Down to the river to pray: celebrating the Baptism of Jesus

baptism1Last Sunday we sang “Away in a manger” and “Angels we have heard on high” as we remembered Jesus as a baby in Bethlehem. Today we have fast forwarded to Jesus as an adult and we celebrate his baptism and the beginning of his ministry.  We have begun the season of Epiphany, a time in our church calendar which proclaims the manifestation of Jesus to the world.  It is particularly fitting that we begin this season with baptism, a sacrament and experience that most of us share in common with our Lord.

So, what image comes to mind when you think about baptism?

Perhaps you think about how we often see baptism portrayed in the movies.  Do you remember that scene from “O Brother, Where Are Thou?”?  Three escaped convicts are traveling through the woods when they come upon a large group of people in white robes, going “down to the river to pray”.  After an initial hesitation, Delmar bounds into the water, breaks in line and is immersed in the river by the preacher.

Pete says: “Well I’ll be. Delmar’s been saved.”

Delmar comes back beaming: “Well that’s it, boys. I’ve been redeemed. The preacher’s done warshed away all my sins and transgressions. It’s the straight and narrow from here on out, and heaven everlasting’s my reward.  The preacher says all my sins is warshed away, including that Piggly Wiggly I knocked over in Yazoo.”

Everett (played by George Clooney) says: “I thought you said you was innocent of those charges?”

Delmar responds: “Well I was lyin’. And the preacher says that that sin’s been warshed away too. Neither God nor man’s got nothin’ on me now. C’mon in boys, the water is fine.”

Most of us have not experienced such a dramatic baptism.  In fact, the truth is that many of us don’t remember our baptism because we received the sacrament as small children or as infants.  We may remember more about our own children’s baptism, but if you are like me, as a young parent at the time of your child’s baptism you were probably thinking less about theology and more about whether your baby was going to scream or sleep through the ceremony.  (We have two children and experienced both options.)

So what exactly is baptism and what meaning does it carry for us?  Our catechism tells us that baptism is one of our major sacraments and that a sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace, given by Christ as sure and certain means by which we receive that grace.

The outward and visible sign for Baptism is water.  In the Episcopal church, you will usually see the water of the baptismal font as you enter the sanctuary, as a symbol and reminder that the rite of baptism was our initiation into the Christian community.

So what does the water of baptism “do” for us?  Like Delmar, we come to baptism to repent our sins and renounce our sinful desires, turning to Jesus Christ and accepting him as Savior.  However, we also acknowledge our humanity, promising to repent and return to the Lord, when (not if) we again fall into sin.  After all, if baptism was only about repentance, we would probably need to get baptized again every time we came to church!

But wait, there’s more!

If you look at Holy Baptism in the Book of Common Prayer (p. 304), you will read the Baptismal Covenant.  That word “covenant” is important but it refers to a mutual agreement between two parties.  In baptism, we promise to persevere in resisting evil and to repent when we fall into sin, BUT we also are taking vows to:

  • Continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and in the prayers
  • Proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ
  • Seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves
  • Strive for justice and peace among all people

We make these promises for our own lives or, if on behalf of our children, to see that they are raised according to these promises.

So what is God’s part in this covenant agreement?

In Mark’s Gospel, when Jesus is baptized by John, as he is coming up out of the water, he sees the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove upon him.  In another Gospel account, God says: “This is my Son, the Beloved” but in Mark, a voice from heaven says “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Affirmation, acceptance, and blessing.

And so it is for us.  When we are baptized, “we are lovingly adopted by God into God’s family, which we call the Church, and given God’s own life to share and reminded that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ.”  In baptism, we find affirmation and acceptance into God’s family.

In our worldly culture which teaches us to value cheap and easy affirmation (How many friends do I have on Facebook?  How many “likes” did I get on my last status update?), “baptism reminds us that wherever we may go and whatever we may do or have done to us, yet God continues to love us, accept us, and hold onto us.”

January 11, 2015

St Catherine’s Episcopal Church

Temple Terrace, FL

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