Through the waters, God made a promise, a vow. It began in creation, when "God said, ‘Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.’ 7So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so. 9 And God said, ‘Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.’ And it was so. 10 God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together God called Seas. And God saw that it was good."1 And it was good. Good creation for God’s people, for us. A sign and seal of God’s devotion. Then we see God’s vow to us once again in the flood, a renewal of creation to call us forth into new life, into a new covenant. The waters are separated at the Exodus, making way for God’s people to enter into the wilderness and eventually, the Promised Land. A vow, made visible through water, that God is indeed with us. Naaman is cleansed in the Jordan River, his wounds becoming whole. A vow that we are made clean through the Holy One. And then we come here again – to the Jordan River – to the first baptism.
Can you see it? John the Baptist, covered in camel’s hair, eating locusts and honey sees Jesus approaching him. John tries to prevent Jesus from asking what he’s going to ask but Jesus insists – "Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness."2 So John and Jesus enter the Jordan River. Perhaps they’re up their waists, perhaps they’re wading. But they are there, the waters that God created long ago being renewed in this moment for a special purpose. John baptizes Jesus and when Jesus is coming back up from the water, the water that once healed Namaan, that once was flooded with the rest of the earth, the heavens opened. The Spirit of God appeared as a dove and came down upon him. A voice from heaven said, "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased." Did John hear this, too? This powerful claim, this naming of Christ as God’s own, as God’s beloved?
Do we hear this now? Do we hear this every time we witness the waters being poured over an infant, a child, an adult’s head? The vow, the promise of God claiming us as God’s own? In baptism, we affirm what we believe to already be true: God claimed us before we were even born and claims us still. The waters that baptize us are a visible sign of an invisible grace – we are God’s, we are part of something bigger, we are a people of the water.
Baptismal traditions vary in every branch of the Christian church. There are infant baptisms, believers’ baptisms. There are sprinkles at a font and full dunks in a river. There are special gowns and robes to be worn. There are individual baptisms and group baptisms. There are re-baptisms for first baptisms that are deemed invalid. There are baptisms for the sake of salvation and purity and baptisms that are outward signs of a grace already proclaimed and known. Here, at Westminster and in the Presbyterian Church, we believe baptism is a visible sign of an invisible grace. We believe that baptism is the public display of a truth we know in the deep well of our collective soul: God made a promise to us long ago – a promise that we are loved and claimed and held and honored in God’s sight. That the waters that are poured over our heads are the same waters that have been in existence since creation – a sign that God’s faithfulness in us endures and will endure still.
When we baptize one another, we are echoing God’s words that rippled across the Jordan River that day of Jesus’ own baptism: "This is my child, my beloved, in whom I am well pleased." Do you hear it?
In a world as noisy as ours, it is increasingly difficult to hear our baptismal promise over the chaos. It is difficult, too, when we forget our end of the baptismal bargain.
Just as God echoed God’s promise to us in baptism, we, too, make a promise in baptism. We – the congregation – vow to one another to be witnesses throughout a person’s life. Witnesses to the love and devotion and care that God intended for us to embody as a community. Remember the vows we take here at Westminster:
Do we undertake the shared responsibility for the Christian nurture of this person?
Do we promise to try to set forth for this person an example of faithful discipleship that her ties to the church be strengthened?
Do we promise to get to know this person and play with him, share our love with her, and teach them about God as they grow?
These promises, these vows, are not one-time words. These promises are made as a lifelong commitment to the baptized person, whether we know them or not. We make these promises with hope – that we will live out our shared responsibility to one another, that we will be examples of discipleship, that we will teach the person about the Triune God as they grow. And when we say "We do," we speak for the whole Christian community. When the congregation of First Presbyterian Church, Carmi, Illinois made these same vows to me before God in August of 1982, they did so not knowing where I would go or what I would do with my life but knowing this: God’s promises would follow me. Their vows would become another community’s vows and another community’s after that. Wherever I went, their words would follow me, felt in the shared commitment of God’s people.
Can you hear the echoes across the water? Can you hear your promise, God’s promise in your actions towards one another? Are we treating one another as baptized children?
Try as I might, I fail to always see the sign of water on everyone’s foreheads. I often say that I have the best gig at Westminster because I get to work with our incredible youth. I believe I do or well, I believe I’m in the spot I’m most called to be in. But sometimes, even in the joy I get from serving our teens, I get a little tired of saying things like, "Frisbees don’t belong on the roof" or "Yes, you do have to clean up your dishes." And sometimes, because I’m human and sinful just as we all are, I might say these things with a raised volume or a little – ok, a lot – of sass. In my first year here, there was a night at youth group when I was particularly tired of asking people to be quiet so that everyone could hear one another. This is not unusual – we’re an excitable bunch. After so many times of asking with some degree of politeness, I rose my voice and yelled at a few particular young men. It wasn’t my finest moment but it was a real moment.
On my drive home, I made a choice to mend what I had torn. Regardless of the fact that the noise level was obscene and that boundaries are important, I had used my authority in an unChristian way. It was disrespectful of a vow you, the congregation, had made to these youth and to the vow I undertook when I became a part of this community. I was called to model faithful discipleship, to be responsible for Christian nurture.
I called these young men and I apologized. I told them I was wrong to yell at them, especially in front of others. I asked for forgiveness and for the chance to continue growing in relationship with them.
Now some might say this was a horrible idea, admitting I was wrong to those who are younger than me and in my care. "What about your authority?", they might cry. But in Christian community, our life is different and our life is different because of baptism. I messed up and because I believe in my own baptismal vows and your vows, my choice was the only one to make.
A baptized community means that we are called to live a different kind of life. A life that models discipleship even in the hardest of moments. A life that sees the water long dried off one another’s foreheads; the water that flows back to the waters of creation and of the flood and of the Jordan River – a water of promise, of devotion, of God’s love that never vanishes. A water that makes us one people, forever bound to one another.
Be a baptized people. Remember your own promises and the promises you made to one another. Let the waters be a reminder of God’s vow to us: we are beloved; we are claimed; we are God’s own. Amen.
1. Genesis 1:6-7; 9-10, NRSV translation.
2. Matthew 3:15