True confession: Clergy love telling liturgical blooper stories. There are a lot of motives for this practice. Some of it involves making mental notes of what to avoid. Some of it is just about the quirky, humorous nature of it all. And some of it is probably all about the relief at having managed to avoid making at least some of the mistakes that are possible.
My personal favorite, which I’ve told some of you about, was the mistake that a colleague of mine made years ago. As you know, I was originally ordained in the Methodist Church and early in my ministry I had a female colleague who was asked to baptize an adult male. United Methodist polity provided for immersion and, at her parishioner’s request, Debbie sought out a baptismal font to use.
But as the day approached, the mechanics of getting this much larger man out of the water began to play on her nerves. Forgetting about the buoyance of any body in water, eventually, the mechanics were all she could think about. When the day came, she waded into the water, put her arm behind the man, placed a cloth across his nose, and – as she lowered him into the water, declared, “Drink ye all of this!”
The baptism of Jesus isn’t a liturgical blooper, but it is theological puzzler. Why would the perfect Son of God ask John to baptize him? It’s certainly not because he had sinned or because he wasn’t sold out to the work of God in his life. So, what is it?
In trying to answer that puzzle, I have thought a lot about bridges as a metaphor for what is going on here. There are many kinds of bridges. There are bridges that go somewhere, like the Golden Gate or the Brooklyn Bridge. There are bridges to nowhere. There are also bridges that go somewhere, but it’s a moment-to-moment thing whether we will get anywhere. Mother Natalie and I crossed a bridge near the southwestern corner of Costa Rica that looked like it was built from the scrap lumber my father used to keep in his workshop and I remember thinking that the only confirmation that it was safe to cross was the truck immediately ahead of us.
But the reason I got a bit stuck on bridges is this: Our Gospel text has been read at least three ways in over two thousand years.
Some have described the Baptism of Jesus as an act of modeling. “I’m doing this. You should too. Follow me. Get baptized.”
A second approach to the story argues that the Baptism of Jesus is the moment in which the divine authority of Jesus is made public. “This is my beloved, Son.” Those are the words that figure prominently in that interpretation of the story. Interpreters argue that, before those words, Jesus may have been just anybody, but with that word from heaven, it was clear that things were different.
But the longer the church reflected on the story, the more a third interpretation became important – one that didn’t necessarily preclude the other two — but went far beyond it. Sitting with the words of the Gospel story, the early church fathers noted that the baptism of Jesus was accompanied by the other members of the Trinity: the Holy Spirit in the form of the descending dove and the Father in the words heard from heaven.
They noted that in being baptized Jesus didn’t just model baptism but blessed the water and the body by being baptized. In other words, by being baptized, they also concluded that Jesus had built the bridge from earth to heaven, making it possible for every child of God to make the same journey.
Now that’s a completely different kind of bridge!
It’s a bridge that goes somewhere, but it’s also a bridge that changes everything and everywhere you have ever been. It’s a bridge that can only make a difference if you take it. And it’s a one-way bridge.
Go back over it to where you started, and it makes no difference that you ever made the trip. Un-see what your baptism urges you to see about God, about yourself, about what matters, about the world around you, and you become someone who learned nothing from your travels.
The other two interpretations may have something to tell us. But this third insight into the baptism of Jesus is why it is a major feast day in the life of the church. It marks a turning point in the history of the world, in the spiritual fortunes of humankind, and in our relationship with God.
But let me be as concrete as possible and make a few observations about how this insight changes the way that we think about our baptism:
One, baptism isn’t magic, it’s the work of God.
I have lost track of the number of people who haven’t been to church in “donkey’s years” and don’t plan to go ever again, but want their little bundle baptized. Often you can’t even tell if the parents really even believe anything. It’s as if they think having their child baptized is like wrapping a necklace of garlic around their baby’s neck to ward off vampires.
This isn’t just superstitious and, therefore, pointless. It’s dangerously misleading.
Of course, God isn’t going to leave an innocent child to fend for itself, if his or her parents fail to have their child baptized. But God isn’t into magic tricks either.
God is in the business of building a bridge from a world shaped by our own, narrow, materialistic, and self-serving perspective to the Kingdom of God – a place where everything, every value, every commitment is turned toward God. And getting a baby baptized because a grandmother insists on it or because parents suddenly think that a little hocus-pocus is in order doesn’t begin to comprehend what God is seeking to accomplish by taking us over the bridge of baptism.
To have your baby baptized this way is like taking it out on the bridge and having a picture taken without ever going over to the other side and then pasting it into a scrapbook that the child might go back and see in 60 years, without ever really making the trip.
“Huh,” the child thinks, I wonder what was on the other side.” There really isn’t any point. In fact, it’s more likely to alienate a child from God, than anything else.
And that leads me to a second point:
For baptism to matter, you need to cooperate with God’s work in you.
There have been some really silly debates in the history of the church over whether God saves us because we respond in faith to God, or God saves us by having us baptized.
Only in the modern world, would anyone think that way.
The ancient church believed that there was no reason to be baptized if you don’t believe and no reason not to be baptized if you do. Only a fraud, a hypocrite, or an imposter would try to have one without the other.
That’s why we baptize infants, but we also practice confirmation as a sacrament. Historically, confirmation has been associated with the anointing of the Holy Spirit, the perfection of our baptism, and a sign of our cooperation with the work of God in us. That’s also why taking communion is usually treated as the very next thing you do after you are confirmed.
Together, the three sacraments are signs of our cooperation with the work of God’s grace. We turn our back on the way that the world does business. We stop evaluating our lives and our neighbors the way that the world tends to evaluate and treat people; and we set out on a quest to find out just how different our lives can be with God’s help.
Maybe we end up a bit freer than we once were. Maybe we are more courageous or loving. Maybe we begin to spend our time and energy on things that matter to God, instead of things that mattered only to our shrunken godless selves before we were baptized. Maybe our awareness of God’s presence deepens. A lot of what happens depends on where we start the journey and how closely we listen to the Holy Spirit.
But this much is certain: If we take the trip over the bridge seriously, we will never see God, ourselves, our neighbors or our world in the same way again.
That’s why the trip over the baptismal bridge is a one-way journey. God’s baptismal bridge isn’t for tourists. It’s for people on a journey into the love of God that never ends.
Three, the church — as the body of Christ — is where you first find yourself on the other side of the bridge.
For the most part, the world talks about the church as a collection of activities: Things we do at church with one another and for others.
There is nothing wrong these things, per se, but when people think of the church as a place where the reason we gather is to do good things, they have it completely wrong.
The church is not a collection of do-gooders. It isn’t a social club or a book club or a collection of liturgical and musical artists. It isn’t a center for political activism.
The church is the living, breathing body of Christ that embraces and enfolds us on the other side of the baptismal bridge. The start of something new: a new way of being, a new way of living.
That’s why when that body gathers together to receive the Eucharist, you ought to hear the universe hum with the unbridled power of God and, as Martin Luther suggested, you ought to hear the gates of hell groan and splinter.
So, the truth is, we do a lot of good things, but we do them for reasons that people can’t comprehend without crossing that bridge. We have discovered that we were made to live for God. We discover that we were made to live in connection with one another through God; and we discover that we were meant to live as if we were flesh and bone of the same body. That’s why the baptismal liturgy not only asks questions of the candidate’s sponsors but asks the church to pledge itself to care for the person who is baptized.
Understood in that way, it becomes clear that the baptism of Jesus is not a puzzle, but a promise – not a ritual but a new beginning. My prayer this day is that having crossed the bridge, you will journey on into the love of God.