Back when I was a kid, we used to have a snarky way of telling people we didn’t want them to be part of a conversation. We’d say, “This is an A-B conversation, so C your way out of it!” In that same vein, we also used credit card names, saying, “This is a Visa-Mastercard conversation, so Discover your way out of it!” Neither of those is very nice. And today, I want to invite you to do the opposite. I would like for you to C your way into this particular A-B conversation. Even better, I would love for you to Discover yourself in this conversation.
We’re talking about baptism today. First of all, we’re remembering Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan River. Second, we’re welcoming a new family into our church, three of whom will be joining by baptism. Even though we’re talking about these two specific events, one that occurred two thousand years ago and another that will occur in a few minutes, I would like for all of us to see through them to the one great universal event that encompasses all of us in its grand embrace.
Let’s look first at Jesus’ baptism. We read that story this morning from the first chapter of Mark’s gospel, the second book in the New Testament canon. What’s interesting is that this is where Mark chooses to begin his retelling of the Jesus story. There is no Christmas story in Mark’s gospel: no angels, shepherds, magi, manger, or virgin birth. For whatever reason, Jesus felt compelled to join with John, the passionate preacher and activist, in his grassroots movement for spiritual revival and social change. Everyday people were inspired by and responding to John’s call to renewal but the religious and political authorities were suspicious.
John made use of an ancient Jewish ritual bath, called tevilah, as a sign of personal commitment to this movement. Tevilah washing was common for ancient Jews. Women did it monthly for sanitary reasons, all Jews did it at least once a year before Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), and Gentiles did it when they converted to Judaism. Moreover, there were several smaller washings that took place daily for both sanitary and religious reasons.
This, by the way, is why many Jews were spared from the horrors of the Bubonic Plague in medieval Europe. Christians falsely accused them of causing the plague by poisoning the wells. The reality is that the Bubonic Plague was caused by fleas that arrived in Europe on the backs of shipboard rats. Jewish religion required regular bathing while Christian religion did not. Jewish people got sick less frequently simply because they were much cleaner than their Christian neighbors. Alas, this did not stop our forebears from concocting all sorts of slanderous conspiracy theories. But I digress.
John made use of this very familiar Jewish ritual as a symbol of hope and dedication. John had a hunch that he was getting people ready for something big that was about to happen, although he might not have been totally sure about exactly what that was. And then, here comes Jesus.
At first glance, there didn’t seem to be anything particularly unusual about Jesus. According to Mark’s gospel, there’s not even any indication that Jesus himself knew what was about to happen. He was just another person who felt drawn to this radical and passionate preacher. He decides that this is the place for him, his spiritual home, so he undergoes John’s symbolic cleansing ritual.
And then something happened that wasn’t part of the ritual. Jesus had a spiritual awakening. Compare it to Moses beholding the glory of God on top of the mountain or the Buddha attaining Enlightenment while meditating under a tree. The text of Mark’s gospel tells us, “just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.”
Earlier this week, I was listening to a biblical scholar named Marcus Borg talk about a similar series of experiences that once happened to him. He describes these mystical experiences in language that will sound less poetic and more familiar to our modern ears:
[These mystical experiences] began to occur in my early thirties. They changed my understanding of the meaning of the word “God”-of what that word points to-and gave me an unshakable conviction that God (or “the sacred”) is real and can be experienced…
I saw the same visual “landscape” – a forest, a room, the inside of an airliner – that I normally see…
For a minute or two (and once for the better part of an hour), what I was seeing looked very different. Light became different – as if there were a radiance shining through everything. The biblical phrase for this is “the glory of God” – as the book of Isaiah puts it, “the earth is filled with the glory – the radiance – of God. The world was transfigured, even as it remained “the same.” And I experienced a falling away of the subject-object distinction that marks our ordinary everyday experience – that sense of being a separate self, “in here,” while the world is “out there.”
They were… experiences in which I felt that I was seeing more clearly than I ever had before – that what I was experiencing was “the way things are.” And they were also experiences of complete peacefulness, marked by a sense that I would love to stay in this mental state forever. Anxiety and distraction utterly disappeared. Everything looked beautiful.
I imagine that when Mark’s gospel tells us that Jesus “saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove” it is describing the kind of experience that Marcus Borg was speaking about.
Next, Jesus hears a voice speaking to him. We aren’t exactly told whose voice is speaking, but it makes sense to infer that it must be the voice of God. The voice says to Jesus, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Let’s narrow it down: “Love.” The voice from heaven is the voice of Love.
Jesus listened to this voice and it changed his life. That was the point in the story where Jesus’ ministry began. The Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus and the voice of Love empowered him to go out into the world and heal the sick, feed the hungry, welcome the outcast, and enlighten lost souls. His great miraculous mission started right here, in a cold and muddy river, where a voice from heaven called him “Beloved”. He spent the rest of his life trusting in that Love and sharing it with other people.
The word baptism comes from a Greek word that means “to soak or immerse.” On one level, it obviously refers to the way that a person is literally and physically soaked in water during the ritual. On a deeper level, we are all surrounded by and soaked in the infinite Love of God throughout our whole lives and beyond. It is part of the air we breathe. We need it more than oxygen. Baptism is a ritual, we call it a “sacrament” (Latin for “mystery”), that makes this Love real to us. God’s Love washes over us like a refreshing bath. Day in and day out, we are floating on an ocean of Love.
The response of faith has ironically little to do with our religion. Real faith means saying “Yes” to Love. When you say that Yes, Love empowers you to live the kind of life that Jesus lived: healing the sick, feeding the hungry, welcoming the outcast, and enlightening the lost.
This is exactly what our church tries to do in its various denominational and grassroots organizations that work together for peacemaking, disaster assistance, hunger relief, health education, environmental preservation, social justice, and human equality. This is the Presbyterian Church at its best. And we’re not the only ones doing it. Other churches, faith communities, and non-profit groups are working for these same goals. Each one is saying Yes to Love in its own way. That’s what real faith is.
Each of us is called to say Yes to Love in our personal lives as well. This is harder than it looks. We have to contend with the powers-that-be in this world that would try to choke the life of the Spirit and the voice of Love out of us forever. We have to actively resist the pull toward cynicism. We have to live like nonviolent radicals and revolutionaries, practicing random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty. Saying Yes to Love is a lifelong task that involves every part of life: church, work, school, and home. All life is ministry and baptism is your ordination. Say Yes to Love.
I pray that, as we think about and celebrate the sacrament of baptism this morning, it would be more than just a religious ritual to you. I pray that it will be to you a sacred mystery. I pray that the eyes of your heart will be opened so that the infinite ocean of Love in which we are all soaked might be made more real to you. I pray that you will say Yes to this Love and go out from this place today to live the kind of life that Jesus lived: a life of Faith, a life of Hope, and a life of Love.