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Monday, August 20, 2012

The Hitchhiker's Guide to Grace: Baptism (Romans 6:3-6, 1 Corinthians 12:13)


Or don’t you know that all who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 Therefore, we were buried together with him through baptism into his death, so that just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too can walk in newness of life. 5 If we were united together in a death like his, we will also be united together in a resurrection like his. 6 This is what we know: the person that we used to be was crucified with him in order to get rid of the corpse that had been controlled by sin.
13 We were all baptized by one Spirit into one body, whether Jew or Greek, or slave or free, and we all were given one Spirit to drink.
Today, we are continuing in a series we began last week, entitled, “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Grace.” We started with the premise that as hitchhikers are dependent on someone else to make their journey, so too are we spiritual hitchhikers - dependent on God’s grace to make our spiritual journey.

Throughout these messages, I’m asking you to keep an image in your mind, of God driving around in a great big bus just overflowing with grace.  But how do we get grace?  Along the way, God stops at various places where people can get on board for the ride of their lives, and each week, we’re exploring the grace that’s available at one of these stops.

Last week we said there were two things we each have to do in order to receive the grace that’s available.  If you were here last Sunday, do you remember what they were?  1. Show up, and 2. Have an open and willing heart, and those are the only two things I’m asking of you through this series - to show up, and have an open heart.  Today, our journey continues as we come to the next stop along the way: baptism.  May we pray.

The lay of the land
Let me say at the outset that you are in a United Methodist Church today, where we preach and teach United Methodist theology.  In eight years of ministry, every time I have preached or taught about baptism, I always get someone who is deeply distressed, confused, maybe even a little angry because what I’ve just said is different than the way they’ve always understood baptism.  Let me repeat this - this is a United Methodist Church, so when I talk about baptism today, it’s going to be from that particular perspective, which means that the emphasis in baptism is going to have less to do with us and more to do with God.  Other groups emphasize the person more, and that’s their prerogative.  We’re just not one of those groups.  They are not right or wrong, just different.  You wouldn’t get mad at an oak tree for making acorns and not walnuts.  If you want walnuts, go shake a walnut tree, but let the oak tree make all the acorns it can.

What you need to know about baptism in our tradition can be summed up in one word: covenant.  That’s a hard word to work with and understand, and I quickly realized that I don’t have enough time this morning to even scratch the surface.  In the Bible, covenants go back all the way to Noah, and then Abraham, and then Israel, and then the followers of Jesus, which is where our baptism comes in.    And yet, just reading the Bible closely, or even reading our own hearts closely, it’s clear that in over 6000 years of practice, we’re still trying to figure out how to participate fully in covenant with God.  Let’s see if we can’t cover a 6000+ year history of Biblical covenant in about the next 12 minutes.

Baptism is a covenant, initiated by God, binding us to God with water on the outside, and grace on the inside.  A covenant is an agreement between two or more parties, which sounds an awful lot like a contract.  The difference between a covenant and a contract is this: whereas we design and make contracts, covenants actually make us. For example, the covenant of marriage makes me a different person than I was before.  I have different obligations, priorities, and accountability, so my wife tells me.  I don’t define the covenant of marriage; the covenant of marriage defines me.  Likewise, and in an even more powerful way, we don’t define baptism because baptism defines us.

Baptism is a covenant relationship, initiated by God so that God might define our lives. That’s a really important point for all of us to remember: God initiated the covenant.  Write that down: God initiated the covenant.  God started it.  God sought us out, inviting us into the relationship.  Baptism seals that covenant.  It’s all God’s doing!  Long before any of us made a move toward God, God was already moving toward us.  Thanks be to God!

A means of grace
In our tradition, baptism is a means of grace.  By that, we mean that it is a tried and true channel where God shows up in a real and tangible way.  In baptism, God is present and active, imparting the indwelling Holy Spirit to define the lives of those being baptized, whatever their age or ability.

What that means is baptism is a starting point, not a final destination.  Here is a picture of me that was taken within a few weeks of my baptism.  I know what you’re thinking, too: “What an adorable kid - what happened?”   Now, as you look at that picture, do you think that when this picture was taken, I was closer to the beginning of my life’s journey or the end of it?  Clearly, I was at the beginning of the journey.  So it is with baptism.  It is a beginning, which is why the age of the one being baptized really doesn’t matter.  It’s not about knowing what we’re doing, it’s about taking a first step.

Take a look at this picture again.  Do you think I could explain nutrition to you at that age?  Of course not - but that didn’t stop my parents from feeding me - look at me, I was obviously not a starving child!  Do you think I could have explained the importance of bathing and good hygiene to you?  Of course not - but that didn’t stop my parents from cleaning me up.  Do you think I could have explained love to you?  Of course not - but that didn’t stop my family from loving me.  I didn’t know anything about a lot of things, but my lack of understanding didn’t stop my parents from giving me the things I needed to be a healthy and happy part of the family.

