Ok I want to predicate this sermon by saying that I love the sacraments. Communion and Baptism probably some of the best things about being in the church. They are quite possibly my most enjoyed aspects of being a Christian along with being in mission. I just love the sacraments. They hold this concept of mystery, but carry this idea of God’s grace being bestowed upon us. I just love what they mean and what they do for us and what happens in the moment. So if I seem a little overly excited as I preach this sermon it is because I am. Each sacrament holds this understanding that God’s grace abounds so abundantly in our lives and in the life of the church, and works in ways which we could not even fathom.
You can probably tell from our scriptures but today we are going look at Baptism. However, lets visit this concept of Sacrament, because we need to understand a sacrament to understand what Baptism is. Now we learn from Augustine who was a theologian in the early church that the sacraments are an outward sign of an inward grace.(1) So the sacraments are this outward sign or this outward action of this inward and spiritual grace. There is this Godly grace in these actions. So when we think about Baptism we are talking about this water that is truly God’s grace and God’s grace is washing us clean. We believe that in baptism we are conferred upon the Holy Spirit and the repentance of God.
In order to understand baptism we have to understand grace. Now we have talked about grace before. We know that grace is the unmerited and undeserved love of God. We know that God’s grace is prevenient. In that it precedes even our own understanding of it. It is justifying. In that it convicts us and brings us into right relationship with God. And lastly it sanctifies us in that it continues to work in us by growing and strengthening our faith and moving us toward this concept of Christian Perfection.
Now I was baptized when I was an infant and so I don’t really remember the details of what it felt like to be baptized. However, I can say I have been confirmed my and have remembered what it means to be baptized, and I have watched many many baptisms. I have experienced and seen the changes that occur in baptism. When you are baptized or you witness one you can see and feel and understand the grace in that time. Baptism encapsulates so many components that we read about in our scriptures today. Baptism first of all is this rite of initiation in the church.(2) An initiation not into any one church, but initiation into the church universal. It is the way in which we are justified and we enter into Christ’s holy church(3) as we say at the beginning of our liturgy.
In our United Methodist Book of Discipline we build upon this idea of initiation saying that, “Baptism is not only a sign of profession and mark of difference whereby Christians are distinguished from others that are not baptized; but it is also a sign of regeneration or the new birth.”(4) Baptism is not about what we do. Yes we are initiated in the church, but Baptism is wholly about what God does in the act. Our role in baptism is merely to come forth and to accept the grace, but it is God and God’s grace that is in action. Therefore, this new birth is the action that is taken by God during baptism. God’s grace washes over us and we are made new. It is God’s action in our life that is taking place in this action.
Now there are so many layers to baptism and we begin to peel back some of those layers through our scriptures today. Today we have two scriptures that invite us into what baptism was like for early Christians. We learn different concepts about what the water is to us, and what happens in this sacrament. We know that initiated into Christ’s holy church, but what else happens?
First we have this concept that baptism is a forgiveness and repentance of sins. One of the big things that happens in baptism is our repentance we are washed clean. The pastor asks the person getting baptized, “Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sins?”(5) In this we are asking if the person wants God to work through them. Are you ready to release all of this to God? Are you ready to make this commitment?
We visited this concept back when we looked at John the Baptist during advent. This week we are reintroduced to John the Baptist, and not only do we read about John and his preaching but also about John’s interaction and baptism of Jesus. John is baptizing people to show that they are forgiven and clean. We read that in this text. This baptism that John is offering is serving as a way to show that people want their lives change and they are opening themselves to what God will do through them. They do this to show that they have changed their heart. Now it is important to note that that is all John did, and we read that in Mark. “John the Baptist was in the wilderness calling for people to be baptized to show that they were changing their hearts and lives and wanted God to forgive their sins.”(6)
John’s baptism was not an empty baptism but it served the purpose to change a persons heart and have their sins be forgiven. It was an acknowledgement that their sins were forgiven. This is just part of our contemporary understanding of baptism. This is where the layers begin to take place. On the surface it seems as though this might be all baptism is, but with God working in the midst of this Sacrament there is so much more happening than we could not even fathom. Jesus’ baptism marks his humanity. It is a sign that he is right there with us and is fulfilled in his death and resurrection when he bears the sins of the world. We learn that baptism becomes more than just the forgiveness and reconciliation of sins that was done when John was baptizing people. We learn that through baptism we are not only forgiven of our sins, but God works within us and we are brought into holy communion with him.
When we move to Acts we see the importance of the conferring of the whole baptism. Both that baptism not only means a forgiveness of sins, but is also a baptism in the name of Jesus and a conferring of the Holy Spirit. We are not merely baptized with water, but that we are baptized by the Holy Spirit as well. Paul is talking to these folks and we have this back and forth.
“He [Paul] said to them, ‘Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?’ They replied, ‘No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.’ Then he said, ‘Into what then were you baptized?’ They answered, ‘Into John’s baptism.’ Paul said, ‘John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, in Jesus.’”(7)
Paul is helping these disciples to understand what it means to be baptized in the name of Jesus. Paul is differentiating the baptism received by John. It was this baptism that was repentance and he was telling people of the one who was to come. However, after the conferring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost we see people baptized not only by just repentance anymore, but baptized and made clean in the name of Jesus, and this is the baptism conferred upon us.
So our lives? In order to understand baptism we have to understand grace. Now we have talked about grace before. We know that grace is the unmerited and undeserved love of God. We know that God’s grace is prevenient. In that it precedes even our own understanding of it. It is justifying. In that it convicts us and brings us into right relationship with God. And lastly it sanctifies us in that it continues to work in us by growing and strengthening our faith and moving us toward this concept of Christian Perfection.
Baptism works in all of these ways. We often want to understand baptism in terms of justification. That baptism is the action that brings us into right relationship with God. And it does. When we consider it a right of initiation we place justification at the forefront of our minds in this sacrament. However it also reminds us of that grace that precedes our knowledge and it even works on us and sanctifies us.
I want you to reflect on where you are in your walk with Christ. Think of what it means to be marked by Baptism. When I was serving at the church I was at in Northern Virginia baptisms were big. We had them a few times a year and would have a bunch of people baptized each time. However, it was not the baptisms themselves that stick in my mind but it is something that the pastor, Pastor John, says.
Whenever we would gather to have baptisms Pastor John would alway talk about the importance of never forgetting what your baptism means. He would always say that you should “never dry off.”(8) Not in a physical way because if didn’t dry the actual water off we might catch pneumonia, but in a spiritual way. We should not dry the mark of the Holy Spirit off. Through baptism we receive the mark of the Holy Spirit in our lives, and we should never allow that to be missing from your lives.
This is the way we are to live our lives. We are called to constantly remember the vows of our baptism. We are called to remember what happens in our baptism. The grace that is present in the sacrament. And to forget that is a travesty to the way that God calls us to live.
Today I call on you to remember you Baptism.
1. White, James F. The Sacraments in Protestant Practice and Faith. Nashville: Abingdon, 1999. Print. p. 15
2. Felton, Gayle Carlton (1997). By Water and the Spirit. p.2
3. BOW Baptismal Covenant I p. 33
4. BOD. ¶104 “Articles of Religion” Article XVII
5. BOW Baptismal Covenant I p. 34
6. CEB. Mark 1:4
7. NRSV. Acts 19:2-4
8. Pastor John at Christ Church