Friday, January 6, 2017

Friday's Essay - A Sign and a Gift

Below is an essay that I sent to those on the Cove Presbyterian Church e-mailing list. You can hear a podcast of this message by going to the Cove Presbyterian Podbean page. You might also want to visit the congregational website (covepresbyterian.org) for more church information.

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This week, during our Sunday morning service, we’re going to talk about the baptism of Jesus Christ, as presented in Matthew’s Gospel. And even though our focus will involve what his baptism says about Christ, I think this theme also gives us the opportunity to think about our baptism. 

Image result for divided over baptism
Of course, as soon as someone mentions the kind of baptism practiced in the church, ecclesiastically unity is shaken, at least a little bit, and some otherwise open and compassionate Christians start digging in their heals and asserting that God intends for it to be their way or the highway. And for some, this highway is directly to Hell. Let’s just say, the meaning and practice of baptism seems to strike a nerve. And that’s really kind of interesting, considering the fact that most Christians believe it to be a genuine, bonafide sacrament. But that doesn’t stop believers from disagreeing passionately with one another. I mean, we disagree about what happens. Does it mark the reception of the Holy Spirit or just a ritual that indicates something the one baptized has done? And we disagree about when it should be done. Should it be done as soon as possible or should it wait until the person baptized is older and if so, how old is old enough? And we disagree about who should receive it. Should the person be starting his or her life with Christ, which would include babies, or should it only involve folks who’ve made certain decisions on their own? And of course, we certainly disagree about how it should be done, even how much water should be used and how it should be administered. I mean, can it be just enough to dampen the head of an infant or to immersed totally a grown man? Can it be sprinkled or should it be poured? And if dunking is a necessity, is moving or living water better and water that’s still? Man, we even disagree about where and who needs to be present and what those people are called. My gosh, I know folks who would say in a heartbeat that it must be done in church, during a worship service, with the whole congregation involved, while others believe it could be done anywhere and with anybody, just so long as a priest/minister/pastor does it and someone there is identified as a godparent. I’ll tell you, navigating these baptismal waters can be a real challenge, even for a priest/minister/pastor. And even when you get your head around the capital “T” Traditions, each little Christian community and congregation may have a bunch of little “t” traditions that are absolutely essential, that is, if you want to do it right. It’s enough to make your head spin.

And even though I’m a Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA) (that is, until they change The Book of Order, and I become a Minister of Word and Sacrament again) and we share a certain theological understanding of its meaning, my view of baptism may be a little broader than others within and outside my denomination. For example, I’m not all that concerned about some of the details, you know, like the who, when, where, and how. Although those things may be really important to others, they just aren’t for me. As a matter of fact, for me, baptism comes down to two things that are true whether you sprinkle an infant at church during a worship service (which I’ve done many times) or dunk believers in a swimming pool (which I’ve also done). 

Image result for baptism from godYou see, first, I believe baptism is a sign both of who we are and whose we are. For me, through baptism, we receive a new identity.  I mean, it identifies us a members of Christ’s Body, and as such, we’re part of a community, a family that extends around the world and encompasses the past and the future. And this is the case whether it’s an identity that we recognize ourselves or one with which we’re raised. And that just makes sense. Although I may choose to be called anything I want when I’m an adult and can make that decision myself, in the sight of my mom and the folks back home, I’ll always carry that name they gave me at birth. Baptism is a sign of who I am. But it’s also a sign that belong to God. I’m not the captain of my fate nor am I in control of my destiny. As I suggested to someone a couple of hours ago, we all belong to God. And even though I may choose to accept that or not and my choice will probably shape the way I live, it won’t affect the fundamental fact that I still belong to God whether I choose it or not. And again, baptism is a sign of his possession of me. You see, that’s one thing that’s true; baptism is a sign.

And second, I think baptism is also a gift given to us by God. In other words, it’s not something that we created ourselves, rather it’s origin is in God himself. And it’s his gift to us. It’s not something for which we need to work. It’s not something that we have to earn. In fact, it’s not something we deserve at all. No, baptism is a gift, not unlike salvation. And for that reason, I don’t think baptismal pride is ever appropriate. Instead, I believe it’s right and appropriate to offer my Lord and creator thanks and praise to giving me a reminder that, when you get right down to it, ultimately I don’t belong to my country or community, to my family or my congregation. I don’t even belong to myself. Rather, I belong to God. And when I think about the baptism that I received as an infant, I’m grateful that he’s given me this wonderful gift as a sign.

Image result for baptism
Now, as I wrote, in a couple of days, we’re going to talk about baptism from the perspective of Jesus Christ, and in particular, we’re going to talk about what his baptism can teach us about him. But as it relates to our baptism, I’m not sure that some of the stuff that separates Christians is all that important. You see, for me, so long as I remember that baptism is both a sign and a gift, baptism always provide a source of identity and a reason for praise.

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