Rev. Tom Sorenson, Pastor
January 12, 2003
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
I remember hearing once about a young woman who was completing her confirmation class at a UCC church. She was caught up in the excitement of the faith, overflowing with enthusiasm for the renewed commitment she was about to make to be a Christian. She decided that the best way to celebrate her confirmation was to be re-baptized, so she told her pastor she wanted to do that. She was powerfully disappointed when he told her, quite correctly, that we donít re-baptize people. In the Christian tradition, baptism is something that happens once, unlike the other sacrament, the Eucharist, that we do repeatedly. So today, as we celebrate the festival of the Baptism of the Lord, we wonít be re-baptizing anyone.
There is, however, another tradition that we can follow today, namely, reaffirmation of our baptismal vows. Reaffirmation of baptismal vows is a traditional part of confirmation, but it can be done at any time. It is often done on this particular Sunday when we hear the story of Jesusí baptism in the Jordan River by John the Baptist. In just a bit we will have the opportunity, if we wish, to reaffirm those vows, whether we made them initially ourselves as adults or someone else made them for us as infants. But just what exactly will we be reaffirming?
Well, we will be reaffirming our baptism, but what precisely is baptism? Let me tell you first of all one thing that it isnít. It is not an act that must be performed on a person to prevent that personís soul from spending eternity in hell. A great many Christians, in more recent centuries perhaps most especially Roman Catholic Christians, have thought that it was. They were wrong. As my friend Dennis says, there is no such thing as an emergency baptism. Our loving and gracious God will not condemn anyone to hell, and certainly wonít do simply because some other person did not perform some ritual over him or her. So if baptism isnít a prerequisite to salvation, what is it?
The UCC Book of Worship tells us what our tradition considers it to be. It is above all the sacrament by which a person is "incorporated into the universal church." It is a "sign and seal of our common discipleship." "Through baptism," the BOW says, "Christians are brought into union with Christ, with each other and with the church of every time and place." "Baptism with water and the Holy Spirit is the mark of [our] acceptance into the care of Christís church, the sign and seal of [our] participation in Godís forgiveness, and the beginning of [our] new growth into full Christian faith and life." What all that adds up to, I think, is that baptism is the sacrament that marks the beginning of a personís life as a Christian, either because the person has made a conscious decision to be a Christian or because oneís parents or other guardians have made a commitment to raise the person as a Christian. It is a rite of passage from life in the world to life in the Spirit, to use Paulís terms. Like Communion, it is "an outward sign of an inward grace," a visible manifestation of Godís love and care for every one of us.
We are used to the of water in the sacrament as a symbol of washing and even as a symbol of our dying to sin and rising to new life in Christ. But the Gospel has John the Baptist saying that Jesus would baptize us with the Holy Spirit as well. What does that mean? I canít really tell you what John the Baptist, or Mark, thought it meant. Well, I could, but I donít think it would get us very far today. I can tell you what it means to me. I donít think it means baptism is a two step process, with water baptism coming first and baptism with the Holy Spirit coming, perhaps only to some of the baptized, later as some Christian sects seem to believe. To me it means that the act of baptism is not just a human act. The UCC Book of Worship says that God takes the initiative in the sacrament. In baptism God bestows the Holy Spirit on us in a real and visible way. We become children of the Holy Spirit in a more intimate way because the Holy Spirit has been evoked and has responded on our behalf. The sacrament is a sign that the Holy Spirit is always at hand, ready and willing, indeed longing, to strengthen us, comfort us, hold us up when the trials and sorrows of life threaten to drag us down. People donít have to be baptized to be saved. Godís grace isnít limited like that. Godís grace is freely given to all. Nonetheless, for Christians baptism is one of lifeís central events, a transforming, inspiriting event.
And we can renew the working of baptism in our lives by reaffirming our baptismal vows. There are no negative consequences if you decide not to. Still, I believe that God invites us to participate in this little ritual as a way of renewing our commitment to our vocation as Christians that began with our baptism. So I hope you all will participate freely and gladly in the reaffirmation of baptismal vows that we are about to celebrate and that you will feel renewed and refreshed because you did.