Scripture for this Sunday:
Isaiah 42.1–9; Psalm 29; Acts 10.34–43; Matthew 3.13–17
I have conducted two baptisms in the sea during the past five years, and there is something quite mystical about connecting the blessing of the water of baptism with the blessing that water gives to humankind on our planet. In fact, to baptise anyone is a remarkable gift for clergy; there’s something quite mystical also in the outward and visible symbolism of the waters of baptism connecting to the inner grace of the baptismal candidate.
The water of baptism reminds us of the way in which water is a vital element in our planet and in our being. We may bless the water of baptism, but it in turn connects us to the blessing that water is to humanity. Our planet is 80% water, which is what sustains life, although just a small portion of that is suitable for consumption by human beings. About 60% of the human body is water.
Water is used for cleansing and purification; in Judaism, it also symbolises the crossing of the water of the people of Israel – out of slavery in Egypt, and then later, across the Jordan into the promised land. The baptism of Jesus, who unlike his contemporaries hardly needed to repent and reorient his understanding of his faith, had mystical results – and invites us, through our own baptisms, to be a part of his family of faith, part of his body – part of the beloved.
The washing characteristic of water comes into baptism to denote cleansing from sin; whether baptised as babies, who really carry rather little sin, or as children, or adults, it offers us continuing opportunity to be forgiven – as long as we are repentant, willing to turn ourselves around. Sadly, it seems that for many of us, the older we get, the less willing we are to turn around (to change!), or even to admit the areas where we do need to do so.
Although baptism is an outward and visible symbol of God’s grace given to all of us freely, it does come with obligations. There is a baptismal covenant, which is not always stated explicitly, that asks candidates to commit:
- to continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers;
- to persevere in resisting evil and, whenever you fall into sin, to repent and return to the Lord;
- to proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ;
- to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbour as yourself;
- to strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.
Well, none of that is easy. Looking around in the world and the way in which we treat one another, it seems that there might be an awful lot of potential turning around to be done in order to present ourselves for God’s forgiveness.
Further, being baptised, being a faithful member of the body of Christ, no matter how faithful, does not inoculate us from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, to quote Hamlet. It may come with a covenant, but it does not insulate us from life.
Graham Maule of the Iona Community, who with John Bell has given us some wonderful hymns and words of worship, died ten days ago. His body was laid to rest on Friday. Amongst many, many words of tribute (you can read the whole thing on line), were these words:
“He never regarded faith as an insurance policy against bad health or misfortune. Faith was what got you through it.”
Our baptism is a symbol of what connects us, if we allow it to do so, to the faith that can support us through trials, tribulations, sickness, sadness, grief … the whole human condition. It is this faith that helps us to survive life’s difficulties. It makes a difference to know that we are loved by God; to know that our baptisms connect us to the baptism of Jesus; and by extrapolation to know that we are similarly connected to Jesus’ resurrection.
As we celebrate Christ’s baptism, we celebrate our own: and remember the challenge it brings. We are members of the body of Christ, joined to him in baptism. We have a covenant to guide us in terms of what baptism means. So now it’s up to us to live up to those rather challenging, and possibly intimidating, words of being beloved, and of God being pleased – with us.