“What’s In a Name?”

Isaiah 43:1-7

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Acts 19:1-7

January 11, 2004


Today, the church is celebrating Baptism of the Lord Sunday, when we remember back to the baptism of our Lord Jesus by John in the Jordan River and the descending of the Holy Spirit upon him and the voice from heaven that said, “You are my Son, whom I love.  With you I am well pleased.” 

Jesus’ baptism was not only the inauguration of his ministry, but it was also a declaration of his identity.  For Luke, as well as for the other Gospel writers, this Jesus who was baptized, was not just another passerby, who happened to be intrigued by John’s message of baptism of repentance, and decided to get wet too, this Jesus was and is the very Son of God.

There is a story told about the baptism of King Aengus by St. Patrick in the middle of the fifth century that sometime during the sacrament, St. Patrick leaned on his sharp-pointed staff and inadvertently stabbed the king's foot. After the baptism was over, St. Patrick looked down at all the blood, realized what he had done, and begged the king's forgiveness. “Why did you suffer this pain in silence,” the Saint wanted to know.  The king replied, "I thought it was part of the ritual."

          In many respects, the king’s answer to St. Patrick’s question is not too far off the mark of how many of us look upon, let alone even understand, the ritual of baptism.  There is a mystery which surrounds this ancient rite and it’s practice which easily lends itself to all kinds of misconceptions of not only what it means, but how and when it’s supposed to be done.

          In the movie, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” there is a great scene near the beginning of the movie about baptism.  “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” is a humorous but deep story about three dimwitted prisoners who escape together from the a chain gang in Depression-era Mississippi, and who go on to share an adventurous journey in pursuit of freedom and a hidden treasure from an armored car robbery.   The escapees are the loquacious Everett, the ill-tempered Pete, who always seems to be in a bad mood, and Delmar, who is an easygoing sort, but not the sharpest knife in the drawer. 

At one point in the movie, as the three are sitting out in the woods evading capture, the woods become filled with a white-robed group of men and women, singing “Down to the River to Pray” as they process to the river for a mass baptism.  Everett, is a skeptic and starts to ridicule the believers saying, “Well, I guess hard times flush the chumps.  Everybody’s lookin’ for answers,” when suddenly Delmar pulls off his hat, hands it to Everett, runs down into the river, wades to the front of the line, and gets baptized.  As soon as Delmar, comes out of the water, Pete says, “Well, I’ll be.  Delmar’s been saved.”  Delmar turns to his friends and proudly proclaims: "Well, that's it, boys. I've been redeemed. The preacher's done warshed away all my sins and transgressions.  It's the straight and narrow from here on out, and heaven everlasting is my reward."  To that Everett replies, "Delmar, what are you talking about? We've got bigger fish to fry."  But Delmar goes on, "The preacher says all my sins is warshed away, including that Piggly Wiggly I knocked over in Yazoo."  Everett counters: "I thought you said you was innocent of those charges."  And Delmar says: "Well, I was lyin'. And the preacher says that that sin's been warshed away too.  Neither God nor man's got nothin' on me now.  C'mon in boys, the water is fine."  And with that, much to Everett’s surprise, Pete pulls off his hat, hands it to Everett, runs into the river, and is baptized, too.        

          For Delmar and Pete, baptism was the way to absolve themselves from all their sins and transgressions including their crimes against the state of Mississippi.  Everett saw baptism as a ridiculous superstition done by fools and chumps looking for answers to life’s hardships. 

Even our own practice of Baptism here at Finley does not fully reveal to us the mystery of this sacrament.  Even though I use a lot of liturgy to help remind us what baptism means, when it comes right down to it, the mechanics of baptism is simply me putting water on a person’s head and saying some words.  Other denominations do Baptism differently.  Some churches have elaborate baptismal tubs in which adults are fully submerged.  Others have elaborate baptism fonts in which a people have water poured over them.  Some churches baptize only adults.  Others baptize people of all ages, including infants.  Some churches us oil to anoint the person after being baptized. 

But, Christian baptism is about much more than just the washing away of sins.  The baptism of John, a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, was only a sign of things to come.  The fiery wilderness prophet was only laying the foundation upon which Jesus would build.  John says as much himself, when he says of the One who is coming: "I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."

We also heard another account of baptism from the Book of Acts, this one describing events that occurred in the city of Ephesus on one of the Apostle Paul's missionary trips. We have to make a quick adjustment in our frame of reference. By the 19th chapter of Acts, we are well beyond the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. We are well beyond the Holy Spirit's explosion in Jerusalem, which filled the apostles with the heavenly power they needed to spread the Gospel of the Resurrected Christ.

