Act and Action

Matthew 3:13-17 – The Baptism of Jesus

Can you remember your baptism? Were you and infant and therefore the memory of your baptism lies in photographs and the stories of elders? Perhaps you were an adolescent baptized at summer camp or as a part of confirmation. Or maybe you’re like me, baptized as an adult. Perhaps baptism isn’t a part of your journey yet, if it will be at all.  But regardless of your experience of baptism, whether by sprinkling or full emersion, it is most certainly a foundational part to our understanding of the relationship between God and humanity. Baptism is a gift from God. It’s a means, a conduit of God’s grace signifying the establishment of our covenant with God and our welcome into the family of God.

Baptism however, can be divided into two distinct parts. There’s the act of baptism; the actual physical act of sprinkling water on the forehead and the action or response to baptism.  Act and action. Baptism begs the question: “How do we engage individuals and the world in a different and hopefully better way because of the act of baptism, whether that baptism was my own, or that of my child, or a child under the care of my church?”  In other words, what real life difference does baptism make?

I was once asked to baptize an infant in a river that ran behind her home. Now, this seemed like a good idea in theory. The symbolism of running water, the beautiful backdrop of nature, the joyful gathering of family and friends and church members on the banks of a river that had meaning and significance for their family. Wonderful idea. Except. It had rained, and rained, and rained that spring and the usually meandering river was a raging torrent.  I joked that I should have brought a reed basket just in case I lost the infant in the current.  That was maybe more truth than fiction.  How would I manage to baptize a baby under those conditions?  Today I would be smart enough to dip a small container of water from the river and baptize her on the shore.  But not back then.  Nope. I climbed down into the river, braced one leg against a log and the other down in the rocks and leaned into the current.  Then the child was handed down to me, very trusting parents by the way; the child was handed down to me and holding her in one arm I dipped a handful of water, baptized her, and quickly handed her back to her mother on the shore.

Now, compare that situation with another act of baptism.  I was called to the postnatal intensive care unit of a local hospital to baptize a premature little girl who was not expected to make it.  She weighed less than two pounds.  The nurse had placed a small bowl of water inside the incubator, and with only the mother and a nurse present, I baptized her using the rubber glove attached to the side of the machine keeping her alive.  I touched her with the water and I will never forget the image of a single drop trickling down her tiny forehead.

In both situations, the river and the incubator, I contend that the act of baptism was coupled with action, because you see, there’s more to both of these stories. The river was a joyous gathering.  Family and friends, church members and Becky and I were witness to a covenant that day that was memorable. Memorable to me anyway, because together, we were the church by that river.  This was articulated by the parents of the little girl.  You see, they had been, well let’s say they were strongly encouraged by her parents to get their baby baptized.  It wasn’t really on their radar.  But because we were willing to meet them on their turf, so to speak, because we were willing as a congregation to take the church to them, they were forever changed.  We were forever changed.  After the ceremony was over and we were standing around talking, the father of the girl said to me, “I can’t believe you (meaning the church) would do this.  This is so wonderful. So thoughtful.”  And I discovered later that the family did find a church in their community to call home.  The grace of God goes before us in all that we do.

The incubator was also an example of act and action; if different subtler example. After the premature infant was baptized, her mother, a single mom who was not a member of our church, showed up one Sunday morning a few months later. She showed up with small but healthy baby girl in her arms. I never saw her again after that day, so I don’t know what ever became of them, but I do know that the church reached out beyond itself that day to embrace her and her daughter in their time of need.

Do you see what I’m getting at here? Do you see a pattern forming?  When the church moves out beyond the four walls of its building, bringing with it the wonderful traditions and rites and rituals and sacraments that have defined us for so many generations, great things are possible. When baptism becomes more than just the act of sprinkling water and truly blossoms into the sacrament that Jesus intended for all people, that’s action. That’s the interdependence of act and action in motion and that’s what it means to BE the church in the 21st Century.

Now, a thoughtful reflection on the interdependence of act and action in baptism leads us naturally to the story of Jesus’ baptism.  A story that actually begins in the Book of Isaiah.  In the second writing of Isaiah, we hear a timeless and poetic suggestion of how Divinity might encounter humanity. The author reminds us that God is faithful to God’s promises, and that how we live and order our world matters to God. It matters so much to God that God will send One to begin the process of transformation.  A process that continues still today.  A process of transforming the troubled times in which we live into a time of beauty and grace, healing and justice. The very Spirit of God is within this transforming Servant, the chosen one whom God upholds and in whom God’s soul delights.[i]

Now, these same themes consistently appear in both Isaiah and Matthew: righteousness experienced as compassionate justice and care for those who are poor and/or marginalized, humility and faithfulness that always point to God as the One who is at work in this transformation, and the hope–the promise of new things.[ii]

By the Jordan river that day, Jesus reminded John that his baptism was necessary to fulfill God’s covenant.  I find two things very interesting about this encounter.  Frist, the location.  Like the incubator and the river, John meet the people where they were at.  Both in a sense of where their state of mind and spirit were at and physically where they were at.  You see, he didn’t do all this preaching and baptizing in the Temple or in a synagogue, he went out into the wilderness. Out to the margins of society; out to the fringes of life to encounter the masses. So covenant keeping, or covenant making as the case may be, takes place anywhere.  Not just at the church altar.

The second thing that I find interesting here is that this is not a new idea.  John the Baptist, Jesus, Paul and characters all throughout the history of Christianity have embraced this notion of “taking the God to the people.” This is the essence of mission.  Taking the love of God, the compassion of Christ and the presence of the Spirit to all the ends of the earth.  And service has become the hallmark of this on-going movement of the church. Kahlil Gibran, a 20th century mystic once said, “I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.”[iii]

“I acted and service was joy” My friends the act of baptism and our action in response to our baptism is manifest in service to humanity and creation in the name of Christ.  And that service brings a great joy into our lives.  Whether in a river, or in an incubator, or at the altar in our beloved sanctuary, baptism, the act and action of baptism, leads us and those who participate and witness it, to places of great joy.  This day, however you remember your baptism, may that memory lead you to reaffirm your covenant with God and then extend that covenant beyond the walls of this building in service of all God’s people. May it be so for you and for me.  Amen.

[i] Isaiah 42:1-9

[ii] Kathryn Matthews, Possibilities Unfolding (www.ucc.org/samuel/sermonseeds) 2017

[iii] Ann Naylor.  How to increase Your Joy Through Service. (Huffington Post Blog: 2009)

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