Remembering the Start and the Finish

A sermon based on Matthew 3: 1, 5-6, 10, 11
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on September 10, 2017
by Rev. Scott Elliott

An American minister on sabbatical at an Anglican church in England had the opportunity to meet with a member of the royal family and the Bishop to discuss plans for a royal baptism. Just before they arrived, the Bishop invited the American into the study for the conference and reminded the minister to greet the royal person with “Your grace.” When the royal member was introduced to the minster he bowed his head and said, “For the food we are about to receive we are truly thankful. Amen.”

Theologians claim that as a sacrament, baptism is an outward sign of inward grace, not the grace we say before a meal of course, but, “grace” as in the unmerited favor God extends to all. That grace is free, it is unconditional.

As our invocation reminds us over and over God’s love is steadfast and endures forever. We do not haveto do anything to deserve that grace. We all have it, but it’s turning inward and discovering it and responding to it that Jesus’ Way, Christianity, is about. Through Jesus, through Jesus’ Way we find grace, and it transforms us. We feel more loved and want to share and be a part of that love. God is that love.

Baptism is a sign we found the Grace of God . . .that deep abiding love, and on our best days we get that it does, and can, transform us. Jesus’ Way for most of us in this room is the critical part of that equation. It has, and does, lead us over and over to that Grace of God that has no strings whatsoever attached. It’s truly a radical love and a radical way and brings about radical transformation.

Since I spoke about communion in detail last week I thought two sacraments in a row was a sign to make it a “two-fer” this month and so if you have not figured it out by now, I am going to preach a bit about baptism this morning. And I went off the Lectionary for today’s lesson to help focus on Baptism.

I suspect there are some surprises in store as I discuss a bit of baptism’s origin. I studied at length about it in seminary because as a long time unchurched person coming in I found it and communion fascinating–and rather radical. By radical I mean advocating for the fundamental transformation of how we understand and do things– and to do it passionately . . . Radically. With. Love. Really. Baptism has dynamic edges we tend to rarely consider and they give the rite so much meaning.

Before I get too much further along I want to point out that I am very pleased and honored to be baptizing and welcoming into our church our wonderful friend and sister in Christ, Sarah. She has found a very welcoming loving church that gladly, openly affirms the goodness of her creation. I am touched by that, and by this church’s kindness and care and genuine love for Sarah as the goodly and lovingly person God created her to be– which she most certainly is – always has been and always will be.

Baptism as I have already mentioned is one of two sacraments recognized in our denomination. A sacrament is literally defined as an outward sign instituted by God to convey inward grace. And since baptism is a sacrament it should be a big deal to baptize a beloved sister or brother in Christ. It is important we give it due consideration.

Most of us know that baptism involves water put on the baptized person as certain words are said. You will hear the ancient formula of those words expressed today in English: “I baptize you in name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Baptism is also considered a sign of the person being welcomed and brought into Christianity and the Church–with a big “C” – and in our case today with a small “c” too because fortunately Sarah is joining the church today as well.
Most of us usually recall something along the lines of what I just mentioned about baptism, the water and words and Christian initiation aspects, if you will. We might also have a notion that a caveman looking guy we call John the Baptist started it all off by baptizing Jesus at the beginning of his ministry. We may even recall that the first recorded baptism after Easter was of the Ethiopian Eunuch who was gladly, openly affirmed by Phillip and the Holy Spirit and welcomed into the church. Often we also remember our own baptism. Mostly those things I’ve just mentioned are what we generally think about when it comes to baptism. And that is pretty good, really. It’s certainly okay to just remember those things, but there is more to it.

If we remember nothing else new, we should remember that baptisms began as a part of a daring resistence movement against oppression and injustice. Whether we like the sound of it or not baptisms by John were radical, like God’s steadfast enduring love. Jesus and John’s movements sought to transform the world, a feat they have accomplished in the long run as their efforts have led to a world that, as a whole, is much less cruel than the one they lived in.

See the Roman Empire was virtually void of compassion for the majority of Palestine’s inhabitants in Jesus’ day. It was very cruel. The few with enormous wealth exploited everyone else keeping them poor and near starving and treating them as expendable. All were not considered created equal or endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. This is evidenced by John and Jesus’ cruel executions for daring to oppose Rome’s injustices and oppression.

The injustice and oppressive nature of the Roman Empire gave rise to a number of resistence leaders in the First Century. This should not be a surprise since exploited peoples throughout history have dreamt of a day when all are treated equal. It’s easy to understand why. Our nation was born upon such dreams and rights. Right?

While Rome created a situation conducive to upheaval and rebellion, Judaism provided the theological and moral tools to challenge it. Yahweh, God, preferred “justice to injustice, righteousness to unrighteousness.” “[J]ustice as equality” had long been demanded by both divine decree and God’s own character. Simply put, Yahweh called for equality– the very thing oppressed people in Palestine dreamt of.

Consequently Jewish resistence movements took hold, and boy did they clash with the Empire. One such movement was led by John the Baptist who preached and had a baptism practice, hence the name. Baptism was not new, others baptized back then. A Jewish group called the Essenes had bathing rituals to restore themselves to a state of cleanliness. John may have been connected to the Essenes.

