|This Armenian Gospel book was produced in (1455 CE) at the monastery of Gamałiēl in Xizan by the scribe Yohannēs Vardapet and was illuminated by the priest Xačʿatur.|
What does baptism mean to you? What does your baptism say about who you are as a person? As a Christian? How does it define your identity and the way you live in the world?
You may have heard this before, but I’ve undergone several different baptisms over the years. I’ve been told that the nurses at the Catholic hospital where I was born threw some water on me and blessed me just in case I didn’t make it. A bit later I was officially baptized at St. Luke’s of the Mountains Episcopal Church, where my parents made the appropriate vows to raise me in the faith.
Because I wasn’t sure whether any of this had really taken hold, I decided as a teenager to redo things. So, I was immersed in a creek at summer camp. Then there’s that baptism in the Spirit thing that I experienced a bit later.
As you can see, I’ve covered all the bases. So what is your story?
We gather once again on Baptism of Jesus Sunday to hear the story of Jesus’ baptism, but in doing this we have the opportunity to renew our own baptismal vows.
The reading from Mark 1 begins with John the Baptizer proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Mark tells us that great crowds came out to hear John preach and receive his baptism.
Now John is an interesting character. The Gospels picture him as a prophet in the tradition of Elijah who is called on to prepare the people to welcome their Messiah. In baptizing the people for the forgiveness of sins, he points beyond himself to the one who will baptize them with the Holy Spirit.
Here’s the most intriguing part of our reading; Mark tells us that Jesus came to be baptized by John. Mark doesn’t tell us why Jesus did this. In fact, Mark hardly gives us any details. He just says that Jesus came down from Nazareth to be baptized by John like everyone else. But, unlike the others, when Jesus emerges from the waters of the Jordan, he looks up and sees the heavens torn open while the Spirit descends upon him in the form of a dove. Finally, he hears a voice from the heavens declare: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
That’s it, except that if you keep reading you will discover that the Spirit immediately drove Jesus into the wilderness to be tested (Mk 1:12-13). Again Mark doesn’t give us any details.
Although our reading offers us sparse details, it reminds us that baptism serves as an important marker in the lives of Jesus’ followers. While baptism may carry different meanings for each of us, the fact that Jesus was baptized reminds us that it’s more than simply something we check off before moving onto more important things.
So what does Baptism mean? Scripture suggests that it marks the beginnings of a new life with God. Consider Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus, in which he tells Nicodemus that he needs to be born from above. By that, Jesus meant, being born of water and the Spirit (Jn. 3:1-6).
Then in Romans 6, Paul speaks of baptism being the moment when we identify with Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection, so that we might “walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:1-4). I’ve heard testimony that confirms just that premise. People see their baptism as a moment of new beginnings. It might even be a moment when we take on a new identity. It might even be a moment when we take on a new name.
When it comes to new beginnings, Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5 that when we are in Christ we are a new creation. That which is old has been set aside so that everything about us can become new.
If you’ve seen the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou, you might remember that scene when Delmar sees the crowd lining up to be baptized in the river. As he listens to them sing “Down to the River to Pray,” he feels compelled to run down to the river to be baptized. He runs right to the front of the line and then he invites his friends to do the same. That’s because when he emerged from the waters of baptism, he understood that he was now a new creation. All that bad stuff from before had been washed away. From then on he tried his best to live according to that belief.
If we turn to Galatians 3, we find Paul speaking of becoming one in Christ through baptism. It is in baptism that we become children of Abraham and heirs of the promise made to Abraham (Gal. 3:27-29) so that in Christ we can become agents of blessing to the nations.
Baptism also serves as our ordination to the priesthood of all believers. When we are baptized, we share in the baptism that launched Jesus’ own ministry.
Finally, getting back to Mark’s description of Jesus’ baptism, if we believe that are united with Jesus in baptism, might we also hear the word God spoke to Jesus? Might we also hear God say to us: “You are my beloved child?” If we hear that word from God, might we then join with Jesus in embracing God’s eschatological mission of proclaiming and embodying God’s reign?
So, let us go down to the river to renew our baptisms and join with Jesus in embodying the reign of God by bearing witness to God’s promise of wholeness in this very broken world.