The Good News of Baptism
Matt Roberts, Seminarian, ECY, 01-26-20
With you, O Lord, is the wellspring of life. And in your light we see light. In the name of the one, holy, and undivided Trinity. Amen.
I have to admit, I am a bit surprised when Paul disses on baptism. When he writes to the Corinthians: “For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel,” I couldn’t help but feel perplexed. For me, the gospel and baptism seem like two sides of the same coin. It makes me wonder why Paul was so angry and led me to think about my own baptism.
I was baptized when I was nine years old. I sat in my Congregational church for years, watching a plate of dry, dusty, altoid-like crackers pass me by. These thin crackers looked almost exactly like the cinnamon altoids my dad would offer me, and yet when the plate was passed through the church, I was not allowed to eat these church altoids. The dusty church altoids were promptly followed by some unceremonious plastic shot glasses filled with Welches grape juice. Though Welches and I have always been well acquainted, I was again, not allowed to drink this special church Welches. I remember practically panting as the plates passed over me week after week after week. When I protested, my mom would, with increasing frustration as I grew older, whisper: “No, first you must be baptized.” Well then, my mischievous mind deduced, I want to be baptized. A confirmation class, a white robe, and a full tank of water later, I was baptized. I could finally eat that dusty church altoid and fully savor how dull the church altoids really are. After 9 years, I finally tasted the dusty crumbs that had haunted my imagination for years.
My baptism was a way for me to eat the dusty church altoids and special Welches shot of grape juice, but it was also my entrance to life in the church. I began singing in the choir, and actually paid attention in Sunday school. When we moved churches, my baptism gave me access to the better quality Hawaiian bread that replaced the dusty church altoid. When I worshiped in an evangelical church, I struggled with my mischievous motives for being baptized. Later, I affirmed baptism’s unique importance when I studied the Bible with professors at a Church of Christ university. As an Episcopalian in confirmation class, I was told that the Book of Common Prayer, like the Christian life, is centered on Baptism. When I began discerning for holy orders in the church, the bishop asked for a record that I was baptized. Just two weeks ago, we celebrated the Baptism of Christ, where John baptizes Jesus, initiating his three year ministry in Galilee.
Of all the things that Christians disagree on, one thing we all agree on is that Baptism should happen. It seems integral to what it means to be a Christian today. So when Paul has the audacity to say, “For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel.” I admit that I’m confused. Isn’t baptism the same thing as the gospel? You can’t have one without the other. Baptism and the gospel are as united as those dusty church altoids and that changeless Welches grape juice. Even Paul, in his letter to the Romans, equates baptism as dying and rising into the Body of Christ. So what gives? It may help us understand why Paul is frustrated if he look at what he considers is the power of baptism. In his letter to the Romans, he writes:
“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”
Rising out of the water reminds me of the deep symbolism found in Genesis’ account of creation. In the beginning of the creation of the world, the Spirit hovers over turbulent waters, raises a roaring wind, and creates the world that God then confirms as good. Rowan Williams, the previous Archbishop of Canterbury, suggests that the power of baptism lies in its universal symbolism of water, wind, and birth: in baptism we are reborn as children of God, emerging from chaos and moving into order as the wind of God blows upon it. In sharing in the life and death of Jesus, we draw closer to the image and likeness of Jesus, to the kindness, compassion, integrity, and conviction that manifests what God’s intentions for human relationships are like. To be baptized in this understanding does not mean separating from the chaos of life, but to be intimately tied to God’s redeeming work as it bubbles up from the chaotic depths of our lives. If we are among the baptized, caught in the rhythm of Jesus’ life and death, we are intimately caught up both in the depths of our own chaos, the depths of human need, and the depths of God’s infinite love.
And so, to be caught in this action of dying and rising with Christ is to be caught up intimately with others in their suffering and conflict. In opening up and drawing close to chaos, we also become more intimately aware of God’s intimacy and closeness with us. Rather than distancing ourselves from where conflict is, or avoiding the risk involved with being vulnerable and open to others, baptism transports us to the heart of God, to the hearts of our neighbors, to a deepening awareness of our own interior lives. Baptism even in my story was the threshold where I became increasingly aware of how connected I was to my church community. I became aware of my own chaotic and mischievous motives for even wanting baptism. I became aware of how much deeper God’s love for me was than my misguided motives.
And throughout the history of the church, Christians who discern the paradox of baptism have seen this paradox unfold in multiple ways. One is baptized with water, but one can also be baptized with blood, desire, or imagination. Throughout the church’s history there are believers who are killed and persecuted for their faith before the waters of baptism touch them. We often celebrate these saints in The Episcopal Church as martyrs, who with their deaths testify to how close God has drawn them to the chaos and suffering in the world. For those who are so intimately tied to Christ in their death, the church has often imagined those baptized by blood as immediately ascending to the presence of the risen Christ. Martyrs are said to be baptized in blood because their intimate connection with Jesus drew them to testify to God’s grace amidst the chaos of a suffering world. God also baptizes with desire. For those who throughout the church’s history have plumbed the depths of God’s love in mystic or ascetic communion, the church has understood their connection as constituting another type of baptism: the baptism of desire. Paul is one of the first saints who is considered to be baptized in this way: in his second letter to the Corinthians, the letter following our lesson today, he exclaims, “I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. And I know that such a person was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat.”
