Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
Drop, Drip, or Dunk
In one of my favorite movie scenes of all time, Delmar is called into the river for baptism. After being passed by hundreds of white robed, singing, haunting looking people, Delmar and his friends, Everett and Pete, are stunned to find them going down to the river to pray and be baptized. The sound track to the movie Brother, Where Art Thou, is piped in and you, as the audience, are carried down to the river. In a moment of spiritual awakening, Delmar jumps the line and walks up the preacher. No words are heard and the preacher simply dunks him under the water and then moves on to the next person in line. Delmar has experienced a great God moment but his friends just look at him weird. As he makes his way back to them he starts to profess his new found faith and the forgiveness of his sins. In a final proclamation he says, “Neither God nor man got nothing on me now. Come on in boys, the water is fine.”
To the world, having water placed on a person’s head, or being immersed into water may seem truly odd or just like taking a bath. But to us, it is a sacrament, an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace. It truly is a God moment and is powerful, moving, emotional, and life altering.
I was talking to a person who grew up United Methodist but since married has started to go to a Baptist church. When her daughter was born they went through a dedication. She confessed that it didn’t feel powerful or that meaningful. She said it lacked the energy that she had felt when she grew up watching baptism at our home church, a United Methodist Church. I told her, with all my compassionate and love, ‘that’s because it wasn’t a sacrament.’
The United Methodist church has two sacraments. One we celebrated last week and we call that the Eucharist, Holy Communion, or the Lord’s Supper. The other one is what Jesus went through today, baptism. But why did Jesus get baptized? Why do we get baptized? Why are there so many ways to do it and which way is correct? We will get to all these questions but first let’s put the scripture here in a historical context.
In Luke’s Gospel he is in the process of ending the ministry of John the Baptist and starting to tell the ministry of Jesus. John the Baptist is being surrounded with questions on whether he is the Messiah or not. There has not been a prophet like this in the last 400 years and people of all walks of life are flocking to the wilderness to hear this man preach of repentance. John though makes sure he is doing his job. He doesn’t point to himself, he points to the one who is to come. I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming.
We jump down a couple verses and there in the crowd is the one who is to come. Luke does something really interesting here that caught my eye. In the Gospel of Matthew there is a great dialogue between John and Jesus about John’s worthiness to baptize Jesus. For Luke though it simply says, “Now when all the people were baptized, and Jesus was baptized too.” That is it. Four words is all the baptism of Christ gets, Jesus was baptized too. This is the Gospel of Luke, the gospel that gives us the longest and most detailed presentation of the nativity story. Why only six words?
What Luke’s version of this story does is points to the solidarity of Christ with the people. “Now when all the people were baptized.” People where coming from all around to be baptized by John. They were sin soaked people. They were people who were looking for hope and a source of grace. They were people who cheated out of their taxes, were in debt up to their eye balls, broke at least 7 of the 10 commandments and who were broken and selfish. These people were sick, downtrodden, and at the end of their rope. Jesus sees these people and hops into line with them.
But I know what you are thinking, “Jesus is perfect and sinless. Why did he get baptized?” Baptism is the mark by which Jesus starts his ministry. It is from there, in all three synoptic gospels, that Jesus is then taken away to be tempted. It is also, as one commentary put it, “his baptism is a signal that he understood the full implications of the incarnation. He was not merely identifying with or showing solidarity with the human world; he was fully acknowledging its tragic structure.” Christ humbled himself in this moment and when he comes out of the water he is greeted by God himself. The heavens are torn open and the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove. Then a voice from heaven came down and said, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” It is in this moment that Jesus is recognized by all the people there who heard that voice and by all in heaven, as God’s son, as the Messiah.
How was Jesus baptized? The only hit we have is the phrase that is used in Matthew and Mark’s gospel stories, as he came out of the water. Luke doesn’t say this; remember he only uses four words. Now some people will point to this and say that this points to immersion or dunking. But the reality is that is not clear. A person comes out of the water to simply get out of the water. If I said I had just come out of the bathtub and you wouldn’t know if I was only ankle deep or if I had immersed myself. If you look at many of the renaissance paintings and renderings of this moment, usually Jesus is in the water and John is pouring water on his head. How Jesus was baptized is only known now by God and John the Baptist.
Historically there are three ways, sprinkling, pouring or immersion. The method I usually do is by dipping my hand in the water and with a pool of it in my palm, place it on the person’s head. There is no right or wrong way to baptize someone, all three are perfectly good options and it is really the decision of the person being baptized. In the United Methodist tradition we say you can choose what you would like because whether water is dropped, dripped or dunked on you doesn’t matter, what this sacrament symbolizes is what is important.
Baptism is a sacrament that represents the washing away of sin, the induction into Body of Christ, and God’s pouring out of the Holy Spirit. As the water is placed on our heads, we are reminded of the grace that washes away our sins. The Apostles in Acts tell people, “Get up, be baptized, and have your sins washed away, calling on his name.” (Acts 22:16) As we come out of the water, we are reminded that we are a part of Christ now, the Body of Christ, which means we are called to live a life like Christ. Paul reminds us in Romans, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” (Romans 6:3-4) It is also a symbol of God pouring out the Holy Spirit upon us, “and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove.”
The United Methodist Book of Worship says it best, “Baptism is an act that looks back with gratitude on what God’s grace as already accomplished, it is here and now an act of God’s grace, and it looks forward to what God’s grace will accomplish in the future. While baptism signifies the whole working of God’s grace, much that it signifies, from the washing away of sin to the pouring out of the Holy Spirit, will need to happen during the course of a lifetime.” This is why in the United Methodist tradition we baptize infants. God’s grace is upon them, although they don’t know it, and like all people who are baptized, we the church promise to be there for them and help them live into this covenant.
No matter the age of the one being baptized they all have a lot in common. They come to the water that day to acknowledge the work God has already done in their lives. They all are responding to God’s grace and their need to grow in Christ within Christ’s family, the Church. A child cannot speak for himself but God’s grace is still there. Even a 68 year old man, with a PhD in Biblical studies and theology, cannot completely understand the grace that is bestowed upon us by the waters of baptism. It is a Holy Mystery and one we partake in once in our lifetime.
There is no right or wrong way to be baptized and there is no right or wrong age. Soon we will be starting Confirmation. This is a time when tweens, who are starting to think on their own and making their own decisions in life, come together and learn about God and the Church. We talk about God, sin and grace; who Jesus is and the gift of the Spirit. We discuss worship and what it means to be the Body of Christ. We talk about what it means to be United Methodist and to claim the name of Jesus Christ. At the end of our eight week journey, which will take us right up to Easter each one of these young adults will have the opportunity to publicly profess their faith and become full members in the Body of Christ. For those who were not baptized as children, they will have the opportunity to have the waters of baptism placed upon them and all will be welcomed into the Church.
Baptism is a sacred gift from God and something we only do once in our lifetime but there is a service that can be done for us to remember what our baptism covenant is. On page 50 of our hymnal there is the Congregational Reaffirmation of the Baptismal Covenant Service (man that is a long title). We are about to do this. What this service does is reminds us, that have been baptized, what God did in that moment and what we promised God we would do from that moment on. This service reminds us of the grace God has given us and has followed us all the days of our lives.
If you have not been baptized yet, I encourage you to read along and ponder the questions that are asked. For when the time comes and you are ready to be baptized, these are the questions I will ask you. After the liturgy, I will invite all those who have been baptized and want to reaffirm their faith to come forward. As you do, I will dip my thumb in the water and make the sign of the cross on your forehead while saying, remember your baptism and be thankful. Then you are welcome to take time to pray and open yourself up to this holy covenant once again.
When our Lord entered the water of the Jordan, he humbled himself and realizes the reality of our situation. There is nothing we can do to remove ourselves from sin, so God put on flesh, was baptized right along with us, and now enables us to follow him into ministry to the entire world. As we now participate in this reaffirmation, may we feel the grace offered in this sacrament once again and be transformed into the Body of Christ God is calling us to be.
Please turn to page 50 in the hymnal…