(A sermon for January 11, 2009, The Baptism of the Lord, based on Mark 1:4-11 & Acts 19:1-7)
It’s important to know who you are. In the town in which I lived during my growing up years, the names of Champ and Sara Ruffin meant something and what they meant was good; therefore, I was always conscious of the name I bore and of the good things that were associated with that name. The family into which I was born was formative in my self-understanding.
Unfortunately, not everyone knows, recognizes, or accepts who they are; indeed, some folks live in denial of their true identity. The 2008 year-in-review issue of Sports Illustrated noted a couple of such cases. In one instance, the city of Kannapolis, North Carolina removed flags commemorating Kannapolis native Dale Earnhardt because Martha Stewart was coming to town; if you’re a Dale Earnhardt kind of town, why deny it? In another case, a 33-year-old woman assumed the identity of her estranged 15-year-old daughter so she could enroll in high school and try to be a cheerleader; I’ve known thirty-something –year-old people--and for that matter forty- and fifty- and sixty-year-old people--who acted like teenagers (no offense to teenagers), but still, this is ridiculous.
It’s important that we know who we are, so who are we? We are the baptized, which is another way of saying that we are the saved. Don’t misunderstand—I know that it is what happens in our heart of hearts between Jesus and us that saves us and that we are saved by grace through faith and not by works lest we boast and that if we aren’t careful about how we think and talk about baptism we’ll turn it into something approximating a work that we can boast about—you know, something that we did. But I also know that the New Testament does not seem to know about any kind of Christian other than a baptized Christian and I know that the Lord Jesus instructed us to baptize people and I know that baptism is the outward identifying mark of our salvation.
So we need to remember, and I do remember. I remember the Sunday night at Midway Baptist Church when Preacher Bill plunged me beneath the warm waters of the pool the construction of which two years before had almost cost me my father when he fell through a hole in the ceiling to the concrete below, fracturing two vertebrae in his neck and requiring some fifty stitches to close up the cuts in his head; it was in the place of his near death that I was baptized into new life. I remember the spectacle of that night as another church joined us for the baptismal service and it seemed to me that dozens of folks were baptized before I was. I remember the inappropriate humor of my cousin Rudy who, as folks in the line ahead of us were dunked, would turn to my other cousin Bruce and me and say, “Drip drip, drip drip.” I remember how, when I stepped down into the pool, I thought that I was having a vision like that of Paul on the Damascus Road, including being struck blind, only to realize that my father had fired up the spotlights on his Brownie 8mm movie camera. But mainly I remember my sense, as I went beneath the waters and rose out of them, that things were different now—that I was different now.
From then on—and it’s been some 42 years now—it’s been the baptized life for me. If you’re a Christian, it’s the baptized life for you, too. What does that mean?
First, it means that it’s the forgiven life for us. We all have that sense, that knowledge in us that things are not right and that they need to be made right; what’s not right is our sin and what makes it right is our salvation in Jesus Christ. Our baptism reminds us that we have been forgiven of our sins.
It is curious to us that Jesus gave himself over to John the Baptizer’s baptism for the repentance of sins. After all, Jesus did not sin; he alone among human beings lived a perfectly obedient to the Father life. Still, Jesus was tempted as we are; he was subject to all the temptations and problems and trials that are common to humanity and in his subsequent life, death, and resurrection he overcame those temptations and problems and trials for us. Jesus’ baptism is the symbol of his solidarity with us; Jesus identified with the sinfulness of humankind and took on a life in the midst of this fallen world so that he could overcome it all. While Jesus is clearly different and set off from us, he nonetheless in significant ways became one of us and walked among us.
When we are baptized, though, we are confessing our personal sin and accepting the forgiveness of God. From that point on, we live the baptized life—and the baptized life is the forgiven life.
Second, it means that it’s the submitted life for us. It is one of the most beautiful pictures in the entire Bible: Jesus, who had no sin of which he needed to repent, nonetheless submitted himself to the public humiliation of baptism in order to be obedient to his Father’s will. There is something so fundamentally “Christian” about what he did. Jesus’ life was dominated by two concerns: (1) to serve the Father and (2) to serve people. Did Jesus “need” to be baptized? No, not the way that we “need” to be. But he wanted to do what his Father wanted him to do; his attitude was completely submissive.
