The reading was from Matthew 3: 13-17
Audio is here.
We could say any number of things about baptism. The text today–the baptism of Jesus–it sort of starts the whole Christian baptism thing, and we wouldn’t really have Christianity as we know it without baptism. All Christians practice baptism in one form or another, some of us baptize infants and some of us wait a while longer, but if you’re a part of the global church it’s because you’ve been baptized. We could say a lot of things about baptism because there are billions of Christians and thousands of Christian traditions, so baptism can take on any number of meanings and people think about it in a lot of different ways. Today I want to turn your attention towards just one phrase. It sometimes said of baptism that You can’t wash it off. Have you heard that before? People sometimes say You can’t wash off your baptism. I’ve been trying to think about what that might mean.
It obviously doesn’t mean that you’ll necessarily remember your baptism. If you were baptized as an infant than you probably don’t remember your baptism. Or even if you were baptized at a later age you might not remember very well. I was baptized, I think, when I was 9, maybe 10. I don’t remember very much about it to be honest. At the church I grew up in you could be baptized after you became a member of the church, so I remember that I did a membership class for a few weeks but I couldn’t tell you anything about what we learned. (Actually, that’s probably what I’d say about most of the classes I’ve taken in my life. I made an A just don’t ask what I learned.) You had to take a class and then you could be baptized, and you were baptized during the main service in front of the entire congregation. There was a baptismal pool behind the altar and choir loft, way up there, under the shiny golden cross, and in the Baptist tradition that I grew up in you were fully immersed. The pastor asked all of the new members to pick a Bible verse that was important to them and you would say your name and your verse before you were dunked. Apparently my verse wasn’t very important because I have no idea what it was.
I figure baptism might be more memorable if we could recreate the conditions of Jesus’ baptism. If the heavens opened up and if a beam of light shone down and you heard the voice of God–meaning of course Morgan Freeman–and you heard it say warmly and yet authoritatively, “This is my beloved, my child, with whom I am well pleased.” That might be dramatic enough to remember well.
But I do remember well the first time I baptized someone else. I wasn’t expecting to baptize anyone when I signed up to be a chaplain intern, because baptism seemed like one of those things only real ministers do, and I had gotten really comfortable wearing the title of Intern. Friends would ask So you’re a real minister now? and I would say, “Well, soon, but not yet. I’m still learning.” One day one of my colleagues tells me that one of her patients wants to be baptized. She’s an elderly woman, and she says she’s always wanted to be baptized but never got around to it. I say we’d better call a priest or some sort of real minister. But my colleague tells me the priest had already left so that’s not an option. And she tells me that actually you don’t need a priest to do a baptism, all that’s needed at least in the Catholic tradition is some water and the words “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” So if a priest isn’t around than anyone can do it, really. I’m thinking my colleague sounds a lot more up to the task than I do so I suggest she does the baptism. And my colleague says you don’t need a real minister but the patient says she wants a minister–by which I assume she means a man. And at that point I realized I was the only male chaplain in the building so I couldn’t deflect anymore. I did the baptism–poured from a pitcher and said Now I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit–and it felt sort of strange at the time, like I was playing the part of a minister in a play about ministry. But it was after that day that people would ask So you’re a real minister now? And I would say Yeah, a real minister. I do baptisms and all of that.
Well, if you can remember from the reading, John the Baptist, despite his name, doesn’t feel up to the task. He’s already baptized thousands in the River Jordan but when Jesus approaches he says Whoa, whoa. Nope. I’m not baptizing you, you should be baptizing me. The problem seems to be that baptism is for the forgiveness of sins and Jesus doesn’t have sins so why would he be baptized? So John says, no-no-no. You’re the holy one and it makes more sense if you baptize me.
You can tell somethings out of place just from their names and titles. John is called the Baptist and they’ll call Jesus a lot of things–Messiah, Christ, Son of God. And you can tell just from the titles that John shouldn’t be baptizing Jesus. Cause you know there are all sorts of Baptists–American baptists and Southern baptists, independent baptists. Larry and Susan the Baptists down the street. But you don’t hear about Joe and Suzy Christ so much. Only Jesus get’s to be called Christ and Christ is quite the title. So John says “I need to be baptized by you.”
These titles are important. You say John the Baptist and people know right away which John you’re talking about. There’s tons of Johns but only one of them is out in the wilderness eating the locusts and honey and doing the baptisms.
You can tell a lot from a title. Someone says John and you say John who? But they say John the Plumber or John the teacher and then we’re getting somewhere. First we need a title.
I don’t think I can overstate how important titles are. Everyone already knows it but its also true that everyone lies about it. We live under a collective delusion that way, and it starts early. Kids come home from the playground wearing a title they would’ve never chosen for themselves. And we say, what?, all of that stuff about rubber and glue or sticks and stones. As if you could deflect those nasty titles onto someone else. Or as if you could apply some sort of teflon for the soul that allows you to scrape those titles off without too much trouble. As if all of those titles are more or less like spitballs or Nerf darts–a minor annoyance, sure, but nothing that could do any real harm.
It’s simply not true. Titles matter. Titles can build up and break down. Titles are the building blocks of our social world. You ask someone who they are, or you say Tell me about yourself and they’ll give you titles. It’s our default response. My name’s Jared and I’m a minister, a student, a brother, a son, a fan of this that and the other thing. Titles are so important that we rarely reflect on their importance. But it’s a telling if you do.
Sometimes I’ll be having a perfectly nice conversation with someone and as soon as I utter the title Minister they’ll get a look on their face like, “Oh…” and I’ll feel the need to say, But not THAT kind of minister. I think a lot of people find it hard to know how to interact with someone unless they can pin a title on them. One time I walked into a hospital room and the very first thing the patient said was “What’s your denomination?” And when I said United Church of Christ he promptly reaches out his hand and says “Well thanks for stopping by…” I don’t know what sort of assumptions he had pinned on me. Maybe he heard Church of Christ and thought “Now here’s another fundamentalist cook” or maybe he heard United Church of Christ and thought “Get this Godless liberal out of here.” I don’t know; all I got to share was the title.
It’s sort of ironic, the way we use titles. Most of us need to know someone’s titles before we can start to get to know them, but you really can’t actually know someone until the titles don’t matter anymore. There’s that moment in every friendship when you’re comfortable enough to say, “You know, when I first met you I thought…” And you give a first impression that was way off the mark, usually a first impression based on nothing but a title.
But there is one title that doesn’t work that way. There’s one title that can only be assigned once you’ve learned to look past all of those superficial titles that get in the way of truly knowing someone. That title is “Beloved” and its the only title that finally matters. Because when the name of a loved one is on your lips the thing you really want to say is that you love them. You can say all sorts of other things, of course, you know all about them. But the title that most urgently needs to be spoken is Beloved. What you want to say, need to say is that you love them.
The most important title you can ever bestow is Beloved. And this is what the Church does again and again through Baptism. The meaning of Baptism is spoken by that voice from the Clouds: “This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” And really the only job the church has is to mimic the voice of God, telling anyone in earshot that their title is Beloved–you’re loved by God and we love you, too. The church is simple that way; it’s only aware of one title. The title beloved fills the air wherever the church is found, repeating itself again and again until its finally heard and believed. And when you’re baptized we act it out ritually and say it again: Beloved, beloved, beloved. That’s who I am; that’s who you are; that’s who we all are. It can’t be washed off.