Baptized in Christ

Trinitarian Congregational Church                                                         First Sunday in Lent

Anthony S. Kill                                                                                         February 18, 2018

Texts: I Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:9-15


Today is the first Sunday of Lent — a penitential season of 40 days leading up to Easter. A penitential season means it’s a season to examine our lives, and face our temptations and our sins, with the purpose of repentance and change. That’s not always easy. I heard about a bumper sticker that reads “Lead me not into temptation — I can find it all by myself!”

I know some of us are not too comfortable with the idea of a penitential season. It implies that we’ve got something to be penitent about — some sin or shortcoming that we need to acknowledge, repent, and change.

It’s not always easy to admit that we need to examine our lives and see if there are ways that we are missing the mark. And that is what the Greek word for sin means: hamartia: “missing the mark” It’s the same word archers used when their arrows went off-target: Their aim was not true. They missed the mark. Sometimes it’s not easy to admit that we miss the mark, and make mistakes, and need to change course a bit. That’s why we need a season, a six-week session to help us in the process.

Every year, the Gospel for the first Sunday of Lent is the story of Jesus being led into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit to face his temptations. So today the Gospel of Mark tells us that as soon as Jesus was baptized “The Spirit immediately drove Jesus out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts.”

Mark doesn’t give us any details about Jesus experience of temptation in the wilderness, the way that Matthew and Luke do. But all three of them are clear that Jesus was tempted. Whatever his personal “wild beasts” were, he had to confront them. Only then could be become a spiritual teacher and healer. Only then could he embrace the tremendous power and responsibility that had been given him as “The Son of God, the Beloved”

Today’s Gospel also tells the story of Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan. Perhaps one way that we can examine our lives during Lent and see how well we are ‘hitting the mark’ is by reviewing how well we are fulfilling our baptismal promises.

We in the United Church of Christ tend to be a little cautious (some might even say mealy-mouthed) when we talk about baptism, and what it means, and what difference it makes (if any) in our lives.

I heard the story of a little boy who’s baby brother had just been baptized at a Sunday church service. All the way home in the car, the 5-year old big brother is sobbing in the back seat. His parents keep asking him, “What’s wrong, Joey? What’s wrong?” But he just shakes his head and doesn’t want to talk about it. Finally, the boy ‘fessed up, “That preacher said he wanted us kids to be brought up in a Christian home, but I want to stay with you guys!”

So what meaning, what significance does baptism have in our lives? What role does baptism play for the Christian? I suspect many people tend to just think of it as part of the baby ritual for Christian families, something you do when you have a child, if you’re part of a church, or sometimes even if you’re not part of a church. But it’s so much more than that, whether for infant baptism or adult baptism. Baptism carries the symbolism of dying and rising, of being washed in a flood of grace, of having a new birth, a spiritual birth, becoming a new person in Christ, now as part of a family of spiritual kinfolk. And central to being part of this new family is that we take on the family identity and the family traditions, and make them our own. As baptized Christians, our family identity is three-fold: children of God, siblings and servants of Christ, and gifted by the Holy Spirit. First, in baptism we are identified as children of God stamped with the eternal image of our Maker, who creates us and all things and declares that they are Good; Of course, we also believe that God created all things good, and that all children of humanity are children of God. But as baptized believers, we are committed to recognize and acknowledge and nurture that image of God in ourselves and in every human, and respect the goodness of God in all of the creation. That recognition and commitment is integral to our new identity. We are the children of God!

Second, through Baptism we are siblings and servants of Christ, the first-born of all creation. In baptism we are born anew, raised up to become siblings and servants of Jesus. We are committed to follow in the way of Christ as we understand it reflected in the Word of God, and interpreted through our own reflection on the Word. So in matters of judgment and forgiveness, in matters of justice and peace, in matters of charity and graciousness, the question of “What would Jesus do” is more than just a slogan for us. It is, in fact, our plumb-line and our compass to help us plot our course in life. And the cross-hairs on that spiritual compass, the true test of our siting, is nothing other than the cross itself.

And thirdly, through our baptism, we are indeed those “baptized in the Holy Spirit” Now, we may not have some of the more sensational gifts of the Spirit. We may not speak in tongues or prophecy, but the Bible lists a wide variety of gifts and fruits of the Holy Spirit. First Corinthians 12 lists all these gifts of the Holy Spirit: “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.”

But the very next chapter of Paul’s letter narrows the list down: “Now faith, hope and love abide, these three. But the greatest of these is love.” And in the letter to the Galatians, chapter 5, Paul offers this list: “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity,  faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” So there are lots of spiritual gifts made available to us as Christians, though they are not all poured into us full-blown by the rite of baptism. They are the gifts that we discover, the gifts that we strive for, the gifts that we grow into as we strive to live out our baptism, or perhaps live into our baptism. Also, they are unique to each of us: we will not receive them in equal measure. One member will have more of one, and someone else will have more of another. That’s why we need each other; that’s why we need to be a family, a church, a community of Christians together, where we can experience and get the benefits of all these gifts. So the season of Lent might be a good time to reflect and review: Which of those spiritual gifts are your particular gifts? What gifts of ministry or wisdom or compassion has the Holy Spirit bequeathed to you,  and how might you continue to nurture and grow into those gifts? Which ones do you cultivate, or which gifts do you strive for, which ones do you pray for? How do you serve the church of Jesus Christ with your baptismal gifts? How do your spiritual gifts help you serve the world?

One final thought. This is something that a clergy colleague reminded me of in a recent sermon she preached on Baptism. And that is this: Being a baptized Christian, and striving for spiritual gifts doesn’t mean we have to be a saint, or be better than everybody else. As my friend reminds us: The Jordan River was where people went to wash their dishes and their laundry. It’s where they went to bathe. In other words, the river flowed with the filth and muck of human life. And it was into these waters that John proclaimed a baptism of repentance, of forgiveness of sins. This wasn’t water that washed clean, but rather water that acknowledges the muckiness of our communal lives. Into these same waters Jesus came to be baptized. Jesus chooses to enter the filth and muck of our own lives, right where we are. The muckiest places aren’t somewhere else; they are right in front of us. It’s the crud that clings to us, the mud slung at us. When we choose to be baptized, we aren’t magically washed clean. There’s nothing magic about the water. Instead, when we are baptized, we are acknowledging that we can’t deal with the muck alone.

Instead, God joins us there, saying,  “You are my child, You are beloved, and with you, I am well pleased.”