Paul here testifies to his own baptism by God in an ecstatic vision, where he was caught up into the intimate depths of God’s love. The message he brings back from that intimate encounter is none other than the foolishness of the cross he testifies to in his first letter:
“My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness. So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”
Paul’s baptism of desire is not in contrast to the baptism of water, but is one that also echoes what it means to be close to the heart of God, to be present with the chaos of the world and to testify to the redeeming love of God. And lastly, God baptizes through imagination. In his book, Surprised By Joy, C.S. Lewis narrates the moment he later attributes to his eventual conversion, where he picked up a book by George MacDonald called Phantastes:
“It was as if I were carried sleeping across the frontier, or as if I had died in the old country and could never remember how I came alive in the new. I know now that the new quality is called Holiness… If it had once eluded me by its distance, it now eluded me by proximity – something too near to see, too plain to be understood, on this side of knowledge… But now I saw the bright shadow of holiness coming out of the book into the real world and resting there, transforming all common things and yet itself unchanged. Or, more accurately, I saw the common things drawn into the bright shadow… That night my imagination was, in a certain sense, baptized; the rest of me, not unnaturally, took longer. I had not the faintest notion what I had let myself in for by buying Phantastes.”
God baptized Lewis’ awareness through his imagination. This baptism was a bright transfiguration that awakened a deeper awareness of how intimately connected all persons are to both the chaos of the world and to the kindness of God. It led Lewis later toward the waters of baptism. It crossed the frontier into deeper intimacy with God, his neighbor, and his own interiority.
I now think I understand why Paul was so angry at the Corinthians for how they argued and divided themselves. The Corinthian church seemed to think that baptism initiated you into one party or another’s party of religious belief. Are you of Apollos? Are you of Cephas? Are you of Paul? Paul’s anger is justified because this internal division fundamentally misunderstands how baptism brings us close to the intimate mystery of God. In baptism, we carry our crosses, we witness to the chaos of the world, and we journey with our own misgivings, misapprehensions, doubts, fears, our longings, our loves, and our wonders. In God’s baptism, we journey to the waters of chaos and we witness the chaotic waters as they are calmed by Christ into the idyllic ocean of intimacy.
God’s baptism is baptism that brings us closer to each other, to the real chaos and connection that binds all us all together in hope and love. This helps me understand some of the potent imagery suggested by Isaiah and Matthew in our readings today. Though there is anguish now, one day there will be no gloom for those in anguish. Instead Isaiah declares that in a future day the way of the sea will be made glorious, illumined for all nations, glorified by God’s gracious favor. God’s glorious light shines amongst the dark, chaotic waters of this world, drawing us closer to the chaos where God is actively redeeming. For this God is the God who works against chaos, who breaks the rods of oppressors, who cures disease and sits with those who are sick.
And God is still, always calling us to this baptismal closeness. When we gather, we partake of Christ’s Body and Blood in the Eucharist, an act that intimately joins us to each other, the life of God, and to the life of others who have gone before us. In worship together, we share our prayers, sit in stillness, proclaim in praise, or wonder in silence. We laugh during dinner, check in with each other, connect in fellowship, or recline in the rest of compline. The temptation to close ourselves off from this vulnerability in community is real: like the Corinthian community, our worship can also reify boundaries, can further divide Christ’s Body, and can proclaim a gospel of division and pretension rather than the foolishness of the cross. This distorted gospel of division encircles the wagons, protests at difference, and puffs up its own credentials. The gospel of the cross, in contrast, empties itself of vainglory and is enchanted by God’s light to journey intimately into the chaos of our world, to witness the transfiguring work as it happens. The gospel of the cross suggests movement, a drawing close, an intimate embrace, the shedding of tears, the dropping of your fishnets. The gospel of the cross beckons us onward and upward. The gospel of the cross dissolves the gospel of division as it asks us not to protect our own, but to journey closer to others. In journeying with others, we journey with God, from chaos to the light that enlightens the world, to the hope of glory that Isaiah prophesized.
This is our message to the world, that God is light, and because God is the light that shines in darkness, we can boldly follow to where God’s light leads, away from our division and into the infinite expanse of divine love, that works even now to transform both our and our neighbor’s darkness. God’s light shines in our darkness, and we have nothing to fear from drawing close to the God who draws close to us.
So I urge us all here tonight to draw close to God. Be present to yourself, connect close to your friends, reconcile yourself with your enemies. Behold God’s grace in each other, partake in Christ’s Body and Blood in Eucharist. In all of these things, we draw close to the cross of Christ, to the chaos that God is present to in creation, to the chaos that divides us from our neighbors and divides us within ourselves. But in the infinite light of Christ, who manifests God’s presence on the cross, we have nothing to fear.
Come to God, then, my neighbors, my friends, my enemies, with all your desires and instincts, all your lofty ideals, all your longing for purity and unselfishness, all your yearning to love and be true, all your aspirations, self-forgetfulness, all your weaknesses, all your shames, all your futilities, all your helplessness, all your failures, all your misgivings, all your misjudgments, all your disappointments, and all your divisions. Be sure that God is present, even before you come, to all of what you bring. Be assured that God will draw present to you and draw you present to others, for God is light, and in God there is no darkness at all.
With you, O Lord, is the wellspring of life. And in your light we see light. In the name of the one, holy, and undivided Trinity. Amen.