Sunday, January 12, 2014

Baptism of Jesus - Year A

It wasn’t at baptism, but in an argument over baptism that I became a Lutheran. 

As many of you know, I didn’t always follow in the righteous path of Martin Luther. “Grace alone through faith alone” was foreign to me growing up. I had no idea what the catechism was until I was 25. 

And Martin Luther was, for me, both a historical curiosity, and, as I learned in my music studies, an important musical figure. 

Well, the words may have been foreign to me, but concept wasn’t. I learned that God loved me and welcomed me into God’s family, not through any works that I do, but because of what Jesus had done for me, not in a Lutheran church, but in an Anglican Sunday School. And I was welcomed into Christ’s Church through the sacrament of Holy Baptism at Grace Anglican Church, in St. Catharines Ontario, on Pentecost Sunday, 1971.

But not everyone agreed that this was a good idea.

“You need to be baptized,” I was told 22 years after the fact.

“I already am, thank you very much,” I replied.

“But you were a baby,” he said. “You don’t remember it, do you?”

“Yes, I was a baby, and no I don’t remember it,” I replied.

“Then how can you call yourself a Christian?”

“I beg your pardon?” my eyebrows raised.

“You didn’t choose to be baptized, so you aren’t saved. You have to make a choice for Jesus or you can’t go to heaven.”

“What on earth are you talking about?”

“You may have had some water poured on your head as a baby, but that doesn’t mean you’re saved. You have to make a conscious choice - a decision - to allow Jesus into your life for you to be a Christian. Baptism is a public declaration of your faith and commitment to Jesus, how could you publicly declare your faith if you hadn’t learned to talk yet? And since you haven’t done that, you can’t call yourself a ‘Christian.’”

I wasn’t sure what bible this guy had been reading but it certainly from any scripture that I recognized. But he wasn’t alone. This wasn’t the only conversation I had like this. 

Over the next three years, many well-meaning friends told me the same thing. They lent me books to read, gave me their best arguments about why they thought infant baptism was unbiblical, and even asked me to sit down with a preacher, who could lead me down the path to salvation, because clearly, as an Anglican, I was headed in the other direction.

This was the Christian group on campus at Wilfrid Laurier University where I did my music degree. Laurier Christian Fellowship (or LCF) was a haven for conservative evangelicals; Baptists, Pentecostals, Christian Missionary Alliance, and other like-minded believers who gathered regularly for prayer, worship, and fellowship. 

I had a lot of friends in the group. In fact, I’m still friends with many of them. So, I don’t share this story to slag on them. There were some wonderfully gracious Christians in that group whom I admired for their faith, and who taught me a tremendous amount about how to be a more faithful disciple of Jesus. But there came a time when I had to walk away.

From subtle (and not-so-subtle) suggestions about the state of my salvation, to guest preachers telling me who to vote for, to the intrusive fixation on our private lives, to micro-managing our moral choices, to the constant pressure about my required “re-baptism,” I decided to look elsewhere for Christian fellowship.

I was late for class one day, and as I was running through main concourse area, a sign stopped me in my boots. Well, the sign, and the stunningly attractive young woman sitting behind it. 

The sign read, “Lutheran Student Movement.” I knew who Lutherans were, and I figured these folks were closer to my Anglican roots than my friends at LCF were. But until then, I had no idea there was another Christian student group on campus. Like most Lutherans, for better or for worse, they kept a low profile.

I figured Medieval Music History class could wait. After all, I didn’t know if this attractive young woman would still be there later in the day. And so I stopped at her booth, chatted her up a bit, and inquired about who the Lutheran Student Movement was and what they did.

I signed up on their email list, got her phone number, and joined the group for supper the next day. And ended up moving into the Lutheran Student House later that year.

(All that being said, I don’t know if I would have been so hasty in signing up with them if someone else was staffing the booth that day. And, to be honest, as much as I was interested in learning about the Lutheran Student Movement, I was much MORE interested in the young woman’s phone number. I told her this story years later after we were married, and she burst out laughing because she said that she went home that day blissfully believing that she’d won a convert)

I started attending worship at the campus chapel offered by Lutheran Campus Ministry, and when I first arrived, Pastor Val Hennig greeted me at the door. When the liturgy started, I felt that I had arrived home. 

Pastor Val poured water in the font, said a prayer, and invited the congregation to “remember our baptism” by dipping our fingers in the water, and drawing a sign of the cross on our foreheads. He called us up to the font and said, “Remember your baptism, and be glad!”

I didn’t realize how much anxiety I was carrying about church until I felt it drain away that morning when I put my finger in the water, and made the sign of the cross on my forehead. 

Here my baptism was recognized and honoured. It was something to celebrate. It was a joyful acknowledgment of God’s activity in my life.

I felt that I could breathe again, and was free to explore my faith without any concerns over my salvation, and I was invited to deepen my understanding of God with people who didn’t seem to think they had all the answers to the mysteries of life and death, but were asking the same questions that I was.

And more than that, as I dipped my finger in the water, and heard the pastor’s words, it was like God’s promise to Jesus overflowed from his life and spilled into mine, when God said at Jesus’ baptism, “You are my beloved child, with whom I am well pleased.”

From that story it was was abundantly clear, that in baptism, it wasn’t MY public declaration of MY faith, but GOD’S announcement of what GOD had done in ME. It was a thundering reminder of what GOD has done in YOU. Because of what Jesus has done for US.

Upon rising from the waters of his baptism Jesus began his ministry of sharing God’s life with us, and sharing our life with God. God’s life of healing the sick and raising the dead, the declaration of forgiveness of sin, the pronouncement of justice to the oppressed, the proclamation of freedom from the chains that bind us, the good news preached to the poor and hurting.

Upon rising from the River Jordan Jesus shared OUR limitations with God. Jesus shared our worries and our hungers, the water for which we thirst, the anxieties that threaten to overwhelm us, the grief that grabs our hearts, the regrets of our past and our fear of the future, the sufferings we endure and deaths we die, so that we, joined to him in his baptism of the cross and the grave, can share in the power of his risen life. And live his resurrection today, in our lives, now, at this moment. And meet him, one day, in eternity.

When people ask me what my favourite part of my job is, I answer without hesitation: baptisms. Because my own baptism is such a vital part of my own story in God, that I feel honoured and privileged to welcome others into God’s story through the water poured out, the Word proclaimed, and the promises spoken.

It is at the font where I see God’s love flow into our lives most visibly, where we hear God’s saving story, and where God includes us in that unfolding tale. 

Baptism is the beginning of a journey that starts at that moment when the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit claim us as God’s own, and it ends in eternity. It’s a reminder that God has not given up on us and never will.

It is in baptism where God’s promise to Jesus overflows from his life and spills into ours, when God said, “You are my beloved child, with whom I am well pleased.”

May this be so among us. Amen.

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