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Into What Then are We Baptized?

Rev. Daniel A. Smith
Sun, Jan 11

Texts: Mark 1: 4-11 and Acts 19: 1-7

The poet Joseph Brodsky was born in Leningrad in 1940. Banished from his homeland in 1972, he settled in the US, taught at Columbia and Mt Holyoke College living a largely frugal and industrious life but he loved to travel. As one critic has noted: “Perhaps it was his memories of the canals of the city of his birth that made him keep returning to Venice. He first visited at aged 32, and by the time he wrote Watermark in 1989 [two years after winning the Nobel Prize for Literature] he had stayed in the city 17 times, always in December.” Hear this excerpt from that book of essays:

“I always adhered to the idea that God is time, or at least that His spirit is. Perhaps this idea was even of my own manufacture, but now I don't remember. In any case, I always thought that if the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the water, the water was bound to reflect it. Hence my sentiment for water, for its folds, wrinkles, and ripples, and – as I am a Northerner – for its grayness. I simply think that water is the image of time, and every New Year's Eve, in somewhat pagan fashion, I try to find myself near water, preferably near a sea or an ocean, to watch the emergence of a new helping, a new cupful of time from it. I am not looking for a naked maiden riding on a shell; I am looking for either a cloud or the crest of a wave hitting the shore at midnight. That, to me, is time coming out of water, and I stare at the lace-like pattern it puts on the shore, not with a gypsy-like knowing, but with tenderness and with gratitude.”

It was something like this tenderness and gratitude that I experienced on New Year’s Day as Nanc and I took a left at the end of the boardwalk and walked for maybe a mile or so on the sandy spit that is Nauset Beach in Orleans on Cape Cod. Its one of the places I go when I need a moment of spiritual reset and renewal. I daresay it was something like tenderness and gratitude that about 80 of us experienced here this past Tuesday night when we gathered as a community around our baptismal font to celebrate the day and the new season of Epiphany. And I wonder if it wasn’t with tenderness and gratitude that we all just received and celebrated the baptisms of Charlie, and Evan and Colin.

I for one am grateful that our liturgical year always begins with these watery readings and rituals that reflect God’s spirit. Last week, Taj powerfully recalled the Creation story and those waters of the deep that existed before creation, with God’s spirit moving, even brooding above them. And here again in today’s text from Mark, we find God’s spirit hovering above the waters, this time of the Jordan River, as if reflected or emerging not merely from the heavens, but from those waters, first in a cloud and then, we are told, like a dove. Both of these watery images mark divinely inspired beginnings. God and time come out of water in a wave or a cloud or a divinely uttered word of precious and foundational affirmation, like “it was good” or “you are my beloved child, with you I am well pleased.” No wonder why we so love to sing Kate and Peter’s gorgeous hymn. “Come, all you thirsty,” indeed.

Both of our scriptures today align with the liturgical occasion that we and many other churches around the world celebrate today. Just as there is a day on which we remember and celebrate the birth of Jesus, there is also a day to remember and celebrate the baptism of Jesus. We also remember our own baptism, and sometimes get to celebrate those of others. In our text from the Book of Acts, a most interesting question arises in an exchange between Paul and a group of new followers of the way of Jesus in Corinth. Apparently, the news and stories of the epiphanies and manifestations of the Holy Spirit that begin the Book of Acts and begin the very church have yet to make their way to Corinth. Paul asks: Into what then were you baptized?” They had done as Jesus did. Fair nuff, right. They were baptized into John’s baptism of repentance. But as the story is told, the Spirit of God hovered over those waters, marking a new beginning and new way of being baptized. It continued to be a way of repentance, to be sure, but it was also a way of affirmation, grounded with those foundational words “You are my beloved.” What’s more, it eventually became a way of deep and abiding relationship, and a mark of belonging to a new community.

Last week after church, I had the chance to meet with today’s families and others who are considering baptism for a future time. We discussed the meaning of baptism and I opened the session by asking what it meant to them. As in similar sessions I’ve led, the word that comes up most often is “community!” They get that baptism is an initiation rite, a ritual action, a sign of inclusion, a commitment we make, a promise to hand on a tradition but so often what’s most important, it seems, is that their child or they have a sense of belonging in a community and family that is larger than their own. I couldn’t agree more.

The Irish writer, John O’Donohue, puts it this way in a beautiful little book called The Four Elements: Reflections on Nature from his chapter on water: “Baptism,” he writes, “is one of the most beautiful sacraments. It is where the loneliness of being in a separate body is transfigured. One becomes an intimate family member of the People of God.” That community, ever there to remind us that we are not alone, is what we are baptized into! O’Donohue unpacks the idea further: “Each one of us begins life in the water of the womb. Each child is formed in this seamless water and swims securely in the current of its rhythms. In the womb everything comes to us in wave motion. Thus, our first experiences took place in the water element. Indeed our first recognition of identity happened, not as philosophy would often have us imagine, in the dry air element where a “cogito” might flicker, but rather in the inclusive water element, where there was a yet no separation between inside/outside, or self/otherness ….To swim,” O’Donohue goes on, “is in a certain sense to reenter this womb-like medium. To do this meditatively is to re-awaken that primal sense of belonging from the time before one’s individuality first broke free.”

The Greek word for baptism – baptizen --can be variously translated as “to be dipped” or “to be immersed.” Consider this each time we ourselves have a chance to recall or renew our baptisms. Not only the affirmation of the belovedness before God, but a recollection of and an immersion into that primal sense of belonging. Friends, isn’t this what fills our hearts with tenderness and gratitude when we welcome a new child, both a beloved, uniquely named and gifted individual but also as one who belongs, as before the time when their ‘individuality first broke free’? And isn’t this why so many here take the promises we make as a congregation so seriously, because we ourselves know not only the power of this covenanted community but the responsibility to care for one another that comes with it.

I have no idea whether or not he had the sacrament baptism in mind, but the contemporary American poet, Franz Wright, writes beautifully of the dynamics at play in this week’s readings and rituals:

Empty me of the bitterness and disappointment of being nothing but
Immerse me in the mystery of reality
Fill me with love for the truly afflicted
that hopeless love, if need be
make me one of them again --
Awaken me to the reality of this place
and from the longed-for or remembered place
And more than thus, behind each face
induct, oh introduce me in --
to the halting disturbed ungrammatical soundless
words of others' thoughts
not the drivel coming out of our mouths
Blot me out, fill me with nothing but consciousness
of the holiness, the meaning
of these unseeable, all
these unvisitable worlds which surround me:
others' actual thoughts -- everything
I can't perceive yet
know it is there.
Yes! Here lies an incredible answer to Paul’s question: Into what then are we baptized? First, Empty me of the disappointment of being nothing but myself, beloved as I am. Then, immerse me into the mystery of reality. Fill me with love for the afflicted, make me one with them again. Induct and introduce me into the thoughts of others, and not only into their thoughts but to their joys and pains as well. Sounds exactly like baptism to me! For when we are so immersed and introduced and inducted into this community of faith, and into this body and family of Christ, we too have no choice but to consider each other’s thoughts as our own, even the most imperceptible, for we too were one, in the beginning of time, and we are one with them now– one faith, one love, one baptism.

Thanks to the rhythms and cycles of our liturgical, we too begin this and every year near water. Immersed in, refreshed and renewed by the reflection of God’s always loving and creative spirit therein, may we too find strength and hope and courage to follow Jesus together, to build a community of faith, and a world of hope, compassion and love which leaves no one afflicted, afraid or alone. Amen.

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