Grace and peace from God our Creator, hope in our Redeemer Jesus the Christ, and the promised gifts of the Holy Spirit are with you, always.
Sometimes I get stuck while writing a sermon. It’s been almost two months since I have preached, since we had that long break and the few weeks before I was away in Colorado and we had the Moveable Feast and then Advent Lessons and Carols. A lot has happened in our nation and world since I last stood here and proclaimed the good news to you, and so maybe that’s why it felt so hard.
It’s January 11, 2017. We finally got out of 2016, a year full of wild rides. It’s the first week of the new quarter! Did you set a new year resolution to start studying for finals earlier? I have set resolutions often in my life, and have never really stuck with them. Setting big goals is important, but setting attainable goals is much more likely to be successful. This year, I decided to do things a little differently. I’m resolving not to reach for far-off achievements, but heading back to basics.
I’m going to be my best self, as I am. I’m going to practice gratitude for what I have. I’m going to remember that greatest commandment, to love my God and love my neighbor as I love myself. I’m going to gather with you all to read scripture and receive communion and pray and eat dinner. 2017 will, in that way, be simultaneously just like and not like every other year.
I think we’re going to talk a lot about how to be Christians in 2017. It’s the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, when Martin Luther set out to resist an empire that most people thought was untouchable. Jesus, throughout his ministry, turned over the tables and forced his society to take stock of their allegiances and values.
And we’ll talk about that. I'll talk to you about it from here, and it'll probably come up over dinner, and you'll probably run into questions around campus, and on Facebook, and at Tapping Into Theology, and with the Interfaith Campus Council.
So tonight, we’re going to head back to basics. We can't go out and do things in the name of Christ without a firm foundation. We can't face big challenges without preparation.
Jesus knows this, and so before he begins his public ministry, he visits John the Baptizer. John, who knew about Jesus and spent much of his life pointing to Jesus as the coming Messiah, is, understandably, surprised by this. He thinks it makes more sense for Jesus to do the baptizing.
We may have varying understandings of the purpose or effect of baptism, and may wonder why Jesus needed to be baptized. If baptism is simply a cleansing of sin, why would the Son of God need that? If it’s an “initiation rite” into the family of God, why would the Son of God need that? If we see baptism as an outward sign of the grace of God—as a fresh start, a new beginning, a clean slate, a change of perspective, a starting place—Jesus’s baptism sets the stage for our own. As we’ll sing, later, Jesus’ baptism “opens the door” to “healing, wholeness, and more.”
This time of year, you often hear people say “New Year, New Me,” right? Well, in our baptism, there’s a new us, too. Sure, we’re only baptized one time. But it didn’t only make us new that one time. In Christ, we are a new creation, and that’s not a one-and-done process. We grow and we change every minute of every day—the scientists among us would be the first to tell us that, on the molecular level, we are constantly being made new.
We have so many opportunities to remember our baptism. When I was a kid, and we’d go to confirmation camp, my pastor would wake us up in the morning by splashing water on us and yelling REMEMBER YOUR BAPTISM!
You’re welcome for not doing that to you tonight. What he was trying to get us to understand—other than that it was literally time to wake up—was to wake up each morning with the knowledge that we live and breathe the love of God. Our baptismal event—that other time he splashed us with water—was awhile ago, but its effects are new each morning.
The meaning of our baptism is constant, and it is always new. Paradoxes like that are some of the great joys of our faith, right? Baptism makes us new again and again and again.
I don’t think 2017 is any more or any less of a “new year, new you” than any other year. But I think we are going to spend a lot of our time this year taking stock of what we mean when we say that we are Christians. In the baptismal covenant that we have made—and continue to make—with God and with one another, to what have we committed ourselves?
Don’t worry, not a rhetorical question: we have promised and will again promise “To live among God’s faithful people; to hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s supper; to proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed; to serve all people, following the example of Jesus; to strive for justice and peace in all the earth.”
In our baptism, we are connected to all those who have been baptized, even those first few with John in the Jordan River. The Holy Spirit has been moving and is still moving. She, too, is always being made new.
In the reading from the Acts of the Apostles tonight, Peter is talking about how he and the other apostles were “witnesses to all that [Jesus] did.” All the preaching, healing, teaching, and learning that the disciples participated in is over, and they’re telling the stories to the people who weren’t witnesses. What stories are we hearing and telling about what God has done through Jesus? Through us? What have we witnessed?
When we look out at the local, national, and global landscape, what do we see that is in line with the promises of our baptism? What do we see that is in violation?
What are we doing to do about it?