THE REV. ROBERTO DESANDOLI
Baptized to Serve
This week I was speaking with a friend of mine who is a member in a denomination that practices “full-immersion” adult Baptism, that-is, her church does not baptize infants and when they do baptize someone they do a full underwater immersion; either by going down to the river or by bringing a small pool into the church.
In our conversation we were discussing the differences in our baptism traditions and having a bit of fun with each other.
She playfully criticized Presbyterian ministers of using not nearly enough water and I accused her of not trusting that when it comes to the healing waters of baptism, “just a dab will do ya.”
Now, even though we were having fun with each other and doing a bit of teasing back and forth, I realized as the conversation went on that the two of us—that our two traditions had two quite different ideas of what baptism was…
While I sort of took the Presbyterian tradition of infant baptism and the use of the baptismal font for granted, I realized quickly that my friend and many other people must witness baptism in the Presbyterian Church and wonder what is going on…
The main difference, I realized, the main difference about adult and infant baptism is whether we consider baptism to be a ritual “washing away of sins” a “full-immersion conversion,” as was the case in my friend’s denomination, or if we consider baptism to be not primarily about “washing” but primarily about “claiming”, about “commitment” as we do in the Presbyterian Church.
Here in the Presbyterian Church, baptism is not considered the final act of conversion but rather a promise for future upbringing and care. That is why we practice infant baptism where other denominations do not.
In our tradition, Baptism is about claiming, about anointment, about membership, about family, about commitment; it’s about faith in faith to come.
In the Sacrament of Baptism, we celebrate the claims, the vows, and the promises that accompany the baptized person in their life, whether young or old.
Baptism means that you are claimed by God, that because of the promises of your family and your church, you will come to know God more and more in time.
Baptism also reminds us of the Baptisms that take place in the Bible – when John the Baptist recognized Jesus as the Messiah, when Paul and the Apostles welcomed newcomers into the infant church through the rite of Baptism. In Baptism we continue these 2000-year old traditions and ways of believing.
Baptism is about promise and commitment.
It’s about promises and commitments made between a church and a family.
Baptism is about promises and commitments made between a Baptized child and their parents and between this child and their church.
Baptism is about promises and commitments made between God and the church; between God and the family and the baptized.
In Baptism, we draw a line from God to church to family to baptized, so that each member is connected in the waters of Baptism to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
This line of covenant between God and Church, between God and family, between God and the baptized, is our commitment to one another…
Through this line we are equipped by our Baptism to live as faithful people in the world.
The Pharisees who saw the disciples eating were attempting to keep the line between earth and heaven distinct. With earth being understood as dirty and defiling, and heaven being seen as godly.
In our Baptism, the line is from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven. We do not attempt to separate ourselves and our earthly lives from God, but to invite God into them, to accept God’s invitation to be known through our baptism…
Christians believe in a God who became human in order to enter the world more fully. A God who lived a human life and died a human death in order to save us from sin. The incarnation of Christ is a deeper and more mysterious commitment than just one to separate earth and heaven through ritual washing. In Christ, earth and heaven are linked, in order for us to know God and accept His Grace.
But whatever our tradition, whatever our denomination. Whether we practice infant baptism or not, whether we practice full immersion baptism or the laying on of water in blessing, something every Christian can agree on is that baptism is not the same kind of “ritual washing” practiced by the Pharisees in Mark’s Gospel this morning. That is—we do not baptize in order to keep the world at bay—we baptize in order to SERVE THE WORLD IN CHRIST’S NAME.
(Pharisees practiced “priestly” theology)
In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus explained to the Pharisees why it was that some of his disciples did not practice the ritual washing…
There, our Lord said:
“Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 15 there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”[a]
In his explanation, Jesus taught that it is not the dirt on our hands that we must be careful of…
It’s not the dirt on our hands that defiles our food.
It’s not the dirt on our hands that we pick up throughout our day that threatens us with uncleanliness.
It’s not the dirt on our hands that threatens God in heaven.
But rather…it is the things that come from within that defile a person.
Jesus teaches us that a human being is not like a piece of cutlery. A human being is not like a fork that can be washed clean from the outside and made safe to eat with.
Jesus teaches that though the Pharisees have been spending much time and energy trying to keep the worldly dirt out of their bodies; that in-fact the world is not so dirty and their bodies are not so heavenly.
I’ll say that again: the world is not so dirty and our bodies are not so heavenly.
