In preparing this sermon I have found Bill Loader's reflections on baptism, and especially on the issue of infant vs adult baptism, very helpful. I have also borrowed a few of Bill’s words (which can be found at http://wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/lectionaryindex.html).
One of the greatest mysteries of our physical existence is water. Water gets to do all the hard work in the evolution of our world - softening, changing and shaping things over millions of years. We’re more than half made of it, we can’t live without it, we swim and play in it, reverting to some distant amphibian genetic memory, it cleans and refreshes us, we find it beautiful and at the same time we are in awe of its power to destroy us.
I remember when my twin boys were born, going on 30 years ago, there was this new-fangled way of having babies called the Lamaze method. It’s probably embarrassingly out of date by now. One of the things that made it different from established hospital procedure was that the delivery room lights were turned down low and the midwife put some meditative sounding music on. Fathers had a very important role to play - not only was I definitely wanted in the delivery room but I had a special job - as each one of my sons was born I got to hold him for a few minutes in a bath that was just blood temperature, just like the safe environment he had left, so his first experience was not of sudden movements and hard sounds and noises, but of warmth and water and soothing sounds, and of being held safe in his dad’s hands. It was an immersion into a reality of love, a sort of baptism that said, ‘you’re mine, and I’m yours’.
Baptism, it seems to me, is about origins, about reconnecting us to where we’ve come from and where we belong, and it’s also about transitions, about recognising where we are in relation to the world and to God. In baptism God recognises us and chooses us, just as Jesus experiences himself to be recognized and chosen in the middle of the Jordan River, as a precious and unrepeatable moment of God’s expression in the world - the one in whom God’s love and God’s creative beauty is present, so that if we are open to it God’s own life sustains and energises our own.
It’s a big agenda of love and generosity, and it makes some big demands, as we hear in Luke’s account of Jesus’ own baptism. The Spirit that, in Luke’s version of the story, is seen as a descending dove is the same force that, according to Mark’s version of the same story, immediately drives Jesus out again into the desert. The word - ekballo - is the same word that is used when Jesus himself drives out demons, a word that warns us not to approach baptism as if it were just a cute rite of passage or family tradition. Baptism implies vocation, a new way of being, and it implies that we are set aside, we have a purpose, we have been brought into a particular relationship with God and with the world, we are called to live within that relationship and we are brought into conflict with all that fragments, isolates or diminishes God’s presence in the world. Baptism needs to be taken very seriously indeed.
Jesus’ baptism at the Jordon, the river that runs along the boundary line between the wilderness and Israel, the land of God’s promise, is a model for us of our own baptism - as the entering into a new identity as God’s sons and daughters, an identity defined by relationship with God and with one another, an identity that has consequences for how we choose to live. John the Baptism announces that his baptism was specifically for repentance, the Greek word metanioa meaning more or less a 180 degree turn, a complete reversal of priorities that results not just in chastened hearts but changed lives. The Jewish people had for centuries understood the symbolic power of ritual washing but John’s insistence on baptism as a once-in-a-lifetime event emphasised that this was God’s initiative and God‘s doing, something we could not do for ourselves. It implies, for those old enough, an acknowledgement of our human capacity for drifting off target and a commitment to allowing God to recalibrate and retarget us, a commitment to holding our lives open to the correction of Word and sacrament. In the baptism of small children, this emphasis on repentance implies resistance to the hyper-individualism of our age, and an acknowledgement that we don’t form ourselves, but are formed within communities of care. In the earliest days of the Church, when whole households were often baptised together, it was more clearly understood that the repentance called for in baptism is the repentance of the whole Church. This emphasis on the whole community agrees with what we now know about human development, in baptising babies and small children we are acknowledging that even in infancy God’s love is made known and experienced through the love of parents and in community – and as a community we are accepting the responsibility of love and care that places on us.
Jesus himself, in his washing of his disciples’ feet, offers us a similar understanding of baptism not just as service, but as the means of forgiveness and renewal within community, as an act that changes the disciples by opening their hearts to God and to one another, that allows them to move beyond petty competitiveness and self-interest, and to recognise the atmosphere of grace and love that holds flawed human beings in communion as the Church. Peter’s denial hasn’t even happened yet, but it will, and the blessing Jesus pours on him in washing his feet is the ecology of restoration – the ecosystem that makes it possible for Peter to live beyond his own limitations, beyond obsession with his own fears and failures, to be a blessing and a baptism to others.
Part of the reason water is such a rich symbol is precisely because it is fluid, constantly in motion, resisting all attempts to categorise or contain it. Colourless, it reflects its surroundings, without shape, it pours into the crannies and the empty places of our lives. It washes, it brings new life from dry ground, it refreshes. It is easy to see why water, in so many faiths, has come to represent the spirituality of change, of new beginnings, of refreshment and hope. In Christianity, however, the fluid and invisible Spirit takes on a distinctive shape. We look to Jesus to see how the water of God’s goodness flowed. In his life, death and resurrection we see new life and hope. People like Paul came to understand the act of baptism as representing Christ’s death and burial, and his rising to new life. In baptism we are joined to that, we in some sense participate in the paradox that is at the heart of the Spirit’s revealing of itself in Jesus. Claiming for ourselves Jesus’ death which was in solidarity with all who suffer and all whose life is poured out, we claim also participation in Jesus’ resurrection which defeats death and which transforms human suffering by revealing that life, not death, gets the last word. Our baptism puts us on the side of life, makes us a people who recognise and celebrate resurrection, transformation and new life. As perhaps I’ve mentioned before, our baptism makes us people oriented toward the future, towards the world not as it is, but as it could be.
As Christians do we understand this? We most assuredly do not! It defeats our understanding even at the same time as we glimpse its truth for the very same reason that we are unable to hold a handful of water. As soon as we think we’ve caught and defined it, solidified it in some ritual or represented it in some symbol then it trickles through our fingers. What we’re left holding onto isn’t the Spirit. The spirit of baptism is for living, for apprehending at the level of intuition and relationship, for getting at the same level as we get a joke, for allowing it to invite us in to God’s reality in which that which is old and worn becomes new, that which is failed or useless or lost is transformed into forgiveness and possibility and discovery.
In baptism we are called into a relationship, and we hear a promise. It’s the same promise that echoes in the Hebrew scriptures for centuries before the birth of Jesus, and it’s the same promise that Jesus himself hears at his own baptism, the promise best expressed, perhaps, in the words of the prophet Isaiah that we heard this morning:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name; you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour.