This week in the liturgical calendar is the Baptism of our Lord Sunday. The text is Matthew's version of Jesus' baptism. Read it here.
At our Christmas celebration this year, I overheard my mother sharing her two wishes for her children to her grandchildren (my stepchildren). “First,” she said, “I wanted them to know who God was. And second, I wanted them to know what their gifts were so that they would not be stuck in a job they hated.”
This is such a great summary for the wishes of the “Jesus movement.” My parents were "Jesus people” - the group of hippies who followed the guru Jesus by way of a mystical relationship with the Holy Spirit. The Jesus people were reacting to their pedigree of weekly church services at their traditional Christian steeple churches, their well intended parents who brought them to Sunday school classes and a society sending them to war through the draft.
The Jesus people had found a familiar way to interact with God, not through formal prayers and rituals but through everyday language and the first ever Christian Rock ‘n Roll music. The Jesus people wanted to be authentic to themselves and believed that their authentic selves were what God wanted for them and from them.
That is my spiritual upbringing. My religious upbringing was a mix of American Baptist and Pentecostal. Like them, I too went to weekly worship and weekly Sunday school classes. I learned traditional prayers and rituals. The ritual of baptism happens when a person is ready and willing to choose their own spiritual path.
I was baptized at ten years old in a pond at the Creation Festival in Pennsylvania in 1980. My dad was friends with the head of the festival and was invited to assist in the ritual. I don’t remember the water or the sunshine. I don’t remember the words said to me as I went in the water and came back up. I remember that I cried through the whole thing – from the moment I stepped into the line to be baptized to the moment I began my assent from the water.
The Bapt-acostal religious pedigree embraces emotion. We “feel” our faith. Our religion is embodied. I’ve analyzed these tears several times since then. Particularly since I’ve become a Presbyterian theologian and pastor, I’ve wondered what the tears “meant.” Was the experience coercive in some way to provoke emotion that perhaps wasn’t authentic? Was I too young to experience something so profound so that my tears are actually the sound of a child overwhelmed? Was I, had I tapped into something of meaning that was greater than myself and the appropriate response was tears? Was I nervous at this grandiose moment?
While the story of Jesus’ baptism doesn’t include particular emotion from him or John, it does include dialogue.
John would have prevented him saying, "I need to be baptized by you. But you come to me?"
Jesus takes his sandals off and he gets into line in order to baptized by John the Baptizer. Was he nervous, heart pumping nervous? Was he overwhelmed, head spinning, taking in his surroundings? Was he excited, smiling with jolts of joy?
Does he remember the feel of the water on his toes as he entered the river? Did he feel of the mud of the river bed under his feet? Does he remember John’s face when it was his turn to go? Was this conversation they had said in a whisper between the two of them or was John announcing something grand was about to happen for everyone else to take notice?
What was Jesus ready for? What did this choice of baptism mean for him?
For me, I was ready to follow Jesus as a leader in my life, a savior, a guru. When I stepped into the pond, I was taking the first few steps on a path toward wisdom, understanding, adventure, skepticism, joy, sorrow, disappointment, acceptance, anger.
I wonder how Jesus would describe his spiritual path? His path was embodied. It’s what makes Jesus such a formidable leader, guru for me. His spiritual path is given to us through stories like this one with John in the water. His spiritual path is embodied in human action and emotion.
Our paths are embodied. Me telling the story of my baptism is an act of me remebering the embodiment of those first few steps into my chosen spiritual path. Now my path has taken led me to be a leader of the Jesus' church that happens to baptize babies. So how do we remember in such a way as to embody those first few moments of the spiritual path for a baby?
In confirmation, I assign teenagers the task of asking their parents about the sites and sounds and emotions of the day they were baptized. When we are remembering our baptism during worship, I ask adults who were baptized to remember the baptism of their child(ren) or of neices and nephews. Again, what were the sites and sounds and emotions of those holy moments when a baby is sprinkled with water, friends and family and spiritual family watching? What were the hopes and dreams of those witnesses for this child?
How can we embody these first few steps of our spiritual paths?
Notes about telling personal stories in sermons: There's a risk in self-disclosure during a sermon. The rub of course is everytime I share a personal story, folks just love it. I'm sure you preachers experience the same rub. I read this quote from Lucy Atkinson Rose in Sharing the Word: Preaching in the Roundtable Church, " the preacher's personal meaning should never be imposed on the congregation, limiting the story to one meaning or application... story preaching is a faith venture. The preacher dares to believe that the Spirit of God may move even where he or she has given up control. Risky indeed!"
Might we be risky preachers!
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