The River Jordan some 2000 years ago, must have been a site. Imagine John with his camel hair outfit shouting, “repent!” Imagine John’s surprise when Jesus appeared seeking to be baptized. John knew that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah, the Promised One, and he felt unworthy to baptize the Son of God. Jesus knew that it was necessary that he follow the way of sinners. Jesus said, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Jesus’ baptism was for him, not about his sinfulness, for we know he was without sin. It was about solidarity with humanity. Jesus allowed himself to be baptized, so that the right relationship between humanity and God incarnate might be vividly revealed through Jesus’ example.
Our Lord gave us an example of the depth of God’s love for humanity through this act of commonality with humanity. It was Christ’s act of righteousness that opened the way, by which we might identify with Christ. His baptism was a sign of Jesus’ solidarity with sinners and thus, by our baptism, we participate in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus baptism led him along the way of the suffering servant and through this journey, he suffered, died and was raised. Through baptism we accept solidarity in Christ’s death, our sins are buried and our old self is crucified with Christ. Through baptism sin’s power is destroyed and we are freed! We are raised to new life here and now in the resurrection of Christ, and we live in confidence that we will participate in the ultimate resurrection, as one with him in a resurrection like his. We are baptized into the community of God, which identifies with Christ and lives in solidarity with Christ.
Our theology of baptism has evolved over the centuries, and has within the past several decades, come full circle. Baptismal theology was a bit different during the middle ages when mortality rates of infants increased. During that period of history, baptism became more and more about fire insurance. In other words, as more and more children were dying prematurely, fear led parents to baptize their children as soon as possible in order to keep the infant from so-called eternal damnation. Many of us grew up during a time in the church where that ancient understanding of baptism seemed to linger on.
“All in the Family” was one of the greatest TV series of the seventies. There was one episode where the star of the show, Archie Bunker, against the wishes of his daughter and son-in-law, took his grandson Little Joey to the local Lutheran Church to get him baptized. At the Church, Archie met with the pastor and asked him to baptize Joey that day. The pastor asked, “Are the parents here?” Archie explained that the parents couldn’t make it, so if possible, let’s get it done today. Archie reminded the pastor, let’s get it done because “A soul has to be saved.” The pastor recognized that the parent’s didn’t consent and so he refused. Not ready to acknowledge defeat, Archie snuck into the church’s nave near the baptismal font and confessed to God, “Lord I don’t want my little grandson Joey to be born without religion in this rotten world of yours.” Sounds like medieval baptismal theology eh? Archie baptized Little Joey nonetheless but was Joey fully welcomed into the community? The Body of Christ didn’t participate in welcoming the child into the community, they did not take vows on his behalf, they were not even present. At Little Joey’s baptism, there was no baptismal covenant in which the entire community joined in the event. Archie missed the point of what baptism is all about.
Our Baptismal Covenant articulates our responsibilities to the members of the Body of Christ and our responsibilities to all human beings, and they articulate our responsibilities to participate corporately in prayer, word and sacrament. Through the covenant, we promise to continue in the common fellowship of the community by participating in the life of word and sacrament and prayer. This promise requires that we understand that joining this community, requires a life of communal worship and prayer. Through the covenant, we promise to resist evil by which we acknowledge our sinful nature and our need for repentance and reconciliation. Through the covenant, we both corporately and as individuals promise to be witnesses to the Good News of God in Christ, through our lives. We promise to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, “loving your neighbor as ourselves,” “striving for justice and peace among all people,” and respecting the dignity of every human being.” Through the covenant, we acknowledge our responsibility to both those within the Body of Christ in terms of serving Christ in all persons, and to a broader sense as a community and as individuals who strive for justice and peace for all people. The Baptismal Covenant affirms our identity with Christ and our entry into the Body of Christ, the Church.
By Baptism we enter the community. Baptism is the door and as a symbol, the baptismal font in most mainline churches, especially Roman Catholic and Episcopal, are positioned at the door of the church. You may notice that the position of the font here at St. David’s this morning is placed in that traditional place. This is nothing new in this tradition. As a matter of fact, it hearkens back several centuries. In the late 2nd/3rd centuries, the theologian Hippolytus recorded the practices of baptism by which the candidates for baptism literally went through the baptismal font prior to entering the church. Candidates emerged from the water, were anointed, dressed, and then they entered the congregation where the bishop greeted them, layed hands on them, anointed them with oil, took their place among the congregation, and then received Holy Communion for the first time. The theology was that baptism was initiation into the community. Today, our prayer book affirms this historical theology that baptism is full initiation into the Body of Christ, the Church.
The baptismal font symbolizes for us our own baptism. For some Christians, the action of their fingers in the water of the font and crossing themselves upon entering the church for worship, is a reminder of the very waters of baptism into which they passed. Water in baptism reminds us that “over the water the Holy Spirit moved in the beginning of creation.” We are also reminded that through the waters of the Red Sea the whole people of Israel were set free from bondage, and through the waters of Baptism, the Body of Christ is set free our bondage of sin. It is through baptism that we follow the example of Christ and by it, we participate in the Paschal Mystery of his death and resurrection: “In it we are buried with Christ in his death,” and “by it we share in his resurrection.” Through the waters of baptism, the community of the saints is baptized together with Christ and we share through Him the hope of His resurrection. In the baptismal rite, we proclaim that each new candidate is accepted as members of the Body. The rite affirms that “we bring into his fellowship those who come to him in faith, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Through the waters of baptism, we identify with Our Lord Jesus Christ, we are initiated into mystery of the Body of Christ, the church, and through these waters, we take our share of the ministry of Christ in the world, by bringing all to the knowledge and love of Christ.