Text: Matthew 3:13-17 (John baptizes Jesus)
“Remember your baptism!” preachers often exclaim. And having just heard about the baptism of Jesus, this might seem like an appropriate day to do so. But what if you were baptized as an infant?
I have precious few memories from before the age of five and none from before the age of three. So, I don’t remember being baptized just a few months after I was born.
The question of adult versus infant baptism is one of several issues surrounding this sacrament. Others include whether baptism can be repeated or not; whether it is an entry into the worldwide church or just something specific to one church; whether it should include full immersion under water or only use a few drops; whether the patriarchal formula “Father, Son, and Holy Ghost” is required or not; and whether baptism is necessary for salvation or is just a symbol of welcome.
But today I don’t focus on those controversies. Today as we move deeper into the Season of Epiphany, I reflect upon baptism as a symbol of emerging into the light. Baptism can remind us that we are sacred individuals blessed both with conscious awareness and with the ability to relax back into the river of life when we need to recharge.
Water is they key element for life on earth, and so it makes sense that baptism as the primary ritual of the Christian tradition involves water.
Life first began in the ocean more than three billion years ago; and it was not until about 500 million years ago that some species migrated to dry land. Because of their watery origins, terrestrial plants and animals are largely made of water, including humans, who are about 70% water by weight.
Plunging into a body of water takes us back to life’s source. Emerging from it into the light is like being reborn.
John offered a baptism for the forgiveness of sins in the Jordan River. It was a ritual of cleansing and a symbol of forgiveness. Perhaps because of its connection to sin, John says he does not feel worthy to baptize Jesus. Nevertheless, he baptizes him, which provides another example of Jesus standing in solidarity with the sinners who came to the Jordan long ago and with those who seek forgiveness today.
The Jordan forms one of the borders of the Promised Land, which gave it significance to ancient Jews. According to the book of Joshua, the descendants of Hebrew slaves from Egypt ended their 40-year Exodus in the desert when they crossed the Jordan. So, emerging from the waters of the Jordan must have carried an extra connotation of deliverance for those baptized in it by John.
Water carries other meanings. The ocean is a symbol of the unconscious mind, the part of our psyche where most of our motivations and thoughts lie outside of awareness.
Viewed from this perspective, emerging from the waters of baptism is a symbol of waking up and a symbol of Epiphany.
After Jesus and his friends are baptized by John in the Jordan, they begin their ministry of healing, teaching, and community-building. To remember our baptism is to remember our status as loving friends who gather in community to reflect, to reach out in compassion, and to struggle for social change.
As a baptized and baptizing people, we are called to be awake to our situation, our purpose, and our path.
But we can’t always stay awake. Humans continually switch between consciousness and unconsciousness. When we wake up in the morning, we gain the opportunity to live another day, to talk with friends, to work in the community, and to experience anew this world of wonders. If we are lucky, most mornings we are excited to know what is going on and how we can fit in.
But at the end of the day, we are also grateful for sleep. Sinking into sleep each night is like re-entering the unconscious waters from which we have come.
Unfortunately, many things can challenge our ability to stay awake. Most of us struggle to come to grips with human sickness and mortality. Most of us are challenged by social realities like war and pollution.
Do we really want to know that the human population has more than tripled in the last century? Do we really want to learn about all the pollution caused by economic activity? Do we really want to hear about the latest outrage of our political leaders?
Sometimes the answer is no. So, we turn off the news and stop thinking about life’s problems. And I think it can be OK to “turn off your mind, relax and float down stream” as a Beatles song recommends.
The hymn that frames this service — “River Running in You and Me,” provides images that I like when thinking about the swing between wakefulness and sleep.
It pictures life as a river that flows through each of us, a river that carries us all down to the holy sea. Life started in the sea and eventually we empty back into it. Sometimes we surface into the air, as with baptism, which gives us space to remember our sacred nature. But much of the time we are swept below the surface of the river, unaware of what is happening, but still supported by the sacred cycle of life.
Moments of enlightenment are blessings. They allow us to learn and do our work as a baptized and baptizing people. But not every moment can be an epiphany; and times when we are swept along unconsciously can also be blessed.
Church controversies about baptism abound. But instead of worrying about them, today I pray that we simply give thanks for the sacrament and for the forgiveness and the enlightenment it symbolizes.
Even though I don’t remember the day of my baptism, I am glad that I was baptized, and I feel privileged to be part of a community that baptizes newcomers whether babies or adults. Participating in baptism helps us to remember how each person is immersed in the sacred river of life.
At various moments, we surface and experience the joy of new learning. At other times, we will sink below the surface and trust in the sacred power of the river of life to bear us graciously back to the sea.
So, may we remember with joy that everyone and everything flows back into God’s ocean of Love.
Remember your baptism! You will be glad you did.