Judaism outside of the Essenes also had bathing rituals. The idea was basically the same. In the Bible those rituals symbolize or effect a change in a person’s status from unclean to clean.

John’s baptisms are mentioned in each Gospel, today we heard Charlotte read Matthew’s version. I think I’ve mentioned before that The Jesus Seminar took an extensive look at New Testament and other sources on John and concluded that John’s baptisms were

probably . . . a Jewish immersion rite . . . performed in flowing water. . . No doubt . . . understood to be an expression of repentance by those who accepted it. His baptism was also probably understood to mediate God’s forgiveness, to purify from uncleanness, and to serve as an initiation into a sectarian movement. By implication . . . John’s baptism . . . was understood to be a protest against the temple in Jerusalem, for his baptisms provided an alternative to functions of the temple.

In other words, we can hear that John’s baptisms served to transform the status of the unclean by making them clean. These included common folk among them expendables and outcasts – like Jesus. John was “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins”(Mk 1:4). He was serving as a mediator of forgiveness. That’s radical. “John’s baptism provided an alternative to the temple sacrificial system as a means of forgiveness.

John’s baptisms side-stepped the temple, its rites and its expensive fees. They protested it. This was a threat to Rome’s temple authorities. And in addition to protesting and providing free temple-less rituals, John protested Rome itself by having followers symbolically come into the Jordan River and reenact Joshua’s river crossing and conquest of the Promised Land. John did this proclaiming a Coming One would intercede on behalf of Israel and take out Rome by an “imminent apocalyptic intervention by God . . .”

While this was a non-violent, it was a highly explosive challenge with “overtones . . . of political subversion.” John’s movement blatantly indicted Rome’s oppressive system and called for the “Coming One” to overthrow it. Consequently the movement threatened Rome so he was executed.

Baptism had radical subversive beginnings. And Jesus likely started his ministry as a follower or disciple of John. But Jesus left it. We don’t know when, but John’s execution “may have convinced Jesus of a different type of God– the non-violent God of a non-violent kingdom, a God of non-violent resistence to structural as well as individual evil.” Jesus started out as a follower of John but made a radical departure from John’s radical movement. John Dominic Crossan puts it like this:

Jesus changed his view of John’s mission and message. John’s vision of awaiting the apocalyptic God, the Coming One, as a repentant sinner, which Jesus had accepted and even defended in the crisis of John’s death, was no longer deemed adequate. It was not enough to await a future kingdom; one must enter a present one here and now. By the time Jesus emerged from John’s shadow with his own vision and program, they were quite different from John’s, but it may well have been John’s own execution that led Jesus to understand a God who did not and would not operate through imminent apocalyptic restoration.”

Jesus’ connection to John can be seen in his baptism and in his using resistence tactics against the temple and Rome. It is thought that Jesus may have baptized others for awhile, but eventually discontinued that practice. Jesus may also have recruited some of John’s disciples into his movement and was considered by some, maybe even Jesus himself, as a successor to John.

Despite these continued connections to John’s movement Jesus’ broke from it with a radical resistence of his own. While Jesus does not appear to have used baptism or apocalyptic preaching as John did, he did challenged the inequities and injustices of Rome.

This included an ingenious altering of an inclusive Greco-Roman meal practice. See the wealthy patrons who mattered the most in the culture would have banquets for their underlings with strings attached to the food and favors and grace they dolled out in exchange for allegiance. Jesus’ practice of an open meal was the opposite. It was all inclusive. All mattered equally. And the food and favors and grace had no conditions. What Jesus provided at his meals and throughout his ministry was a place and a practice of unconditional love. All of this Jesus claimed came from one patron, the One God, our Father who art in heaven – the only to whom anyone owes allegiance. This was a dangerous and radical threat to the power structure based on conditions that insisted everything was granted by earthly patron fathers and all of it had conditions, and everyone did not matter equally.

So see the origins of baptism and communion were about challenging injustice and oppression. And both are still connected to this day, becoming Sacraments, outward signs of radical transformation, and also as Jesus taught, with radically unconditional love by God. Both Jesus and John used existing understandings and cultural practices as means of resisting Rome’s injustice and calling forth God’s justice and love– to try to transform the world and its people. Both practices have been echoed for two-thousand years in our sacraments of Baptism and Communion.

Jesus began his ministry work with a baptism by John. Jesus altered John’s movement with a sharing meal practice and a ministry of love base don one God who loves unconditionally. Before his execution Jesus ended his ministry with one last meal. Both baptism and communion became central to the post-Easter Jesus’ movement and then the church which on its best days continues to seek to end inequalities and injustices and be a part of God’s steadfast and enduring love – taking it in and giving it out.

If we think about it, we have both the beginning and the ending of Jesus ministry on earth symbolized and commemorated in our sacraments . . . Baptism and Communion. And both of them call us to the Way Jesus taught and lived in the time between them, the way of radical love for everyone, the love of God, steadfast and enduring.