Let’s face it: baptism is an act of humiliation. We come before a crowd of people and we let ourselves get dunked in water right there in public. In so doing we are following Jesus’ example because the Christian life is, at its heart, a life of submission to the will of God and to service to other people. Just as baptism was the appropriate beginning to such a life for Jesus, so it is for us; baptism marks us as those who are dedicated to submission—submission to the will of God and submission to the needs of others. Baptism is the beginning of a lifelong process of thinking less and less about self and of thinking more and more about the will of God and the needs of people.
When we are baptized we are joining with Jesus in giving ourselves over to such submission. From that point on, we live the baptized life— and the baptized life is the submitted life.
Third, it means that it’s the Spirit-fueled life for us. When Jesus was baptized, he saw “the Spirit descending like a dove on him.” When next we see Jesus, the Spirit is driving him into the wilderness to face his test. Jesus’ life was a Spirit-led and a Spirit-fueled life. When Paul met some disciples of Jesus who had been baptized only with the baptism of John he baptized them in Jesus’ name and when he laid his hands on them, “the Holy Spirit came upon them.” When we are baptized the Spirit of God comes into our lives, too; we are baptized with both water and with the Spirit. As the book of Acts makes clear, it is the Spirit of God that empowers the church for its mission in the world and it is the Spirit of God that empowers individual believers for our mission in the world. We are not on our own; the Spirit, as Jesus promised he would, teaches us and empowers us and comforts us.
When we are baptized we are filled with the Spirit of God. From that point on, we live the baptized life—and the baptized life is the Spirit-fueled life.
Fourth, it means that it’s the belonging life for us. When Jesus was baptized, he received confirmation of his identity: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” There is a difference with our baptism because it is truly a beginning for us; it is the sign of our new life in Christ. Before, we were not saved; baptism is the outward sign that we have been saved. In our baptism we receive affirmation from God that we are the children of God.
In other words, we find that we belong in the family of God. We also find that all others who believe and who are baptized belong in that family with us. When those believers in Ephesus who had known only the baptism of John received baptism in the name of Jesus they were filled with the Spirit in such a way that the results were obvious. A similar thing had happened earlier following the baptism of some Samaritans. In other words, God worked to make it very clear that those who some might have thought did not belong in the family of faith did in fact belong.
The Spirit, then, is a unifying force, and baptism is a unifying act. As Ephesians puts it, “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all…” (Ephesians 4:4-6). The baptism in which we share reminds us that we share in everything else; we are truly one body in Christ.
Once, back in the bad old days of racial segregation, I accompanied a friend and his mother to swim in the lake at a state park. A line was stretched across the swimming area of the lake that separated the “white” swimming zone from the “black” swimming zone; even then it struck me as ludicrous, since, after all, we were still swimming in the same water (a floating nylon cord could hardly make much of a difference) and now, in these days of increasing racial diversity in our culture, it strikes me as even more ludicrous as I imagine roped off Hispanic areas and roped off Asian areas to go along with the roped off black and white areas. Somehow, though, the water of the lake became a source of division in the lives of people.
The waters of baptism function in exactly the opposite way—they are a source of unity in the lives of Christian people. The waters of baptism unite black and white and Hispanic and Asian Christians. The waters of baptism unite American and Iraqi and Russian and Korean and Brazilian Christians. The waters of baptism unite conservative and moderate and liberal Christians. The waters of baptism unite rich and poor and middle class Christians. The waters of baptism unite Baptist and Methodist and Pentecostal and all other Christians.
And closer to home—the waters of baptism unite all the believers who make up the First Baptist Church of Fitzgerald, Georgia. Before we are anything else, we are all the baptized ones; we are all living the baptized life. And if we are all living the forgiven life, if we are all living the submitted life, if we are all living the Spirit-fueled life, and if we are living the belonging life, just think of how powerful that life will be in its effect on our fellowship, on our ministry, and on our witness!