each other. This scene in Matthew seems organized around the concept of relationship; this is the ONLY time in the Gospels that all three members of the Trinity are present together. God is naming and claiming Jesus in baptism through the Holy Spirit and God is naming and claiming us baptism too.
And God’s claim on us flows from an abundant, powerful and overflowing love that surrounds us and cascades over us in the way the way the water hit my head and made me catch my breath that afternoon in seminary when David poured bowlfuls of water over my head in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. I know this was not a ‘proper’ baptism, David was not ordained and I had already been baptized, but the way that water shook me and the feel of the oil cascading down my face were absolutely a sign of God’s abundant love. As one commentator suggested, God does not forgive us to make us beloved, we are already beloved so God forgives us. In baptism God claims us as God’s own.
In a few minutes we will renew our baptismal vows. For those of us who have been baptized, it is a chance to once again remember what it means to be claimed God’s Beloved in the waters of Baptism. For those who have not been baptized, it is a window into what this baptism thing is all about.
And one of the things I appreciate about our Baptismal vows is that they are framed as a covenant. And that language is intentional. A covenant is about relationship. In our baptism God welcomes us as God’s beloved child and we respond by sharing meals and prayers, by resisting evil, by proclaiming the Good News we have found in Christ, by loving our neighbors as ourselves, and by recognizing the dignity of every human being and working for justice and peace in a world that desperately needs it.
God spoke to Jesus that day when he was baptized in the River Jordan and named Jesus Beloved in front of all who were gathered there.
Just as God spoke to Jesus through the sacrament of baptism, so God speaks to us through the sacraments we share here in this place.
God speaks to us through wine.
God speaks to us through bread.
God speaks to us through oil.
God speaks to us through water.
God speaks to us and says “You are my child, my Beloved, in whom I am well pleased.”