An Indelible Mark of Water
A sermon based on Mark 1:4-11
Given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on January 11, 2015, *
By Rev. Scott Elliott
Before performing a baptism Rev. Jones solemnly said to the recent college grad “Baptism is a serious step. Are you prepared for it?” “I think so,” the young man replied, “My wife and I made appetizers and we have plenty of cookies and cakes for all of our guests.” “I don’t mean that,” the minister responded, “I mean, are you prepared spiritually?” “Oh, sure,” came the proud reply. “We’ve also got a keg of beer and plenty of whiskey!”
Last week on our first Communion Sunday of the year we discussed the sacrament of Communion and it, God, Jesus, the Bible and the Church’s political nature. Today is Baptism of Christ Sunday. Baptism is our denomination’s only other sacrament and it too has a political nature.
I have had the great honor of baptizing a good number of babies and other folks in my eight and a half years as a pastor. Here in this space a little over a year ago was my most recent baptism. Our sister and good friend Darlene Kurth was baptized and we were all honored to have her join the church, a blessing to this very day.
I remember that last baptism, or course, but I also remember very well my first, he was a young adult. When I first heard I was baptizing that strapping young man I had the funny image of carry him around the sanctuary like a baby as is the custom with infant baptisms. Of course newly baptized adults aren’t carried in the arms of the minister down the aisle for all the congregation to see. That was good news for my back, of course, but really it’s a shame. The newly baptized adult is just as much a person to coo and tear-up over as an infant.
Each person young and old being baptized comes before us a precious person with the proclamation of a new life in Christ. Each baptism is an outward sign of an inward indelible mark of our love center. It is a visible recognition of our being clothed with Christ (Gal 3:26-27).
Whether old or young each of us is a child of God. Indeed when we accept Christianity as the Way we choose to follow, we experience transformation to a love-centered life, saved from a less love centered way of being. So Christians have long been considered born anew.
In case any of us are wondering how a living person can be born again we’re not the first to wonder. In the Gospel of John, Jesus told Nicodemus that we cannot see the reign of God without being born anew and Nicodemus asked:
“How can anyone . . . be born who has already been born and grown up? You can’t re-enter your mother’s womb and be born again: What are you saying with all this ‘born from above’ talk? ”
Jesus said, “You’re not listening. Let me say it again. Unless a person submits to this original creation –the ‘wind hovering over the water’ creation, the invisible moving the visible, a baptism into a new life — it is not possible to enter God’s kingdom . When you look at a baby, it’s just that: a body you can look at and touch. But the person who takes shape within is formed by something you can’t see and touch — the Spirit– and becomes a living spirit.
“So don’t be surprised when I tell you that you have to be ‘born from above’ out of this world, so to speak . . .” (The Message, a paraphrase of the Bible)
A Christian’s rebirth occurs before baptism. So why do we have baptisms? Because baptism is a sacrament, a visible outward sign instituted by Jesus to convey inward grace, and it is a mark of incorporation into the universal Church, the church with a big “C.” As the UCC Book of Worship puts it, it is a mark, “a sign and seal, of our common discipleship, through baptism, Christians are brought into union with Christ, with each other and with the church of every time and place.” 1
The early Jesus Followers were Jewish. And the sign of the covenant for Jews, was, and still is, circumcision. For reasons that I assume are obvious un-circumcised adult men were, well, just a bit concerned about having to be circumcised if they joined the Jewish sect of the Jesus Movement. And if you have read Acts and the letters of Paul you may remember lots of debate about whether folks had to follow Jewish cultural laws when they converted to the then Jewish sect of the Jesus Followers, what later becomes Christianity.
Paul successfully argued that the Bible dictates about circumcision did not apply to the new sect. So males (then and now) seeking the Way Jesus taught could relax, the Scriptural mandate of initiation by circumcision was replaced with the initiation of baptism.
See, Jesus was baptized and early on it became customary for his followers to be baptized. Baptism has ever since been a sign and time to celebrate a person’s stepping onto the Christian path to God, and welcoming them to the new life the Way that God’s light and love brings.
Ulrich Zwingli, an early Protestant reformer, argued that baptism represented a covenant between God and believer and the believer and community as an “objective sign of membership in the Christian community that found fulfillment in God’s blessings and promises.”2 He saw Baptism as a renewal through Christ of God’s Old Testament covenants.
Martin Luther, perhaps the best known Reformer, saw baptism as “God’s promise attached to the sign.” 3 A promise that became effective upon positive human response in the form of faith.
For Heinrich Bullinger, baptism was a sign of adoption into God’s family, like circumcision it was a sign of God’s covenant, but unlike circumcision it is not bloody 4 . . . it’s not violent.
I might add that unlike circumcision, baptism has always been a sign available equally to both men and women in the church. Galatians 3 tells us
baptism in Christ [is] not just washing [us] up for a fresh start. It also involve[s] dressing [us] in an adult faith wardrobe–Christ’s life, the fulfillment of God’s original promise. In Christ’s family there can be no division into Jew or non-Jew, slave and free, male and female. (The Message)
This verse from Galatians is thought by scholars to have come from very early baptismal rites. Circumcision was only painful for men but it was not even an option for women. Adopting baptism as the initiation rite not only opened the Jesus Movement up to men unwilling to be circumcised, but it opened the movement up equally to women. Baptism is the great equalizer, a rite available to all.
