Tuesday, January 15, 2019

An Epistle on Baptism

This letter was written to be read in the congregation during my absence on the date below, for the celebration of the Baptism of our Lord. 

Dear friends in Christ at Big Timber Lutheran on Sunday, January 13, 2019-

Grace and peace to you from God our Creation, Jesus our Savior, and the Holy Spirit who directs our days. I do give thanks to God when I think of you because your good work in Big Timber is inspiring to me and because I believe that God has brought us together for a purpose in our town for the sake of the gospel, the good news of Christ’s work in the world.

Today is the celebration of the Baptism of our Lord. If I were with you, I would ask if there were any among you who were unbaptized and wished to come forward to the font. In our tradition, we so frequently witness the baptisms of infants and children that we forget that adults are welcomed to the water to be washed in the same way. In fact, part of the way that Lutherans think about baptism is this- since baptism is a gift from God; it treats children as adults- giving them expectations in response to the gift. The gift of baptism treats adults like children- surrounding them, cleansing them, and gently relieving them of fear and strain.

In Lutheran theology, as well as among our other siblings in Christ, holy baptism and holy communion are collectively referred to as “the means of grace”. The phrase is used because it is specifically in those two situations that God has promised to show up, to deliver and feed the gift of faith, and to do all the work that truly matters for salvation and wholeness. We may pour the water or serve the meal, but the work that truly matters is God’s alone.

Since it is God’s work alone, we must be careful about what we say is happening and also what we don’t acknowledge. It is easier than you think to be wrong about the Divine. How easy is it? Today’s reading from Luke shows us that it is easy to be wrong about Jesus and if we get things wrong about the Holy Son, we can additionally be incorrect about the Holy Parent and the Holy Spirit.

Among Christians, we are often taught that the Judean people of Jesus’ time were expecting a warrior king in the line of David, who would relieve them from Roman oppression and re-establish the kingdom of Israel. This is not exactly correct. The expectation of God’s anointed, the Messiah, gave shape to the lives of faithful Judeans by helping them to understand that God’s work was still on-going. The work of creating, redeeming, and restoring had not been abandoned after Eden, but was always God’s work into which people were (and are) invited. 

While that was the corporate understanding, sometimes individual people misinterpreted God’s promises, something that still happens today. John is baptizing people toward a life of repentance, a life of corrected behaviors that are oriented toward caring for others and the world that God made. His expectation of the One who is to come is that the Messiah will continue the work of purification, in an even stronger way. A winnowing fork is a tool for dealing with wheat, it is used to lift the wheat the air, moving it around, allowing air to circulate, so that the chaff- the part that is not to be used- can be sifted out and then taken away.

John expects that this is what the Messiah will do, purify the faithful by removing what is in them or of them that is not useful and is unnecessary. In the verses we did not read today, from Luke 3, Herod has John arrested and imprisoned. In Luke 7, John will send a message from prison, with his own disciples, asking Jesus if he actually is the one who is to come or if they’re waiting from someone else.

Why would John ask that? It is because what he heard of Jesus didn’t sound quite like the purifying work that John had expected. John is not bad and neither were his fellow Judeans or others who had come to an understanding of God through the Jewish faith. They were simply human and part of being human is that we look at our own habits and preferences and assume that God wants the same thing, without truly considering what God wants and how we are actually made the be reflections of those Divine preferences and desires.

So, like John, we often reduce baptism to one point when it is meant to be so much more. We treat coming to the font like the chance to give our children or ourselves a holy “Get out of Hell free” card, but it is specifically not that and it is specifically so much more.

The baptism that we are blessed to offer, as a means of God’s grace, is an affirmation of who Jesus was and who Christ is as the One who has defeated death, triumphs over evil, and is our holy brother and one worthy of imitating. Doing the work of baptizing means that:

1)  We recognize that we are drawn together by God and by God’s grace into a holy and changed community. 
2)  We have commitments that are beyond what we might choose for ourselves, including caring for others whether or not we like them and caring for the world that God made in both large and small ways. 
3)  We understand that elements of creation- like water, oil, bread, and wine, carry the Spirit of God and can do more than the sum of their parts. 
4)  Since one does not baptize one’s self, continuing together is an essential part of living a faithful life. 
5)  We are baptized in an active acceptance of God’s will and God’s work, as well into an active rejection of the work of the forces that oppose God. These forces may be spiritual, of this world, or internal. 

This is now quite long for something that I am not there to unpack more for you. Additionally, Steve probably has his own questions that he wants to ask me now and I shouldn’t feed that fire any more than I am willing to own the minute I’m back in the city limits.

Our baptisms are a gift from God that shape and give direction to our lives. When we remember that we are baptized, when we wash our face, affirm our baptisms, or see the font in this church or others, we remember that God’s work is a demonstration of grace and mercy. And it does not stop.

The Holy Spirit continues like a winnowing fork, shifting out the chaff which is not only not useful but also takes up space that is needed for the actual part of the wheat that is nourishing. Thus, it is removed.

We are baptized, by God’s grace, so that we may be nourishing- to ourselves, to our families, to others, to the world that God has made, is repairing, and deeply, deeply loves.

This festival, the baptism of our Lord, reminds us that we are a new community in Christ, to care for each other, to forgive each other, and to encourage each other in spiritual growth and health. It also reminds us that God gives all things freely and in holy love, especially renewal and hope. Let me repeat that: God gives all things freely and in holy love, especially renewal and hope.

May you be filled with renewal and hope today, remembering that you (yes, you!) are beloved children of God, marked by the cross of Christ and sealed by the Spirit forever.

In Christ’s own peace and joy,

Pastor Julia


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