A reflection given at Holladay United Church of Christ on January 8, 2016 (First Sunday after Epiphany/Baptism of Christ)

Acts 19:1-7
Matthew 3:13-17

The Christmas season has come to an end. Two of the gospels in our Bible tell stories of Jesus’ birth, but almost nothing is known of his childhood. There is only one story of Jesus as a child – in the gospel of Luke – which narrates how he visited the city of Jerusalem with his parents when he was about 12 years old, and stayed in the temple when his family returned home (unbeknownst to them). After that, the next part of the gospel story is Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist when he was about 30 years old. So the traditional gospel reading for this first Sunday after Epiphany (the end of the Christmas season) is the Baptism of Jesus.

We have been having some discussions about baptism in the church recently – in our council meetings and adult faith discussions. Baptism is the traditional ritual or sacrament by which one becomes incorporated into the church – the Body of Christ. Our HUCC bylaws require that one be baptized in order to become a member of the church. But what about those who come to be a part of our faith community from other religious traditions? If we say, “No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here,” should we require baptism to be a member? Apparently, some UCC churches have decided that should not be a requirement for membership in their local congregation.

That will be one important question for us to wrestle with in the years to come, as we discern how to be a church of Jesus Christ in a changing culture. I have told our council that perhaps it is a question best saved until you call a new pastor. I don’t intend to provide an answer today, but instead I thought this would be a good occasion to talk about some of the meanings of baptism.

John the Baptist seems to have been a popular, apocalyptic preacher in first century Judea. He came out of a Jewish tradition, but he was not main-stream; in fact he was critical of some of the Jewish traditions of his time. He preached that a time of God’s judgment was soon to come, and that people needed to be baptized as a sign of repentance. And he also proclaimed that one even greater than he would soon come.

Baptism was not something new with John. Many ancient religions, including Judaism, had ritual washings with water of various kinds. They were often symbolic of purification or preparation for a new kind of life. The baptism that John preached was a ritual of repentance. And, according to the story, this was a problem when Jesus came to him because John recognized that Jesus had no reason to repent, so he at first refused to baptize Jesus. He only consented after Jesus insisted.

Christian baptism still retains this meaning of purification from sin. The Christian church has long taught that baptism is the necessary cure for “original sin” – the sin that all people inherit from our earliest human ancestors. It is the ticket – or the first punch on the ticket – that gets one into heaven. But that teaching has faced some serious criticism in recent years (including from folks in this church!).

But Christian baptism has more dimensions of meaning than cleansing from sin. After the death and resurrection of Jesus, baptism came to symbolize (in the words of the apostle Paul) a death like Christ’s, in order that we might also know a resurrection like Christ’s. Our Centering Reading from our UCC Book of Worship refers to this symbolism. In baptism, we die to our old life – a life focused on self and the wisdom of this world; and rise to a new life – a life focused on service and community and God’s wisdom, which seems like foolishness to this world. That symbolism is more powerful in baptism by immersion than in sprinkling with water, but it is there.

We don’t often talk about that meaning of baptism when we baptize infants in our tradition.

There are also echoes of the creation story in Genesis – when God brought forth a world with dry land and living things from a watery chaos; of Noah and the flood and the ark; and the story of the Hebrew slaves who escaped bondage under Pharaoh of Egypt by going through the sea. In baptism we become a new creation, and are set free from bondage to false gods.

Other meanings are also suggested in the story of Jesus’ baptism. After he was baptized in the Jordan River, two amazing things happened: he saw the Spirit of God descend upon him like a dove; and he heard a voice from heaven saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

In our baptisms, we become beloved children of God. Now all people are, in some sense, children of God – although many of them are estranged from that relationship. In baptism, we claim that relationship and become also heirs – heirs of God’s promises of steadfast love and life. The image of a parent giving an infant a loving bath, and then covering the child with a fluffy blanket and kisses comes to mind.

And we also receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. This is big. Early in the book of Acts, the story is told of how the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples and early followers of Jesus on the day of Pentecost, giving birth to the church. Our UCC Statement of Faith affirms that it is the Holy Spirit that creates and renews the Church of Jesus Christ, and binds together people of all ages, tongues and races.

Early Christians also believed that baptism bestowed upon believers “spiritual gifts.” These are gifts like speaking in tongues (other languages), prophecy, teaching, leadership, ministry, giving, healing, and others that are given to people for the common good – to help build up the faith and the Church.

In the story we read from Acts, Paul came to the city of Ephesus (in modern-day Turkey) and found some disciples of Jesus. They had been baptized, but with John’s baptism – a baptism of repentance. They did not even know about the Holy Spirit. But when they were baptized in the name of Jesus, they received the Holy Spirit and began to speak in tongues and prophesy (speaking the words of God to the community).

We need these gifts in the church – all people’s gifts.

These are a few of the meanings of baptism. I do not suggest this list is exhaustive. These are all gracious gifts of God; we aren’t entitled to them and we don’t earn them. They are gifts freely given because God loves us and wants us to live in peace and health and wholeness and freedom.

I don’t think these things all happen magically or miraculously by the application of Holy Water. The water reminds us that God’s love and grace are as essential to our new life of faith as water is for our life in this world: for drinking, cooking, and cleaning. What matters from us is the willingness to be open to all these gracious gifts – a willingness publicly demonstrated by consenting to baptism – and the prayers and support of a faith community.

During our time of Communion, I invite you to come to the baptismal font – either before or after receiving Communion – for a reminder of your baptism.

Robert J. von Trebra