Baptism of our Lord, C-19
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
I read an old pastor joke about a young man who wanted to be baptized. The pastor met with him and asked, “Baptism is a serious step; are you prepared for this?” “I think so,” the young man said. “My wife picked out appetizers, and we have a caterer to serve the meat and vegetables.” “That’s not what I meant,” said the pastor. “I mean, are you prepared in spirit?” “Definitely,” the young man said. “We have both red and white wine.”
We conclusion we can immediately draw from this is that old pastor jokes are lame—and a little bit judgy. Yet, another lesson might be that for an inherited faith like Christianity, sometimes cultural expectations can keep us from seeing what is most important. We mix up the chaff with the kernels of wheat.
Martin Luther said, “A truly Christian life is nothing else than a daily baptism once begun and ever to be continued” (Large Catechism). Every day, deep within us and mostly without our knowing, wheat is being folded into our chaff. Baptism is an event and a process. The baptismal process of saint-i-fi-ca-tionis gradual, but the effect of the event is immediate. We are indelibly marked with the cross of Christ once and for all. This sign, given in baptism, is today, given to those On The Way. The sign of the cross marks the spot where the treasure is buried. All people carry the spark of the divine image. Everyone is a beloved child of God.
From the prophet Isaiah we read the Lord who created you, who formed you, the lord of the cosmos, the author of Life, stoops to whisper directly in your ear: ‘Do not be afraid, for I have redeemed you; I know you by name, you are mine’ (Isaiah 43:1)
This is the season of Epiphany. It is the season we celebrate the many and various ways God has spoken to us—by the prophets and the Word; by water, wine and bread, through brothers and sisters down through the ages. Epiphany means God is not content to remain in, with, and under all things. God urgently desires to make herself known.
I’m still smiling at the memory of the children’s Epiphany pageant last Sunday. Didn’t they do a great job? Once again, we were inspired and moved by the story of Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus in the manger at Bethlehem, of the wild start and of the wise men. No less charming or profound was the child who took a big bite out of the communion bread before the procession. He was dressed like a lamb, but according to his understanding, he was really a wolf in sheep’s clothing! And then there were the wise men who managed to give baby Jesus just one of the three wonderful exotic gifts they had toted from afar—because they broke the other two. I wonder did the real wise men have parents who quickly and quietly cleaned up after them too? Or could we, like children, have become careless with the gifts of grace, discarding some of the precious wheat with the chaff?
In a world filled with war, cruelty, hunger, and disease; in a time when people everywhere are riven into warring clans and political tribes, isn’t it clear we need to hear again not only that we are beloved of God, but so is our enemy? This is the kernel that sprouts into wheat and yields fruit in us, thirty, sixty, and one hundred-fold. This is wisdom to repair our broken hearts and rebuild communion with one another.
Being beloved and knowing others are too means we can face together and begin to dismantle the legacy of systematic racism that afflicts us. We can face with open eyes and hearts the truth that gender and sexual orientation are much more fluid and diverse than we previously thought. We can start to build a new economy that is more sustainable. We can become better family members, friends, and neighbors. Our baptism becomes more than words on a certificate or fancy cake. Baptism becomes more than fire insurance. It is a fire to separate the chaff from the wheat, to help us distinguish what is vital from what is dead.
“Child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.” (ELW p. 231) These words go beyond merely re-assuring us because these are not merely human words, but a divine Word. God’s declaration of love carries power to break the grip of fear and shame. The announcement that you are God’s child has potency to break even the bonds of death.
In Marilynn Robinson’s lovely book, Gilead, a dying old preacher writes a long letter to his very young son for when the boy grows up, long after he is gone. He writes, “There is a reality in blessing, which I take baptism to be, primarily. It doesn’t enhance sacredness, but it acknowledges it, and there is a power in that. I have felt it pass through me, so to speak. The sensation is of really knowing a creature, I mean really feeling its mysterious life and your own mysterious life at the same time”
A lot of us have been confused about this. Baptism does not add to the divine spark God invests in our lives. It brings it into sharper focus. We do not baptize so that God will love and accept us as children. Baptism is not a pre-requisite to a relationship with God. Instead, it is a lesson that God is active in with and under every person, plant, animal, and thing that lives. Jesus commanded we be baptized so that we might finally and forever know who we are and what our life is really worth (Matthew 28). We baptize to participate more fully in the mysterious presence of the undying life that has already joined us to each other.
Now our ignorance is ended, our awareness expanded, and wisdom has been planted so that the old ways of war and death might be replaced with God’s ways of peace and shalom, so that wheat may grow from the chaff. Whether we remember our baptismal day is less important than remembering that we too are blessed and beloved. Even if we have not yet been baptized, we can rejoice that we are blessed and beloved, for baptism, as Gilead’s narrator reminds us, is a blessing that doesn’t make us or our lives sacred but acknowledges, recognizes that we are [all] being filled with God’s abundant grace.