From the start Christian baptism was about community recognition of equality between all. Jesus’ open table and community and message of universal Love and equality is reflected in Christian baptisms. So like Jesus’ table (communion, the Lord’s Supper) that we discussed last week, Jesus’ baptism has roots in politics too.
First century Palestine was governed by a brutal Roman Empire which lacked compassion for most of its inhabitants and thrived on inequality, inequalities that led to resistance movements. One such movement was led by John the Baptist. Johns’ baptisms served to signal the baptized’s repentance; to mediate God’s forgiveness; to protest the corrupt temple; and to reenact Joshua’s river crossing in order to set the stage for The One who would reclaim Israel from Rome in a coming retribution that John preached about.
There were other religious groups baptizing then for things like purification, commitment or initiation. 5 We can see some Jewish cleansing rituals in New Testament stories. In Matthew the Pharisees ask Jesus why his disciples did not perform traditional washing of hands. (Matt 15:2). Likewise Pharisees in Luke are “amazed to see that [Jesus] did not wash before dinner”(Lk 11:38) as he also ignored that ritual. There are also references to foot washings. Jesus chastises a host for not providing for his feet to be washed and praises an outcast because she washes them. (Lk 7:44). In the Gospel of John bathing is a part of the transformation from unclean to clean as a newly healed blind man is instructed by Jesus to “go wash in the pool of Siloam” (Jn 9:7).
Of course, we can find stories of John’s baptisms. And we learn in those stories that John called Jews to the desert wilderness to confess their sins and come into the river Jordan to be immersed as a baptism of repentance and to be cleansed and initiated into the group bearing “good fruit” in anticipation of the Coming One who would bring about what he believed would be a violent apocalyptic end time.
John’s offer and practice of forgiveness by baptism side-stepped the temple, its rites and its expensive temple fees.6 So John was “perceived as a real threat to those whose authority was grounded in the temple.” 7 His movement was seen as a political protest. 8
And John was doing more than just providing a ritual of forgiveness. He was asking Jews to go “back into their own ancient stories and . . . ritually reenact those great inaugural acts of Exodus from bondage in Egypt and arrival in the Promised Land.” 9 John the Baptist was inviting followers into the desert wilderness to cross the Jordan in hope of a Divine ousting of Rome and a reconquering of the Promised Land for Israel.10 Now John’s movement itself was non-violent, but it was a highly explosive challenge with “overtones . . .of political subversion.” 11
As I said, John foresaw a Coming One who would wrest Israel from Rome and its temple goons with divine vengeance, and John had violent images of God using a chopping ax and destructive fire (Matt 3:10).
Jesus’ connection to John can be seen in his baptism and in his resistence against the temple and Rome. But at some point Jesus parted company with John’s movement. Jesus understands a non-violent God of love who did not and would not operate through imminent apocalyptic restoration. 12
Jesus chose a very different route. He chose one that resisted violence and promoted a God of love and compassion. So his Way and the baptism initiation onto it becomes a call to the God of love and equality, and to an end with the God of peace. Baptism becomes a sign of the followers of Jesus, the Prince of Peace. It’s a sign of transformation and renewed life, of being born again.
Baptism is a sign that connects us with Jesus and all who have been baptized before us and all who will be baptized in the future. It’s a sign that connects us to the God of Love, Jesus’ God, Our God. And it’s a sign made with an indelible watermark. It’s indelible because God’s love has no strings attached, it’s a love that can’t be washed away or removed. The sign signifies stepping onto the path, The Way, that Jesus showed us and
The Way that brings Christians experiences of Christ, Christ within the self, Christ within the community, Christ within all of creation and beyond. Those experiences and promises of such experiences change a person forever.
The good news is that do they leave a permanent mark of love, they change our lives for the better. We are saved from our lesser selves, born anew.
Today is Baptism of Christ Sunday a day to be reminded not only that Jesus was baptized but to remind us as well of our own baptisms, that outward sign of the Grace of God that we know through thick and thin always rests within us, within our community and within creation and beyond. Ours is a God of love. Ours is a way of love.
* based in part on a sermon I wrote in 2006
1 Quoting the World Council of Churches
2 Riggs, John, Baptism in the Reformed Movement, 24.
3 Ibid., at 29.
4 Ibid., at 34.
5 Isaak, Jon, “Baptism Among the Early Christians,” Direction, Vol. 33, Issue1, (2004),4.
6 Crossan, The Historical Jesus, 231. Crossan also notes that this end run around the temple was probably John’s unique invention.
7 Webb, 204.
8 Tatum, 124.
9 Crossan, The Historical Jesus, 159.
10 Ibid., 162-165.
11 Ibid., 231, 235.
12 Crossan, Jesus: a Revolutionary Biography, 48.
COPYRIGHT Scott Elliott © 2015 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED