In a few weeks, we will be treated to pictures of the christening of the new little Princess Charlotte – daughter of Prince William and Duchess Kate. Everyone will look beautiful in their dressy suits and hats, little Prince George will wear a charming outfit, and Princess Charlotte will no doubt be clad in a long baptismal dress which will flow over her mother’s arms nearly to the floor. The official photographs will be flashed ‘round the world, and everyone will ooh and ahh – and what’s not to ooh and ahh over, with such a lovely young family for whom surely everyone wishes only the best?
But one thing we will probably not hear referenced on the news or read in People Magazine will be an explanation of what the little princess’s baptism is all about. It will be treated as a secular event which happens to take place in a church – a dress-up day for great happiness – but we will hear little, if anything, of it as a solemn religious occasion.
What is baptism, anyway? Most of us probably don’t know much more about it than do the People Magazine writers. We’re talking about baptism today because it’s the second topic in our summer Bible study, Come to the Waters – the second Biblical water subject for these warm days when water seems extremely appealing. But appealing as water, and the whole idea of baptism are – what is baptism all about?
During Bible study on Thursday, one of our members described baptism as a welcome. I think that’s a great description. In baptism we are welcomed into the Christian life, and into Christian community.
What’s the best welcome you’ve ever had?
I often remember welcomes from my grandmother. As you know, I grew up in the country, in southern Ohio. To get to my house, you first turned into a paved lane and drove up a hill to my grandparents’ house, and then went on down a gravel road behind their place, leading to ours. That meant that as a little girl hopping off the school bus at the bottom of the hill, my first destination was my grandmother’s – with her offerings of ice cream and late afternoon television shows – and that as a young career woman, my first stop was my grandmother’s, often to drink a glass of lemonade on her brick terrace and tell her about my life – and that as a young mother I drove to my grandmother’s before anyplace else in southwestern Ohio, so that my children could tumble out of the van into the same warmth and love that I had always known there
And you know what was wonderful about my grandmother’s welcomes?
That she always had time. Always – time for each of us.
My grandmother lived in an era in which homemaking was considered an art – and so she baked bread, and canned tomato juice, and cooked wholesome dinners from scratch each night, and was an expert knitter and intent student of nature – but she always had time to put everything down and turn her attention to us. She was not the least bit intrusive – there were always treats and games available, but she also left us to our own devices when we preferred that, and was always willing to listen to whatever we had to share. She was quite willing to interact with us, and guide us, and equally willing to step back and let us grow into ourselves.
Welcome welcome welcome. How was school? How’s your dog? Tell me about the new Beatles album. I have something to show you! Welcome!
Isn’t the welcome of baptism something like my grandmother’s welcome?
Here you are! Welcome to the church! Welcome to a community in which you may grow and be nurtured! How is your life? We have something to show you! Come and live into the time and space God makes for you! Come and see!
Welcome to that for which you thirst – whether or not you know it. Welcome into the presence of the God who loves you!
Baptism is something we call a sacrament. Sacraments – and in the Presbyterian Church, the sacraments we celebrate are baptism and communion, the Lord’s Supper – are those rituals which we particularly acknowledge to be signs of God’s grace, of God’s gift of love in our lives. Sacraments are gifts of God to us in response to our thirst for an experience of the holy, our thirst for moments in which we know that God is present to us in the community of faith. The water of baptism is a sign, a symbol, of God’s love for us. For all of us.
John Calvin, that early Protestant reformer whose ideas and writings and leadership set much of the foundation for our church, tells us that God gives us concrete, tangible signs and symbols of God’s love for us because we need them. We are bodily creatures, not creatures of air, or of intangible spirit – we are solid creatures of a solid earthly world – and we require solid, palpable, material symbols by which to understand who we are and what we are about.
Water throughout the Bible, is such a symbol -- of God’s deep love all of creation, and for us; of God’s covenant: God’s promise, to care for us, to protect us, and to make it possible for us to flourish; and of God’s Spirit, who encourages and enliven us.
Last week, we pondered the waters of creation – the waters of the deep, the waters of chaos, out of which God created – everything. Through those roiling, turbulent waters, God gave birth to the entire world.
In our first reading today, God is tending to God’s people, the Israelites, who have escaped slavery in Egypt only to find themselves wandering in the desert. They are literally parched, expecting to die of thirst n the hot, dry desert, trapped in an inhospitable environment far from the homes they have known. So miserable are they that they turn their anger on Moses, their leader, and threaten to kill him. And in response, God tells Moses to take his staff and strike the rock, and water for the people will pour from the rock.
The people need water, actual water, in response to their physical thirst –but they also need material evidence of God’s care for them. They are so lost, so disoriented, so frightened – and the water they receive in such a surprising way becomes a symbol for them that God is with them, a symbol of God’s care and promises remembered to this day.
For Jesus, baptized in the Jordan River in today’s gospel reading, the water is an even more profound symbol: a symbol of the Holy Spiri,t and of identity.
Jesus comes to the Jordan River to be baptize like any other Jew of his time and place, to engage in this ritual of cleansing conducted by his cousin, John the Baptist. John is surprised to see him – because John knows that Jesus is not like any other person of his time and place – but Jesus is insistent that he should engage in the ritual common to all. And thus Jesus makes common to all in baptism what happens to him in baptism: the Spirit of God alights upon him and the voice of God identifies him: “This is my Son, the beloved.”
What a welcome! And what a welcome available to all of us through baptism. This welcome goes well beyond lemonade on the terrace, and even beyond nurture and promise in the desert. This welcome to Jesus splashes over all of us, and tells us that we, too, are people in whom God’s Spirit dwells, and that we, too, are beloved.
Water in Biblical interactions is not merely about refreshment, or even hospitality. Water is about identity.
When the little princess is baptized, much will be made of her names – Charlotte Elizabeth Diana – and how they reflect her identity in the line and heritage of the royal family. We do much the same, don’t we? If we have children, we choose names for them that are of significance to ourselves and our families, and hope that those names will come to bear meaning for the tiny babies who will grow into them. But those names, however beautiful and meaningful – those names are not nearly as marvelous as the name and identity given us in baptism: Beloved. Those names, however much they symbolize family history and parental dreams, do not completely reflect the sign and symbol of the water of baptism: God’s beloved. Welcome, beloved one, into God’s community.
Welcome to a love that precedes you, a love that surrounds you, a love that is not dependent upon you or on your gifts or achievements -- a love that flows from God’s spirit just as the water flows from the Jordan or from the baptismal font.
Welcome to a love that will always have time for you. Welcome to a love that desires you to flourish – as you are, who you are, in your deepest self.
Welcome to a love which propels you into the world to share, with generosity and hope, this love, in whatever way you are called to do so by those gifts unique to you.
Welcome to a deep love in which you are claimed by God – whether you know it or not, before can know it, when you are convinced that it has nothing to do with you, when you have turned away from it – in all the circumstances of your life, the love which pours into your life from your baptism surrounds and supports you, and draws you into relationship with God and with the people of God. With all people, because all people are the people of God.
The waters of baptism are the waters in which you are named – God’s Beloved – and called to share – God’s belovedness. No matter what happens to you in this life, no matter how many wrong turns you make, no matter how confusing your hopes or broken your plans, the waters of God’s love flow through your days and your nights. Through baptism the Spirit welcomes you into Christ’s community and gives you God’s name for you: Beloved One. Amen.