This reality, that we are not here to remove our earthly-ness, matters because it shows us what our mission in this world truly is:
The task of life is NOT to remain at a safe distance from the world…
The task of life and of faith is NOT to be baptized and then to keep ourselves clean for the rest of our lives…
The purpose of our “washing” in Baptism is not to inoculate us from the world, but rather to equip us to go out into it.
This morning, we heard James speak on the topic “pure and undefiled religion”:
Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
James says: the evidence of your “pure religion” is in your actions in the world—not in staying away from the dirt of the world, but in your willingness to go into it and witness to the love of God.
Let us not misunderstand James on this point. The point of remaining unstained by the world does not mean to stay at a safe distance from the things, people, and needs of this world.
Rather, following Christ requires one to witness to those who are in distress, who have had too much of a sin-sick world, who have forgotten who God is, or who have never known.
Being unstained does not mean staying clean and safe away from the needs of the world; rather, we remain unstained when we have the courage and the faith to be Christ to those who need it.
(You see) There are things in this world that leave their mark on us. We live in a world full of sin, full of materiality, full of greed, and envy, and lust…and these things will find us and will leave their mark on us… but these things alone do not stain us.
We become stained when we practise complacency, we become stained when we practise apathy…when we look at the world, at the widow who is in need and at the orphan who is in need and decide “there is nothing we can do.”
We become stained when we take our faith and our Baptism out into a world that cries out for God and decide that it’s just too much work.
…It’s too much work to speak and stand up for justice
…it’s too much work to practise mercy and forgiveness in our lives
…it’s too much work to witness to the faith we have found and to believe that everyone we meet is just as beloved by Christ as we are…whether they are baptized or not.
The way we become stained by the world is when we go out equipped in baptism but decide we aren’t up to the challenges of faith.
The Good News of all this, is of course, that we have been equipped to go out.
In those times of discouragement, we might feel that our faith is too weak or the problems of the world are too strong but these things are not true.
By making the commitments of Baptism, by being part of a family and a church that makes commitment to follow Christ and to know Christ better through time, the commitment of baptism is to be intentional about learning more about God.
And one of the graceful and mysterious things we learn about God is this:
God does not create some special class of people who can be heroes for the world and others who cannot.
God makes people.
People whose faith wavers from day to day.
God makes all of these people, all of the people who surround you and will surround you in this church through time, and God calls them to have the faith to show up.
God does a lot with ordinary people with a little bit of faith. With the faith to show up when called.
We don’t baptize in order to create a special people who are better than others.
We don’t baptize in order to create a special people with imperfect lives and imperfect faith.
We baptize in order to make known our commitments to God and to each other.
We baptize so that when we meet “the orphan or the widow” in their distress, we are equipped by our faith, the faith of our family, and the faith of our community to respond and to be unstained by helplessness.
The Good News is that because our faith is placed in Christ, we are free from the fears and the stains that would prevent us from living faithfully.
I would like to conclude this morning with a personal charge for young Mabel. But please do listen because this is as true for Mabel as it is for any of us who are baptized or who wish for themselves or their children to be:
Mabel, as you go forward from your baptism, remember what is important:
Remember that God does not require you to be perfect. God does not require you to live a perfect life or to be separated from the worldly dirt all around us.
Remember also that God doesn’t need you to do everything. That the main thing God requires of you is to show up with the faith you have.
Remember that God’s favorite tool for His work in the world is ordinary people who have the faith to come when called.
God will not ask you to save the whole world. God has already called that person in Jesus Christ.
God will not ask you to save your town or your church or even your family (Christ has already done that)
God will not even ask you to save yourself (Christ has already done that too!)
Remember, Mabel, that in those times when you feel like the world, or your church, or your family, or you need some saving, that God will not ask you to do it alone but will ask only that you let Him be your helper.
God will ask you to open up your heart. To let Him in. To let Christ in. To know that you have been saved long before your Baptism, long before your eventual confirmation, long before you bare the name “Christian,” long before you even bore the name “Mabel”
God knew you and named you and claimed you and loved you.
God doesn’t need you to be any more than what He has made you and what you will become.
And believe it or not, this is the real difficult lesson of life and faith.
God both has and is making the world that God desires.
God both has and is making the church that God desires.
God both has and is making the Mabel that God desires.
To take heart, young Mabel, the road before you is long and often difficult but you do not do it alone. You go equipped by the love and care of your family, equipped by the fellowship of you church, equipped by the love and Grace of God;
Equipped by your baptism.