Immersed in God Rev Dr Durrell Watkins Baptism of Jesus Sunday 2014 Jesus, like many people in antiquity, participates in a cleansing ritual, or so the gospel writers tell us, though each imagines it quite differently. In Matthew’s version, the event includes a dialogue between John and Jesus that shows John acknowledging Jesus’ superiority to […]
Immersed in God
Rev Dr Durrell Watkins
Baptism of Jesus Sunday 2014
Jesus, like many people in antiquity, participates in a cleansing ritual, or so the gospel writers tell us, though each imagines it quite differently. In Matthew’s version, the event includes a dialogue between John and Jesus that shows John acknowledging Jesus’ superiority to him.
This encounter between two apocalyptic prophets that results as Jesus emerging as the greater of the two served to establish authority in a first century movement. Both Jesus and John had followings; the stories we’ve inherited come from Jesus’ followers, so we see why they might think it important to paint Jesus as the stronger or more anointed or more significant leader.
These stories are often used to make a case for our own baptismal rituals, which are fine and even very meaningful; but an imaginative story of the Jewish John baptizing the Jewish Jesus is NOT a divine directive for the Christian sacrament of baptism as we know it today.
Of course, not all Christians observe baptism. The Salvation Army doesn’t offer an ordinance of baptism.
Quakers do not have a baptismal ritual, but believe that real baptism is a life following the teachings of Jesus.
The Christian Science statement about baptism says, “[We] emphasize the meaning behind a Christian symbol more than the outward practice of a symbolic act. [We] practice baptism daily by studying the Word of God and living [our] lives in a way that gives evidence that [we] are being bathed in Spirit…”
Unitarian Universalists usually offer child dedication ceremonies rather than baptism, and they don’t require baptism for membership.
So, when we are speaking about baptism, we do need to realize that we don’t all have the same experience or understanding of it.
Baptism as a rite of passage, as an affirmation of our place in the spiritual community, as a symbol of divine Love with and within us, never to let us go, is beautiful and I love performing baptisms; but whatever ritual that John was offering is not necessarily the one that we hold dear today.
Baptism, for me, doesn’t wash away original sin (with Pelagius, I utterly reject Augustine’s notion of original sin), nor is it the hazing ritual that allows us into an elite club, nor is it a magical rite that assures us of an enjoyable life after this one reaches its expiration date.
Baptism is, for me, an experience in consciousness, an awareness that we are in God and God is in us, that we are (as Emerson said) “part and parcel of God”, and we are called to contribute to share the gifts, talents, passions, and skills that we have. In other words, baptism reminds us that divine Light is within us, and then calls us to let that light shine.
The story of Jesus beginning his ministry with baptism can be seen as an allegory for how all of us can be immersed in a greater awareness of Omnipresence, know ourselves to be children of God, and feel called to share ourselves in creative ways to bless our world.
This spiritual baptism may or may not be celebrated with a water ritual, because the ritual is merely an outward sign of the inward event, and it is the inward event, the raising of consciousness, the awareness of God with, in, and expressing through us, that is most valuable in my view.
A sacrament isn’t a magical spell that makes something happen; it is an outward sign of inward grace, and grace is freely bestowed, withheld from no one; it can neither be earned nor lost.
Grace, unmerited favor, unconditional love, is simply the reality that divine Life is our life, it flows through us, it expresses as us, and it will never and can never abandon us.
Whether we are talking about the sacraments of baptism or holy communion, or sacramental rites such as confirmation or marriage or praying for the sick, or other actions that connect us to the indwelling gift of divine grace, such as volunteering, financial sharing, and even unrestrained laughter, we aren’t talking about doing something that makes something happen; we are talking about doing something that reminds us that right where we are, God is, and we are loved by this divine Presence.
So, baptism isn’t about how much water we use, or the age of the person getting splashed. It’s about a divine affirmation of our innate goodness. It’s never too soon and it’s never too late to celebrate that gift.
The divine voice in the story affirming Jesus’ sacred value and holy mission is actually a rendering of Isaiah 42.1, “Here is my servant whom I uphold, my chosen one with whom I am pleased, upon whom I have put my spirit; he shall bring forth justice to the nations.”
Hebrew bible scholars tells us that Isaiah’s “servant of God” image refers either to Israel as it was, or to ideal Israel as the prophets hoped it would become, or to Isaiah himself or some other prophet at the time. The gospel writers take the ancient text and apply to Jesus, as if to say that his ministry was about bringing forth justice to all people, the affirmation of the sacred value of all people, promise of God’s all-inclusive and unconditional love.
Matthew, with his star narrative last week affirming the sacred value of a peasant child and foreign astrologers from a religion different from Matthew’s own, does it again with Jesus’ baptism.
The heavens open. The divine and the human merge. The sacred is found in the mundane. The transcendent is imminent. Eternity is now. And sacred value of God’s child, God’s children, God’s creation, is affirmed.
Following baptism Jesus’ ministry commences. Baptism is a beginning, a launching pad, a calling forth, a word of encouragement as one is sent out to do something.
Bible scholar David Lose says, “And this is where these stories of Jesus’ baptism intersects with the stories of our own. For we, too, can only live into the mission that God has set for us to the degree that we hear and believe the good news that we, too, are beloved children of God. As with Jesus, we discover in baptism who we are by hearing definitively whose we are. Baptism is nothing less than the promise that we are God’s beloved children. That no matter where we go, God will be with us. That no matter what we may do, God is for us and will not abandon us. In baptism we are blessed with the promise of God’s Spirit…”
Spirit is power, all power, or omniscience.
Spirit is presence, all presence, or omnipresence.
Spirit is unconditional love, or grace, the divine touch on our lives.
Spirit is the substance of life, God’s own Self from which God creates all life, including us.
When the gospel writers imagine the spirit, in some way, anointing Jesus and declaring Jesus to be God’s own child, we are to know that Spirit also embraces, enfolds, flows through, and fills us and we, therefore, are all God’s children, blessed with God’s grace, marked as God’s own forever.
Baptism doesn’t make that happen; it is the celebration that it is already and forever will be true. We are loved and our lives are sacred.
In 1864, Unitarian theologian Theodore Parker published a beautiful prayer.
In it, Parker affirms that God is omnipresent, the source and substance of all life, part of and in every soul, a presence that is all-loving and whose power, or spirit, or breath, is wherever we may choose to look. Parker prayed:
O Thou eternal One, may I commune with thee, and for a moment bathe my soul in thy infinity.
Mother and Sire of all that are, in all that is art Thou; Being is but by thee, of thee, in thee;
Yet, far Thou reachest forth beyond the scope of space and time, or verge of human thought Transcendent God, yet, ever immanent in all that is.
I flee to thee, and seek repose and soothing in my Mother’s breast.
O God, I cannot fear, for thou art love, and wheresoe’er I grope I feel thy breath!
That’s baptism. The water is a party favor, but the party itself is the experience of God as our very life, the love that will not let us go, the omnipresent power that is always with and within us, the eternal love in which we are forever immersed. Rather than make too much of the baptism ritual, we should focus on baptismal living, the transformational experience of being aware that we are immersed in God, forever one with God.
If we can embrace and embody this thought, our lives will be transformed into experiences of abundant and never-ending joy. Our lives will be transformed by the power of indomitable hope. Our lives will be transformed by the awareness that we are in God, God is in us, and we are God’s precious children with whom God is forever well-pleased. And this is the good news. Amen.
© Durrell Watkins 2014
I am immersed in God’s power, presence, and love.
I am filled with God’s light and grace.
I am forever blessed.
And I am deeply grateful.