We are beyond the conversion of Paul, who went from being a fierce and deadly foe of the believers, to become Christ's most dedicated evangelist. In the 19th chapter of Acts, Paul arrives in the town of Ephesus where he encounters some people vaguely described as "disciples."  As it turns out, it's hard to say what kind of disciples they are, because it is evident they do not have proper instruction in the Christian faith. This becomes clear when Paul asks them if they received the Holy Spirit when they became believers. And these Ephesian disciples have no idea what he's talking about -- they had not even heard that there was such a thing as the Holy Spirit.

When they explain that they had received John's baptism, Paul gently tells them they have missed what baptism is actually about -- for Christians are baptized into Jesus, to become part of the Body of Christ, and receive power for living as his disciples through the Holy Spirit. On hearing this, they were immediately baptized, and then Paul laid hands upon them, and the Holy Spirit came into them in a powerful way, and they praised God.

There is no baptism without the involvement of the Holy Spirit.  Baptism is about what God does in the life of the one who is baptized, through the power of the Spirit.  And baptism is just the beginning, whether you are 8 months old, or 18 or 88.  Baptism is the beginning of a new life as a member of the Body of Christ, living by the power of the Holy Spirit.  In baptism, God changes us.  As Delmar and Pete experienced in O Brother, Where Art Thou? -- and as the 12 Ephesian disciples found out when Paul questioned them about their faith -- baptism is about more than being washed clean of our sins, though it does represent our cleansing from sin. But there's more to it than that.

Baptism is the act through which God claims us by the Holy Spirit as his own children, initiating and incorporating us into Christ's living body -- the Church.  And baptism is not merely something that happened to us way back when -- when we were an infant, or when made a public profession of faith as an adult.  Our baptism is relevant to our life today, as disciples of Jesus. Baptism doesn't end with that holy touch of the water -- that is only the beginning -- the beginning of an ongoing, lifelong relationship with God. Baptism is the source of our power for living as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ.

Baptism symbolizes our dying with Christ as we are submerged into water (whether by immersion, sprinkling or pouring), and our rising into glorious new life with Christ as we emerge from the baptismal water. When we baptize people into God’s Holy Church, they receive the opportunity to serve a life of ministry as a disciple of Jesus Christ -- as all baptized Christians are called to do.

Baptism also brings us into a special relationship with other believers, our brothers and sisters in Christ. It means we are linked together as part of the Body of Christ, and what affects one of us affects all. The Sacrament of Baptism is a powerful expression of God’s love and grace -- amazing grace which we do nothing to merit or deserve. It is the visible sign of God's life-changing love coming alive in our hearts -- a love that never fades away. Paul was surprised when he heard this group from Ephesus speak of having received only John's baptism. He knew they could not be disciples of Jesus Christ, with only the benefit of the Jewish purification ritual that was John's baptism.

The work of the life-changing Spirit is an inside job, and it only begins with baptism. God has given us this power and this Spirit for a reason. He has a plan for each one of us to carry his light and love, and the good news of his grace, into the world. The work of the Spirit is ongoing in each baptized Christian, and in the Body of Christ as a whole.

And for those of us already baptized, today we have an opportunity to remember our baptism -- when God claimed us as sons and daughters in a life-long covenant. Remember, and be thankful. If you would like to remember your baptism with thanksgiving -- and recommit yourself to living in the service of Jesus Christ -- then come to the baptismal font this day, in a few moments, during the singing of our closing hymn. Come to the font, put your hand in the water, and with a prayer in your heart, touch the water to your forehead. Perhaps you will want to make the sign of the cross as you do. Or touch the water to your cheek, or rub it on your arms, if you prefer. And if anyone has trouble walking, just lift a hand, and I will bring his living water to you for the rededication of your heart and life. As we remember the baptism of our Lord Jesus, let us also remember our own baptism this day, and be thankful Let's be thankful that we have received the real thing, and that God's Spirit is alive within us. Amen.  

          Passing through the waters of this font in the three-fold name of God, we receive the promise of God's divine presence in our lives. Not only are we promised the indwelling presence of the Son and the providential, parental protection and care of the Father, we are promised the Holy Spirit. We are given the Spirit to move and equip us so that we can grow into our identity as God's own anointed.   Amen.