Sunday, January 8, 2017

Phil Kniss: Baptism as God’s yes and our yes

Epiphany 1: Baptism of the Lord
Matthew 3:13-17

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Every year, the first Sunday following Epiphany Day, January 6
is “Baptism of the Lord” Sunday in the Christian calendar.

There are a lot of Christian feast days in the calendar
we Mennos never observe—
like the Nativity of John the Baptist
Saint Joseph’s Day, Candlemas, Feast of Holy Innocents.
There are others we always observe, at least here at Park View—
Christmas, Easter, Pentecost, All Saints Day, and more.
Then we have the hit-and-miss Feast Days—
Christ the King Sunday, Ascension Day, the Baptism of the Lord.
Depending what else is going on at the time,
we might, or might not, mark the day.
We celebrate Baptism of the Lord Sunday,
probably half the time.

Which . . . I’ve decided . . . is not enough.

I usually have two thoughts when I think about
setting aside a whole Sunday to focus on Jesus’ baptism.
The first, and usually fleeting, thought,
is why bother with this one brief moment in the Jesus story?

No miracle performed.
No sick person healed.
No profound lesson taught.
No doctrine established.
Just a vague description of a mystical experience—
a voice from heaven
(and maybe a vision, depending on which Gospel you read),
dove descending, sound of thunder, or a deep voice saying,
“This is my Son, the Beloved.”

Establishing this as a Christian Feast
sounds a little like the church fathers seizing on an opportunity
to reinforce the doctrine of the Trinity—
Jesus is proclaimed God’s Son,
the Spirit-Dove descends,
and the Father speaks from heaven.
All three, right there!

But those dismissive thoughts don’t stay with me long,
because I remember what follows this in the Jesus story,
and how crucial this moment really is,
and how relevant it is for our ordinary day-to-day lives
as followers of Jesus in the 21st century.

Yes . . . that’s what I said.
This mystical and slightly “woo-woo” biblical scene,
I am saying is practical, contemporary,
and relevant to Mennonites who generally focus
on more down-to-earth matters
of being Jesus’ disciples.

And, I would add, even more so at the beginning of 2017,
this is relevant to our lives,
when our way of being in the world is challenged on many fronts.

When our wider church is facing fractious conflict,
when our culture is more polarized than ever,
when our national politics is in disarray,
when broad swathes of our culture
operate on high anxiety, and fear, almost constantly,
when violence is around every corner,
when the health of our planet is in serious jeopardy,
now is the time, and urgent is the need,
to get clear about who we are as the people of God.

No better place to look for help in that,
than Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan River.

Why would I make such an odd claim?
Because of what I believe about baptism.

This ancient practice is, to my thinking,
the most important one in the life of the church,
and it’s the one we get most confused about.

There have been all kinds of debates about baptism over the years.
More than debates. Wars. Violence.
We Anabaptists know this.
My 11th-great grandfather, Hans Landis,
was beheaded in Zurich Switzerland,
over what he believed about baptism.

Churches have split over when to baptize,
what words to speak when baptizing,
how much water is needed, and on and on.

Most of those fights and splits and executions are old history.
That’s not the kind of confusion about baptism that worries me.
The most common problem today
is that we gut baptism of its real, and thick meaning,
and make it into something thin, and sentimental.

We had some beautiful baptisms here at Park View this past September.
Beautiful, on many levels!
It was a cool, clear Sunday on the North River in Bridgewater.
The four young women being baptized were full of joy,
they were surrounded by loving family, supportive friends.
A little disappointed there was no voice from heaven
or descending doves.
But there were ducks in the river.
And birds were singing.
The water was invigorating.
The towels wrapped around them on shore
brought warmth and comfort.
Many pictures were taken to mark the occasion.
Facebook was abuzz when some of them were posted,
people far and wide
offering their love and prayers and congratulations.

That was all great. All beautiful. All memorable.
But it wasn’t the most significant part of that day.
I’ll get to that in a moment.

But let me say, first,
I think many contemporary Christians misunderstand baptism
to be just a personal rite of passage.
Something we carefully stage
to make memorable and picturesque.
I don’t mean that’s what we did in September.

But I am saying it’s a pretty common view
among American Christians—
that a beautiful and memorable baptism
is somehow better, more effective, than an ordinary one.

This is the same kind of thinking that says a big beautiful wedding
is more significant than a small and simple one.

Now, I am a genuine lover of beauty,
who is willing to pay extra for things with aesthetic value,
who goes out of the way to find and appreciate beauty.
Let me say I love beautiful weddings and beautiful baptisms.
I support efforts to make them beautiful.
I love to see people getting into the moment,
and extracting from those moments
all the goodness and beauty they can.
But while a baptism can be aesthetically beautiful,
it is so so much more than that.

In terms of what it actually means, and what it does,
it doesn’t make one whit of difference
if you were immersed in the Jordan River, under a rainbow,
and have a DVD to remember it by . . .
with harp music on the soundtrack . . .
or if you had some water poured on you from a plastic pitcher,
kneeling in the front of a drab Mennonite sanctuary
with no worship arts, and cinder-block walls,
and barely remember it because you were 12 years old.

I’ll make you guess which of those two scenarios was mine.

The fact of the matter
is baptism is not about
a personalized, individualized experience.
It’s about your identity as an individual in community.

It’s not about where your baptism is located.
It’s about where your baptism locates you.

Take Jesus’ baptism as a prototype.
His baptism and ours share important elements.

