So Why Do We Celebrate Baptism the Way we do

 

Luke 3:10-14, 19-21

John the Baptist went through the whole district near the River Jordan proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  When all the people asked John “what must we do?” John answered, “if anyone has two tunics, then that one must share with the one who has none.”  Tax collectors who came for baptism asked, “what must we do?” John answered, “take no more than the tax rate”.  Soldiers who came for baptism asked, “what must we do?” John answered, “no intimidation, no extortion, be content with your pay”. 

 

 

 Now after the people had been baptized, Jesus, after his own baptism, was at prayer.  While praying, the heavens opened and the Holy Spirit descended in bodily shape, like a dove, and a

voice from the heavens was heard saying, “you are my child, my beloved, my favour rests on

you”. 

 

 So why do we celebrate baptism the way we do?

 

In the United Church, we have two sacraments Baptism and Holy Communion.  We talked about

Holy Communion a few weeks ago.  Now we talk about baptism.   

 

Baptism is a sacrament.  Sacrament is a symbolic ceremonial action to explain what already exists.  This is important to recognize when understanding our approach to the practice of baptism here at First United. 

 

In sacrament, we aren’t making something happen but we are recognizing the grace that already exists.  Through this symbolic enactment, we celebrate, release and unleash the mystical energy alive in that grace.

 

The mystical energy vibrating within this symbolic action of baptism is the delight of God, the delight of the sacred, in each person.  This delight is expressed in the phrase “you are my beloved, my child, in who I am well pleased”.  We celebrate, release and unleash the core experience of being “beloved”.

 

It is as simple as that. 

 

Unfortunately though, sometimes our Christian tradition has complicated our understandings of

baptism, and so I want to take a few moments to disentangle those complications.  When I meet with individuals and families about baptism, I often outline what baptism is “not” in order to recover the simplicity of baptism.

 

First of all, at First United, baptism is not transferring the name of the person being baptized from the rolls of “hell” to the rolls of “heaven” and thus saving the soul from eternal damnation.  I am talking about heaven and hell next week, but I think you have the idea.

 

Equally, baptism enacts the grace of gift of life as freely given by God.  One does not have to “do” anything to earn or receive this grace.  One is “beloved” for being, and thus it is not about what anyone believes or does.

 

Second, baptism is not putting a church or denominational brand on the person.  Since baptism is about honouring a person’s essential "belovedness," it is not about owning a person’s spirit journey. We are not branding anyone United Church, in fact we are not branding at all. 

 

We recognize that each person must take their own spirit journey through life.  When someone is baptized, they make a commitment to that spirit journey within a particular Christian community.  Those who bring a child for baptism are making a commitment to introduce the child to experiences and encounters of the sacred through the Christian tradition while recognizing that the child will live their own spirit life as they choose.  Parents are not deciding the religion of their child, but deciding how to introduce their child to spirituality.  So I remind parents, that if this child grows to become a Buddhist, the child is not rejecting her/his baptism, rather the child’s choice is about how he/she chooses to live their own belovedness celebrated in the baptism.

 

This is why we never re-baptize.  Baptism is a mystical ceremonial act, and as such it can’t be done “wrong”.  This is why we honour the baptismal practice of all churches and why the United Church participated in discussions between different Christian denominations to recognizes the baptismal practices of one another through the embrace of common principles such as using “water” and recognizing God as Creator, in Christ, and as Spirit.

 

While we never “rebaptize”, there are moments in life where it is important that we reconnect with our baptism.  In these instances it is possible to create rituals that reconnect us with our baptism in order to honour the stages of a spirit journey as well as choices and changes that happen over the course of life.  I have done a number of “name change” rituals.

 

Thirdly, baptism is not about washing away one’s sins.  Actually, it is to the contrary.  In our practice of baptism at First United, we celebrate “original goodness” and not “original sin”. 

 

The concept of “original goodness” or “original blessing” begins with the Hebrew creation story where, as each day unfolded, God declared all of creation “good”.  At the completion of creation, all of creation, which includes humanity, is named as “very good”.  This is our oldest sacred tradition. 

 

The doctrine of “original sin” did not develop until long after Jesus lived and died.  This doctrine teaches that all of us inherit a “sinful” nature because of the sins of our human ancestry, sins which occurred in the garden story of Eve and Adam.  The doctrine of original sin came to dominate Christian thought and as a result baptism became associated with this notion of washing away sins.  This is why beliefs emerged like the necessity of baptism in order to get into heaven.

 

This, in my mind, is a distortion of our sacred story.  In my mind, the doctrine of “original sin”, is a teaching based on a faulty understanding of the story of Eve and Adam in the garden, and many of you have heard me “wax eloquent” on this faulty understanding on previous occasions.  I also offer an alternative understanding.  If you haven’t heard me, talk to me and I can share with you my reflection on the Garden of Eden. 

 

During baptism at First, we consciously and expressly embrace an understanding of “original blessing” as coined by creation-centred theologians like Matthew Fox.  This embrace does not mean rejecting an understanding of sin.  To the contrary, an understanding of “original blessing” takes the notion of sin quite seriously.  When you read the context of the baptism of Jesus, one reads about John the Baptist who preached a “repentance from sins” as we heard in our Biblical reading.

 

So let’s just talk about sin.

 

 I begin with a story.  My daughter, Haley, as an eight year old, came up to me and asked me “what is sin?”  Haley was introduced to the spiritual life within a United Church context.  At first I was appalled by Haley’s question and quickly castigated myself as a parent, and as a minister no less, for neglecting this child’s religious education. 

 

Then I paused for a moment, smiled, and celebrated.  When I was eight, I didn’t know what sin was either, I just knew I had “a lot of it,” that I was “full of sin”.

