Editor’s Note: This is the first in a four part sermon series on baptism in the United Methodist tradition.
One of my favorite pleasures in the world is to rent a canoe or an inflatable kayak and head down a river. For me, there is nothing more enjoyable than being on the water, and letting the current pull me downstream as I enjoy God’s creation. I’m not particular — I’ll take the white water of the Ocoee one day and the gentle thrills of the Sequatchie the next. The important thing is to get out and connect with God on the water.
A couple of years ago, a group of guys that I meet with regularly went out for a day on the Harpeth. Now we all know that the Harpeth isn’t the most exciting river in the world. It’s pretty flat and boring and meanders through a bunch of farm land, but it’s close and we decided to make a day of it. It was a crisp fall day and the weather was clear. We rented a couple of canoes, and headed downstream.
Thing were going good for the first part of the trip. The water was calm and we were having a good time talking. It had started to warm up and we were even thinking about pulling over to the side and wading in the river for a bit, when we rounded the next bend and saw it. A large tree had fallen in the river, creating an obstacle. The current seemed to go right under the tree, but there was a 3 or 4 foot space of clear water on the right hand side that we could just get our canoes through. Mark, the other guy in my canoe, and I didn’t think it would be too hard — after all, this was the Harpeth and the current couldn’t be that strong. So we got over to the right and attempted to thread the needle. We didn’t make it. As soon as we got close to the tree, the current pulled us left and turned our canoe sideways into the tree. Immediately we tumbled out and our canoe started to go under from the weight of the current pushing against it. The boat was wedged between the tree and the current, and Mark and I pulled with all our might to get it free. At one point, Mark slipped and I was afraid he was going to be pulled under the tree too, but he righted himself and with a last burst of energy we were able to free our canoe from the hands of the current and pull over to the bank, where we both lay out of breath after our struggle.
You see, what we learned that day is that water is deceiving. We looked at the gentle stream and saw safety and security, nothing that we couldn’t handle. As we found out, the flowing waters were dangerous, with a power all their own. If you don’t respect that power, you can easily find yourself in trouble.
We all know that water is an important part of our life. The human body is made up of 60 to 70% of water. Water transports nutrients to our cells, and removes wastes from our bodies. Water protects our vital organs, it helps us control our temperature. Without water, we could not live.
Yet, although we need this precious substance, water doesn’t come without risk. Each year drowning is one of the primary causes of death worldwide. Each year, floods rush through towns and villages, destroying crops, demolishing buildings, causing thousands of dollars of damage. Water in unexpected places can cause havoc before we know it, and do I even need to mention the power of water when we look at the Grand Canyon?
Water is dangerous stuff. It has a power all it’s own, and no matter how hard we try to control it, it goes its own way.
That doesn’t change when we talk about the waters of baptism. Oh, sitting here in our little bowl all clean and quiet it doesn’t seem like much. But there is a power here, a power that we can’t see, but one which sees us and marks us and claims us. In the waters of our baptism, we are marked with the seal of God, we are filled with the presence of God’s Spirit and grace, and no matter how much we try to control it we will never be the same.
Don’t think that this act, this sacrament is safe. The Spirit of God isn’t “safe.” You see, when we are claimed by the waters of baptism, we aren’t sent on a safe and gentle stream. No, the journey of faith is a rushing river, full of rapids and shoals. God’s Spirit is with us as our guide, telling us when to paddle and when to rest, pushing us left, and pulling us right. It isn’t “safe” but when we paddle together and listen to the guide, we make it downstream.
Jesus knew this when he headed down to the river to see his cousin John. John had been hanging out at the Jordan, calling the religious folks of his day to wash up and turn back toward God. But Jesus didn’t need to wash up. In fact, as Matthew reminds us, John didn’t want to baptize Jesus because he didn’t think Jesus really needed it. But Jesus knew a different reality, and let John put him down in the water. Jesus understood that this act of baptism wasn’t about what we do. No, it’s about what God was going to do, and continues to do today. Jesus showed us that baptism is about claiming our adoption as God’s children, about being initiated into a community, about God revealing God’s self to us and claiming us as God’s own.
But it wasn’t safe. Jesus surely knew what would happen when that water graced his head. Jesus surely had to have some sense that this claim and calling would put him on a collision course with the rest of the world. Jesus must have sensed that these waters were dangerous, that they might even lead to his death. But all that didn-t matter, for in these dangerous waters, in the shoals and rocks ahead, lay the hope of the world, a hope that comes to us today when we claim our inheritance and remember our baptism.
Friends, When we remember our baptism and give thanks, we are committing ourselves to a life where we give up control and give all to God. Early Christians called this act “a sacramentum,” which is the Latin word for the oath that a Roman soldier would make to his general pledging absolute loyalty and obedience. In making this vow, these soldiers were pledging to give up comfort, security, and safety to carry out the desires of their leader. In the same way, to renew our covenant and remember our baptism is to be willing to give up our desires for comfort and control and turn them over to the one who created us and calls us to be more than we ever thought we could be. To be baptized is to be called by God to be a follower of Jesus Christ, and the road that Jesus is on more often leads to crosses than thrones.
Yes, these waters are dangerous, but they aren’t to be feared. This isn’t a burden, but a gift. For when these waters touch our lives, when the Spirit of God comes down, they tell us who we are — children of God, deeply loved and deeply cared for. The river we’re on is powerful, not safe, but God is with us, and we share together a mark that binds us and unites us. Baptism is a public act of the community where we pledge allegiance to God, and to one another, and there is a power in that act to part the seas and calm the waves and turn simple water into sweet wine.
The waters of our baptism run through our lives, carving out a God shaped canyon in our hearts, which can only be filled with the love of the one who created us. It is a canyon that expands with time, as God’s people gather together at the river to remember just what God has given us. These flowing waters, seemingly so gentle and benign, are filled with power. This power transforms our lives and tells us who we are.
In just a moment, we will come forward to touch the waters and to hear God’s voice speak.
To those of us who have already been baptized, I invite you to come and remember your baptism, listening for God’s call in your life. You are a child of God.
To those among us who have not yet experienced the healing waters of baptism, we invite you to come as well, to anticipate your baptism. I want you to hear that I am not saying that you aren’t a child of God until you are baptized. What I am saying is that it is hard to know that we are a child of God until we are baptized. You feel free to come as well, listening for God’s claim on you.
There is power in these waters.
They aren’t safe.
But, that which has the power to harm also has the power to heal.
Come to the place where the healing waters flow.
The current is strong, but God is with us.
Come and see.