So let me put that back in the context of faith.  Can small children explain grace?  No, but they can experience it, and they do, as a happy and healthy part of God’s family.  Not only that, but they can show grace - often more thoroughly, readily, and effectively than we adults can.

God is big enough, and grace is abundant enough, to assure us that God is at work in our lives, even when we don’t know what we’re doing.  Baptism isn’t about what we know, what we have chosen, what we believe, what we have decided.  Baptism is about God giving grace, a grace which is for all people. It is that means of grace that starts us on the journey.

The role of the community
And because this is just the beginning, God makes sure we are equipped with the support we need for our lives to be defined by God. When we are baptized, it is not simply a private matter between us and God.  Baptism is never private or in solitude, but something that happens in the context of a community because it unites us not only to God, but to the family of faith, the Church, the body of Christ.  The role of the community is so important in baptism, even more important than the response of the individual.  Our society places such a high premium on individualism, yet baptism dares us to believe that we participate in something bigger than ourselves.

God initiates the covenant of grace and the faith community surrounds us with God’s grace.  For its part, the community promises to uphold us and care for us, to teach us the story of faith, to live out their faith in such a way that we can live out ours.  The congregation promises to be a community of love and forgiveness - that’s no small promise! - so that the seeds sown in baptism might grow to full maturity.  The congregation makes this promise - to God, to each other, and to the newly-baptized person - to be sort of community where grace is experienced and expected, so that the love of Christ and the joy of the Lord may flow freely in all we do, whether inside or outside these walls.

The community of faith also helps us remember our baptism.  At every baptism, I encourage lots of photos to be taken, because that’s one way a community helps a person remember their baptism.  I think we should pay attention to the details of the day - what was the weather like?  What was the worship service like?  Who was there?  What did the person being baptized do - did they cry, did they smile at everyone?  The community often gives gifts - a certificate, a baptismal candle, special clothes, the shell the water was poured with.  Then, as the person grows - whether they were an infant or adult at the time of their baptism - we in the community tell those stories, show those photos, and share those gifts, in order to help a person remember their baptism.

There is another aspect of remembering that the community plays when it comes to baptism.  Others in the community of faith not only help us remember the specifics of our own baptism event, they also remind us that we are baptized - a constant reminder of who we are and to whom we belong.  A community helps us remember that our truest identity is in our baptism, that we belong to God, that we are people of God’s covenant, that we are dependent on God’s grace rather than our own good works.  Make no mistake, our response to grace and our growth in grace is vitally important, but our first emphasis is upon God - what God does, what God promises, who God is.

It really is all about God
The baptismal covenant reminds us that God is sorta like Motel 6 - he leaves the light on for us.   No matter where we go, no matter what we do, no matter how far we try to turn from God or run away from God, God never abandons God’s part of the covenant. God remains faithful to us even when we’re less than faithful to God.

The covenant made in baptism is still good because when God makes a promise, God always keeps it, which is why Methodists do reaffirmations of faith rather than re-baptizing.  On one hand, we recognize how much we mess up in holding up our end of the covenant with God, but God never fails on God’s part.  And since it’s about God, the baptism is still good!  We just need to recommit ourselves to it.  Reaffirmation gives us a chance to say, “God, I need a new start.  I can’t do this on my own. I can’t live for myself, so I need you in my life and I’m dependent on your grace. And with your help, I’m gonna live my life for you.”

Even if we haven’t really messed up all that big (or think we haven’t), the reaffirmation of our baptismal faith is something we’re called to every day.  Now, let me say that I am aware that there are people here who may have never been baptized before.  If that’s you and you’re sitting here thinking, “He’s just assuming we’ve all been baptized and I’ve never been baptized and I’m missing out on something and I want to be baptized!” - if that’s you, talk to me after worship and I’ve got a stack of these booklets - “What United Methodists should know about Baptism” - and I’d love to give you one so you can take it home and learn more about what we’ve been talking about all morning.  Then, I want us to find a time to sit down and talk about scheduling a date for your baptism as soon as humanly possible.  It is a great thing, and I don’t want anyone here to miss out on God’s transforming grace that is given to us in baptism.

For those who have been baptized, today you have the opportunity to reaffirm your commitment to the baptismal covenant.  This is something we Christians need to do often.  Baptism is a means of grace - both when it happens initially, and every time we remember it.  Today, I invite all those who have been baptized, whether recently or long ago, whether in this church or somewhere else, to remember your baptism and experience God’s grace.

Here’s what will happen.  We will sing a song of preparation together.  Then, we will go through the liturgy in our hymnal designed for the congregational reaffirmation of the baptismal covenant.  Don’t just go through words and responses.  Think about them and what they mean, and let the words themselves shape you.  I will pour the water into the font, and invite all those who wish to reaffirm their baptism to come forward, where I will touch the water to your forehead, make the sign of the cross, and say, “Remember your baptism, and be thankful.”  As you hear those words and feel the water on your brow, may the Holy Spirit work within you, fill you with grace, and remind you who you are, and to whom you belong.

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