How many of you woke up this morning and the first thing you said to yourself was, “I am so glad that I am baptized?” You don’t have to all raise your hands at once! The reality is that most of us don’t live our lives with a conscious awareness of the fact that we are baptized. It’s not something that we keep in the forefront of our minds. In fact, when we think about our daily lives, there are so many other things that seek to define us: our jobs, our families, our friends, the clothes that we wear, how much money we have or don’t have, the material possessions we have accumulated, and the list goes on.
The fact of the matter is we spend most of our time and energy focused on these various facets of our lives and, as a result, we come to believe that those are the things that ultimately shape our character and define who we are. And yet, as Christians, as followers of Jesus, the defining characteristic of our lives, the reality that lies at the heart of all we are and all we do, is the fact that we are baptized – that our lives have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever.
Now this morning, in our gospel reading, we hear about the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist in the Jordan River. Some theologians have asked the question, “If baptism cleanses us from sin, if baptism is about forgiveness, why did Jesus need to be baptized, since he was without sin?” Several answers have been offered in response to this question, but many commentators argue that Jesus, through his baptism, Jesus gives us the paradigm through which we can understand our own experience of baptism. In other words, Jesus gives us, his followers, a model or a pattern for what baptism represents in our own spiritual journeys.
And so, this morning, as we enter into this new year and with the baptism of Jesus as our paradigm, I would like us to review what I call “the baptism basics.”
First of all, baptism defines WHO WE ARE. Baptism gives us our fundamental identity as children of God.Now, when Jesus came to the River Jordan to be baptized, he was already fully divine. He was already the Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father. And yet, it is at the moment of his baptism that God the Father chooses to make the pronouncement: “You are my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” It is at his baptism that the heavens are torn open and we hear the voice of God revealing the identity of his beloved Son. And it is this identity as God’s beloved Son that sustains Jesus throughout his earthly ministry.
Now, I have celebrated many baptisms over the years and as of yet, I have not experienced the heavens opening up and an audible voice speaking to the congregation. But, nevertheless, through our baptism, we are given a new identity. We are called the beloved of God. We are called children of God. And nothing can ever take that identity away from us! And (this is important) no other identity can ever overshadow our identity as beloved children of God.
Some of you know that when I was seminary, I had a wonderful New Testament professor, who also served as my academic advisor. And when you walked into his office, there was a wall full of framed diplomas. Several academic degrees, academic awards, and honorary degrees, but right in the middle of this wall of intellectual achievement hung his framed baptismal certificate. And that baptismal certificate served as a reminder to every student that walked in his office, that no matter where we might go in ministry, no matter what we might achieve, our fundamental identity is the one given to us at baptism – you are a beloved son or daughter of God. Baptism defines WHO WE ARE.
Secondly, Baptism defines HOW WE LIVE. When Jesus came up out of the water, the Holy Spirit came upon Him in power. This was a new experience. John the Baptist baptized with water, but he spoke about the one who would baptize with Holy Spirit. So, when Jesus is baptized and the Holy Spirit comes upon him, something new is happening. But remember, this is paradigm for how we live out our baptism in our lives. And so, just as Jesus is empowered by the Holy Spirit, the power and anointing of God’s Spirit dwells within us.
The problem is that many of us don’t live in the power of the Spirit. Many of us are often like the group that Paul encounters in today’s reading from the book of Acts. Paul travels to Ephesus and he encounters a group of disciples – they were disciples, which implies that they were, in some fashion or another, following Jesus! But Paul says, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” And they said, “No, we have not ever heard that there is a Holy Spirit!” (So, we can infer right away they must have been Episcopalians!) The fact of the matter is that through our baptism, we not only receive a new identity as children of God, we also receive the power and anointing of God’s Spirit.
So, Baptism defines WHO WE ARE. It defines HOW WE LIVE. Finally, Baptism defines WHAT WE DO. Baptism gives us our mission. Baptism is not simply a past event, but a present reality. We often fall into the pattern of speaking about baptism in the past tense – “I was baptized in 1979.” Well, you know, I was married over 22 years ago. But if I only understand marriage as a past event, I am in trouble (in more ways than one!). The reality is “I AM MARRIED.” (and I had better not forget it). In the same way, we need to think of baptism as a present reality in our lives. Wouldn’t it be amazing is we woke up each morning and said “I AM BAPTIZED! And Because I am baptized, my life should be different. I have been given a new identity in Christ, and that new identity is not something in the past; it is alive and active in my life today! Today I AM THE BELOVED of GOD. Today I am called by God. Today, by virtue of my baptism, I am part of God’s mission in the world Baptism is not simply a past event, but a present reality in our lives.
And so, my friends, I don’t expect us to wake up every morning reflecting on the moral, ethical, spiritual, and theological implications of the sacramental reality of baptism. But I do hope that we will grow in our understanding of how the grace we receive through the waters of baptism continues to shape and transform our lives. That grace defines who we are as beloved children of God. That grace equips us with the power and anointing of God’s Spirit. And that same grace calls us to go forth to share the love and healing presence of Jesus.