Beginning in Baptism….Jesus and the politics of baptism

TEXTS: Genesis 1:1-5; Psalm 29; Acts 19:1-7; Mark 1:4-11

Mark 1:1-11
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Human One of God.
As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make the Lord’s paths straight”
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness,
proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
And people from the whole Judean countryside
and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him,
and were baptized by John in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
Now John was clothed with camel’s hair,
with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.
John proclaimed,
‘After me comes one who is more powerful than I;
the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie.
I have baptized you with water;
but this one will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.
And just as Jesus was coming up out of the water,
he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove  on him.
And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Child, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’

Baptism as Central and Controversial in the Church
In the beginning was baptism. John baptized. Jesus was baptized.
The gospel begins with baptism. The word is spoken 6 times in Mark’s gospel prologue.
From the day that Jesus was baptized by John baptism has been central for followers of Jesus.
Baptism has also been controversial since Jesus was baptized.
The controversy of baptism often overwhelms the centrality of baptism.
It began with John the Baptist.
John lost his head in the politics of baptism. He was soon arrested and beheaded (Mk 1:14; 6:14-29).
Last Sunday we saw the politics of birth unfold around Jesus in the story of wise men and Jesus.
Our Anabaptist ancestors knew well the politics of baptism.
They knew well the centrality of baptism, the controversy of baptism, the cost of baptism.
Today it may well be the lack of controversy and cost for baptism that diminishes its centrality.
It may well be a loss of the politics of baptism that lessens its place for Jesus’ followers.
There is a reason in church history why faith has spread under persecution.

Five centuries ago this month, a few people in Zurich searched and struggled in faith.
A central struggle was over baptism.
Controversy raged as the reformation raced across Europe in the 16th century.
The controversy over baptism was manifested in a clash between infant and adult baptism.
That night, January 21, 1525, George Blaurock, suddenly told Felix Manz to baptism him.
“Baptize me!” demanded Blaurock. Manz hesitated. “I can’t,” stammered Manz.

Adult baptism when one had been baptized as a baby was heresy. It cost your life.
Adult baptism was civil and religious disobedience.
“Anabaptists were executed for holding biblically grounded beliefs that threatened church and state authority” (Rebecca Slough, “Baptismal Practice among North American Mennonites” in Baptism Today, edited by Thomas Best, p. 89).

Nevertheless, Manz baptized Blaurock who then baptized the others that defining night.
Most of them were soon killed for their baptismal covenant in the 16th century.
Felix Manz was tied up and thrown in the Limat River to drown in a counter-baptism.

Jesus was baptized by John in the River Jordan and began a few years of ministry.
We know what soon happened to Jesus on the journey to Jerusalem.
A cross and crucifixion were to come.
Baptism is serious stuff. We dare not treat it lightly.
We also must not ignore baptism or lose its centrality in our life and life together.

Baptism points us in a new direction, the right direction with the right allegiance to God alone.
Baptism is a beginning — new beginning – a beginning again.
Baptism clarified Jesus’ identity and set him in the right direction to begin ministry.
God through the Holy Spirit revealed Jesus’ identity in baptism.
Jesus identity is as God’s beloved and blessed one births a new reign on earth as in heaven.
God reveals our identity in baptism as beloved and blessed to join God’s new reign.

Invitation to Baptism
Today, in light of Jesus’ baptism, we are called anew to baptism.
We are called anew into this great human-divine drama of God’s reign on earth as in heaven.
If you have been baptized Jesus’ baptism is an invitation to renew your baptismal vow.
If you have not been baptized, you are invited to listen for your baptismal call.
Just as Jesus’ identity in God — Jesus’ life and ministry begins in baptism so does ours.

Baptism is an invitation rather than obligation:
An invitation to a journey with the Jesus rather a hoop to jump through to get in.

Baptism is life and death.
Baptism is our dying and rising with Christ – dying to old life and rising to new life.
Baptism is death that brings life and life that grows out of death and may lead to death.
John, Jesus, and the Anabaptists knew that baptism was a matter of life and death.
In our dying and rising with Christ in baptism we know that death is not the end of life.
We are not afraid to die because we have already died and risen to new life in Christ.
We are not afraid to live because fear of death no longer holds power over us.

A central symbol of baptism is water.
Water is a source of life – essential for life. Water is also a source of death.
We just sang “Water has held us” with water images from the creation, the flood, and the exodus.
Verses 2 and 3 sing the baptismal story (Sing the Journey #82):

Water has cleansed us, bathed with forgiveness, has, with clear blessing, washed sin away.
Jordan’s strong currents, God’s Son announcing, made a beginning baptismal day.
Water has touched us, fresh on our foreheads, showing an inward, spiritual grace.
Into God’s family, we have been welcomed. As Sons and daughters, we take our place.

Water is a beautiful and powerful symbol of baptism.
We speak of giving a cup of cold water in the name of Christ.

Yet water can be misused for harm as well as giving life.
Theologian William Schweiker wrote an illuminating if disturbing article on “Baptism by Torture: The Religious Roots and Meanings of Waterboarding” (New Theology Review, May 2008).
Schweiker shows how torture removes the tortured from all humanity;
the humanity of the torturers and any connection to other humanity even one’s own humanity.
It is a state of complete abandonment.
Waterboarding is not only inhumane, it is counter-baptism.
Humans created in God’s image seize power over another human created in God’s image dehumanizing them forcibly using water to the point of death as torture and then reviving them only to repeat the cycle of torture again. Schweiker refers to Anabaptist martyrs by drowning as an earlier version of waterboarding torture as counter-baptism.
Too often, in the name of God, church, and country, religious symbols are used to justify doing something that reverses and violates their true meaning.
It is our task to not ignore the symbols or throw out the form because it has been violated and reversed but to get it right so that we live rightly.
For this Jesus was baptized and began ministry. For this Jesus died and rose again.

Baptism is personal and communal
Baptism is always personal — your personal commitment and act – you are baptized.
Baptism is also always communal – you do not baptize yourself and you are not baptized alone.
Baptism is your commitment joined with the community’s commitment in God’s covenant.
Baptism is your outstretched arms being received into the community’s open arms.
Your baptism is also a reminder and renewal of our baptismal vows as the Body of Christ.
A personal baptismal blessing as God’s beloved
becomes a communal baptismal blessing as God’s beloved.
“Our baptismal journey begins with knowing that we are deeply loved – by God and by the church. It continues with knowing that we are part of God’s people trying to bring God’s love and blessing to all people on earth” (Gary & Lydia Neufeld Harder, Vision, Fall 2011, p. 35).

Baptism is spiritual and political.
Baptism is certainly spiritual for God is at work in Christ and we participate in that work.
Baptism is also political, as John, Jesus and our ancestors in the faith have known all too well.
In Baptism we declare one allegiance over all other powers demanding our loyalty.
“In baptism we say yes! To being beloved, to being forgiven, to being transformed, to being members of Christ’s body, to being part of a faith tradition, to being loyal disciples, to being ministers in God’s kingdom” (Rebecca Slough, Editorial, Vision, Fall 2011, p. 3).

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.
And just as Jesus was coming up out of the water,
he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.
And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’

Jesus’ baptism is the invitation and model for our baptism.
You are beloved and blessed.
Renew or receive your baptism for our life together and all that God sets before us.