What does baptism mean to you? What difference does it make for you to be a baptized person?
Most of us in this room have been baptized. Some of us were baptized as children, infants, when we had no idea what was going on and no say in the matter. It’s just something a long time ago that happened to us.
Some of us here were baptized as adults, as the result of a conscious choice we made to identify with this Christian community.
Some of us here this morning have not been baptized. But we come to church because we find here a prayer, a beauty, a presence, a community that matters to us.
And that is why this is a really important, diverse, personal question: What does baptism mean to you? What difference does it make to be a baptized person?
One way we talk about the difference is to say that baptism means forgiveness of sin and protection from punishment. That’s certainly what John the Baptist was talking about when he offered baptism, as we hear in today’s Gospel reading. “I baptize you with water for repentance,” John had said – which, by the way, is why John does not want to baptize Jesus: John recognizes Jesus is the one person who does not need the repentance John’s baptism offers. John’s baptism was a symbolic washing that cleansed away the stain of sin and guilt, so that, when the axe was laid at the roots of the trees and the trees were cut down and thrown into the fire, those who were baptized would not be burned. John offered baptism as a kind of heavenly fire insurance.
And that is still how a lot of people today think about baptism. For centuries, the Church has taught that no one can go to heaven unless they’re baptized. For centuries, parish priests would urge parents to have their children baptized very soon after birth, because infant mortality rates were high, and no parent liked the thought of their child being locked out of heaven because they were slow in arranging a baptism. The Church today does not teach the exclusivity of baptism in quite the same way – today we tend to downplay the whole heavenly fire insurance thing – but I still talk to people who have in the forefront of their minds the idea that baptism is about being cleansed so we can get into heaven. So that’s one difference that baptism can make.
Another meaning baptism has is that baptism is a way of belonging. We speak of baptism as that which makes a person a member of the Church, a member of the Body of Christ. That’s what Peter is talking about in our Acts reading today. Peter is preaching to the household of Cornelius in this story; and Cornelius is a centurion, a Roman, a Gentile; Cornelius is just about the last person Peter ever imagined being interested in Jesus, or that Peter himself would be preaching to. Cornelius is someone Peter assumes could never be part of the community of the People of God.
Yet Cornelius has been telling how God sent him a vision telling him to invite Peter, because Peter had a message of salvation. And Peter realizes that, even if he’d never seen it coming, God has called Cornelius to be part of the community. That’s why Peter says “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” When Cornelius and his entire household are baptized, at the end of this story, that is a sign of their belonging.
And baptism is a sign of belonging for us, too. In our society today, belonging can be a tricky sort of thing. People today can be very reluctant to sign up for things, to commit themselves to formal membership in organizations or groups. Sociologist Robert Putnam observed in 1995 that membership in bowling leagues was declining precipitously; people still went bowling, they just didn’t want to join a league; and that trend was repeated in all kinds of areas of American life. People today can be leery of being obligated to any kind of belonging.
Yet we all yearn to belong. Life can be so fluid, so shifting: things and values and feelings can come and go with such amazing speed: we can often be left feeling isolated and alone and rootless. And we yearn to belong to something larger than ourselves that can root us and ground us and give us value and meaning in our lives. The Gospel tells us God’s Love is what grounds us, and baptism is a sign of belonging to that love. That belonging is another difference baptism can make.
There is yet another aspect of baptism – one that we Episcopalians tend not to talk about very much, but one that is all over our readings today. And that is that baptism is an anointing with the Holy Spirit. I’ve heard Pentecostals and Evangelicals talk about “anointed ministries”; I’ve heard Charismatics talk about the gifts and the fruits of the Holy Spirit. But baptism in the Spirit is something we mainstreamers seem not to talk about very much.
And that’s a shame. Because that is something that is clearly very important in the scriptures themselves. Isaiah speaks today about the qualities of the servant upon whom God puts the Spirit. For Matthew, the opening of the heavens and the coming-down of the Spirit like a dove is obviously the most important thing about Jesus’ baptism – it is what “fulfills all righteousness,” as Jesus says to John. That visionary experience that confirms Jesus as the beloved Son of God is what makes his baptism significant.
And that same coming-of-the-Spirit is what makes baptism significant for Jesus’ followers, as well. For us it might not be as dramatic as the skies parting and a dove flying. But listen to how Peter describes it: at baptism, “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; so he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.” Peter describes the anointing with the Spirit not by its drama, but by its effects: doing good and healing: going out and being with people, in the love of God, for the sake of well-being. That’s what Jesus did all through his ministry; that’s what Peter is doing, in Jesus’ name, by the Spirit’s power, as he brings well-being to the house of Cornelius; and that’s what all of us can do, as we follow Jesus, as the Holy Spirit empowers us, to do good and share well-being in all the relationships we have. Being anointed with the Holy Spirit means being empowered to go and share well-being.
Where do you see that happening in your life? You might think that “anointing with the Holy Spirit” is not language you are used to hearing in connection with yourself – but how about language of “empowerment for well-being”? Maybe that can come a little closer to home.
Have you been in a situation in the last couple of weeks, the last month, when you’ve found yourself in a position to bring some cheer to someone who was sad, to share some beauty with someone who was yearning, to speak strength and comfort to someone who was lonely or afraid? Then you were anointed with the Holy Spirit to bring well-being.
Can you imagine yourself going out and doing something in the next couple of weeks, the next month, that will stand up for justice, that will make no peace with oppression, that will bring people together instead of allowing them to be driven apart? Then you are anointed with the Holy Spirit to bring well-being.
That is another difference baptism can make.
So: Baptism means being forgiven and protected; it means belonging to the Christian community; and it means being anointed with the Holy Spirit to do good and to heal. All of those things are wrapped up in the baptism of Jesus; and all of those things are true for us when we are baptized into Jesus.
So what does this baptism mean for you? What difference does it make for you to be a baptized person? That is what you can celebrate today, as we together celebrate the Baptism of Our Lord. Amen.