 

For me, that is the damaging impact of a doctrine like “original sin” which undergirded the teachings I received as a boy.  I was taught that sin was actually associated with core being, that I was sinful and a “sinner”.  These are loaded words and why we are careful with our use of them here at First United. 

 

In the baptism stories, we hear sacred voice proclaiming “belovedness”.  My firm belief is that when God looks upon me, or upon any of us, God does not see a “sinner” but sees someone who is “beloved”.

 

When reading the story of John the Baptist and Jesus, the intent of John the Baptist was to call people back to their original “belovedness” as well as call them to embrace the “belovedness” of those around them.  Ultimately, in the story, we hear God’s voice naming all as beloved.

 

The intent of John includes “turning away” from behaviours that harm and hinder the experience of “belovedness”.  To repent literally means to “turn”.   John the Baptist was inviting all who requested baptism to “turn away” from participating in what can be identified as “systemic sin”.

 

Let me explain what I mean by returning to the question my daughter asked.  I don’t actually remember what I said in response to her question about “sin”, but I may have told Haley one of my favourite stories.  When Haley was a toddler, she and I would go to playgroup together.  Playgroup was wonderful.  I talked with adults, and she played to her heart’s delight.  Unfortunately, play group didn’t last forever, and we had to leave.  Haley did not want to leave. 

 

A negotiation would begin, a negotiation which would often devolve into my grasping a screaming child, stuffing her into a snow suit while muttering “not to be repeated” words under my breath.  It was not fun, and usually halfway home we stopped to wipe her frozen tears, allow me to breath for a minute, and then do hugs and try to forgive one another from the pain we both experienced, pain we had given and received. 

 

It is not that we were bad in our being, we were both living our delight of playgroup, but in living that delight a painful thing happened.  We bumped up against limits, the limits of our finite being and the limits of other people, and these limits create moments of brokenness. 

 

No one can live life without bumping up against the limits of other people and the limits of life itself, and thus none of us are exempt from experiencing brokenness.  This is a given.  We name this experience “sin”, the “missing the mark” of “perfect negotiation”.  So while sin is not original to our being, we are pretty young when we encounter this experience of sin. 

 

In this experience of brokenness, we are left with a choice, to heal from the brokenness, to reconcile, to appreciate the belovedness of ourselves and others or we can allow the brokenness to deepen, causing a rift or separation between us and those we bump up against, and ultimately separating from that experience of being “beloved” by God.   

 

In the example of my daughter, I have given a very non threatening example.  Yet we recognize that this experience of sin has gradations, gradations which ultimately have a systemic hold within our lived experience.  Collective actions over time result in a “systemic sin”, a brokenness which impacts all of us. 

 

A Song of Faith, adopted by the United Church illuminates this understanding of sin in the following description…

 

Sin is not only personal  but accumulates to become habitual and systemic forms of injustice, violence, and hatred….

        …the rise of selfish individualism that erodes human solidarity;

        …the concentration of wealth and power without regard for the needs of all;

        …the toxins of religious and ethnic bigotry;

        …the degradation of the blessedness of human bodies and human passions through sexual exploitation;

        …the delusion of unchecked progress and limitless growth that threatens our home, the earth;

        …the covert despair that lulls many into numb complicity with empires and systems of domination

 

This is actually “big stuff”.  When this “big stuff” remains unchallenged, it leads to catastrophic behaviours and actions that, when not checked, can even be identified as “evil”. 

 

As a prophet and like the prophets before him, John the Baptist proclaimed a turning away from this systemic sin.  John addressed the masses, addressed tax collectors, addressed soldiers, and in other parts of the story, addressed religious and political leaders, calling them to just action and to a way of life that addresses the brokenness in society that has evolved into systemic sin. 

 

John called them back to a world of “belovedness” where they connect with the gift of life, the grace of God’s delight.  John called the community to choose, to choose connecting with God’s sacred way of delighting in the goodness of creation, to live grounded in the mystical energy of “beloved”.

 

John the Baptist, and ultimately, the ministry of Jesus was a call to live God’s way of justice and compassion and love, to respond to God’s gracious gift of belovedness, and to turn away, to repent, from conscious participation in ways of acting and being which take advantage of others, cause harm, and destroys life. 

 

In the story of baptism, there is a reconnection with the waters that birthed creation, a reconnection with the Sacred spirit that hovered over the waters, a reconnection with the foundational experience of a creation born in delight where all creations lives peaceably with one another.

 

When we celebrate baptism we reconnect with this foundational experience. 

 

As a community, when we hold a child or when we celebrate with an adult, we choose to consciously connect with original delight, original goodness, original blessing. 

 

This connection with delight is a choice to connect with God’s sacred way, determined to turn away from those systemic “sins” alive in our world that separate us from God’s original delight. 

 

In baptism, we make a deliberate choice to unleash the mystical energy of belovedness, and our ceremony is designed to do this.  While we use water as the primary element, we connect with all four elements of the earth in our baptismal ceremony, receiving the graces of creation itself as a reminder that life is a gift we did not create but simply receive. 

 

Finally, we ground this ceremony in community because none of us are capable of living life authentically by ourselves.  This is a  complicated world where we are inextricably touched by the experience of sin in all its gradations from bumping against limits to the impacts of systemic sin. Ultimately, baptism reminds us that God stands by us and calls to us as a people and as a community to stand by one another, and to stand for “belovedness”

 

Baptism is a sign of what already exists, and what already exists is that when God looks upon any of us, God sees a “beloved” child in whom God is well-pleased.  This is what we celebrate in baptism and an amazing sacred energy is released as we are in union with and connected with our “belovedness”