So, “Why was Jesus baptized?”
Why was it necessary?
Even John the Baptist wondered, and objected at first to doing it.
It was not to have his sins washed away,
or to be cleansed and forgiven of his wretched human nature.
No, it was the day Jesus took on a new name.
He was re-Christened.

At the moment he came up from the water,
a voice from heaven pronounced his new name:
“You are my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
God spoke a resounding “YES” to Jesus,
and, in submitting to baptism,
Jesus spoke a resounding “yes” to the beckoning of the Spirit.
It was at that moment Jesus threw in his lot
with his God and God’s people and God’s purposes.
And he was re-christened, re-named.

There was only one who had the right to name him,
the one who gave him life. His heavenly parent.

The most important sentence a parent can speak to a child,
begins with the words, “You are . . .”
Not you should, you oughtta, you will, but you are.

The words that come after “you are,”
can build up or tear down.
They can create life or destroy life.
But words that articulate our identity
are the most powerful and important words a parent can speak.

In baptism, God is the first one speaking.
It was true for Jesus.
It was true for me in that cinder-block sanctuary.
It was true for our young women in the North River.
In baptism, God says to us,
“You are loved. You are mine.
You are worthy, because I have made you worthy.
I am with you. I am for you.
And I have an intention for you.”

It is not an accident that in the Gospels
the first event recorded after Jesus’ baptism
was an agonizing trial in the desert,
where Jesus new identity would be put to the test.

The way the Gospel story unfolds is intentional.
Jesus is told by God, “This is who you really are.”
And the next moment he is told by the great adversary,
“You can be whoever you want to be.”

And the rest of his ministry journey,
Jesus was pulled this way and that way,
by well-meaning friends
who thought he should behave in a certain way,
to out-and-out enemies
who tried to make him behave in another way.

He had to keep going back to what he was told
by the only one who had a right to lay claim to his identity.
No . . . this is who I am.
And this is how I am intended to live.

That’s the function baptism should have for us.
It is foundational to understanding who we are.
We start by hearing God’s “Yes!
You are my beloved.
You belong to me and my family.
I am with you. I am for you. And I have a purpose for you.”
And in baptism, we offer back our “Yes!
I am your child.
I am an integral part of your family.
I am all in with your will and purposes for me,
and for the world.”

Once we hear God’s yes, and respond with our yes,
we have a basis on which to act, and do, and behave.
We have a foundation for ethics,
for deciding between a right and wrong course for our lives.

I have to wonder whether all the chaos and conflict and confusion,
that seems to have the upper hand in the church,
in our community, in our political processes,
in our national and global state of affairs,
is because most of us are missing that essential grounding in life—
hearing and believing those defining words from our Creator,
“You are . . . You are my son, my daughter.
I have given life to you.
You belong to me, and I love you with an everlasting love.”

So many other things try to shape our identity—
our national citizenship,
our religious affiliation,
our political convictions,
our jobs,
our money,
our vehicles,
our clothes,
our body image,
our sexual persona,
And all these identities are foisted on us by a culture
that makes idols out of these various identities and affiliations,
and are reinforced by slick marketing of products
that promise to give us these markers of worthiness.

When our life choices are influenced more
by these thin and fleeting identities,
than by our God-given identity as a beloved child of God,
then we are not living the whole life we were created for.

And all kinds of dysfunction results—
we lash out in anger toward the other,
toward those who are different.
Since we’re not fundamentally clear and comfortable
with who we are,
that insecurity shows up in all kinds of unhealthy ways.
In the most extreme cases,
it results in violent behavior,
and even mass attacks like we see regularly.

It’s easy to write off attacks
like the one that took place in Fort Lauderdale Friday,
as isolated incidents,
by one poor deranged individual
whose wires got crossed in his brain.
It’s a little harder when we recognize those acts,
as an extreme expression,
that sits at one far end of the same continuum,
that includes everyday patterns of behavior
that I too engage in,
rooted in insecurity about my identity—
Like when I separate myself from, or disparage, the other.

Baptism is the best thing the church has going,
to set us on a different course.
It locates us in a community on a journey with God in the world.
In times of chaos and uncertainty,
it reminds us who we are,
and to accept and love who we are,
that we might love others
with more courage and more integrity.

I said I would come back to our baptism service in September,
to something more significant
than the picturesque moment in North River.

A few hours earlier those four women
stood in front of you at Camp Brethren Woods—
whether you were actually there or not doesn’t matter,
that gathering of people represented and included you. They stood in front of you and gave voice
to what was at the heart of this ritual.
They said to you, in essence,
“By this act we are saying yes to God,
and we are locating our lives, our faith journey,
here, with you, our sisters and brothers.”

So I leave you today, with some of their words . . .
I am directly quoting Asha, Genevieve, Jackie, and Lily.

I want to publicly declare my love and trust in Jesus.
I am ready to fully commit to being part of this faith community.
I invite you to challenge me and love me,
just as you already have been,
and I will accept each challenge and return the love.

When I find myself with more questions than answers,
I will wrestle with them, and struggle with them,
and explore them . . . here . . . with you.

I’m not saying that I know all the answers.
I’m saying that I want to join in community
with this family of believers.
I can’t wait for this journey forward.

Now, in response, let’s sing together #443 in the Hymnal.
A great sturdy baptism hymn,
locating this ritual of the church 
in the death and resurrection of Jesus,
and in the living body of Christ, the Church.

—Phil Kniss, January 8, 2017

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