Luke 3:15-17, 21-22                            Baptism and Blessing                         Susan J. Barnes

January 10, 206                                                                                  St. John’s, Minneapolis

 

Today as we celebrate the Feast of Jesus’ own baptism, I want to reflect briefly on the blessing of baptism and the blessing of belovedness.

In seminary, we saw the video of a very dramatic service centered on the full-immersion baptism of an adult.   Most of my class had been baptized as infants.   We were pumped.    We told our professor WE wanted to baptized by immersion!    He was accustomed to this reaction and his reply was well rehearsed.   Coolly–in a manner worthy of Lady Mary on Downtown Abbey, he said: “That won’t be possible.  Because to be baptized again implies that God didn’t get it right the first time.”

That’s our faith as Episcopalians. Baptism is a once-in-a-lifetime sacrament.  So–different from some other denominations–we accept all baptisms by water and the Spirit.  We assume that God got it right the first time!

Baptism marks a new beginning. Jesus’ baptism was the beginning of his ministry.   For Jesus’ followers, baptism at any age is the beginning of a new life in relationship with God and with the faith community.

Every year the Epiphany season begins with the story of Jesus’ baptism. We just read Luke’s account.

In Mark and Matthew, the words of God and the dove of the Holy Spirit came to Jesus as he was emerging from the water.   That’s the way artists depict it: just look at our great stained glass window.

Luke’s account is slightly different.   Look at our text.  Jesus has been baptized along with a lot of other people.   But the blessing, the voice, the dove of the Holy Spirit came afterward, when he was alone in prayer.

I like that suggested separation of the baptism from the blessing. Because while baptism is a one-time event, God’s blessing–the belovedness—is not.

The German theologian Eberhard Arnold, who died 80 years ago, wrote.

The miracle of God comes not only from above… it is also dwelling in us. It has been given to every person, and it lies in every soul as something divine, and it waits. Calling, it waits for the hour when the soul shall open itself, having found its God and its home.

Awakening, opening to the indwelling blessing of God can come at any time in our lives.

It happened to me when I was 44.

I had been working in and around art museums for 25 years. My focus on that career led all my choices: where I lived, what I did, whom and how I loved.   Though I was deeply involved in church as a child and youth, I had turned my back on faith.   My profession was my religion.

Having neither children nor spouse, I freely went where it took me. I had a great career and a privileged existence.  I lived in interesting places, traveled widely, saw and studied beautiful things, worked on exciting exhibitions.  It wasn’t perfect.  I had no life outside my work.  I overfunctioned.  But I got to know wonderful people: gifted, devoted artists and professionals, generous patrons, amazing philanthropists.  Some remain good friends.

In my mid-40s, I was at the peak of a career I could not have hoped for.

And I knew it could never satisfy my longing for meaning.

A search for meaning should have led me right back to church. But I was a tough case.  A wall of denial stood between me and faith, built with excuses like “I don’t believe in the Virgin Birth, so I can’t say the Nicene Creed, so I can’t be an Episcopalian”.   Instead I haunted the self-help section at Barnes and Noble.   I don’t remember any of the books, but the title of one described me to a T: My Life Seems Great. Why Do I Feel So Awful?

Finally, after months, I got it: I needed a spiritual life.   One morning I was going with a friend to a Unitarian church.   What else would a lapsed Episcopalian do?   My church date fell through at the last minute.  Not to be deterred from my goal, I quickly called another friend who said she’d pick me up.   I didn’t ask what church she attended.   As Anne Lamott says, “God is sneaky.   Big time!”  My heart sank as we arrived at St. Michael’s and All Angels Episcopal, Dallas (aka St. Minks and all Sables).

I really didn’t want to be there. So I was detached, maybe rudely so, throughout the Liturgy of the Word.

Then it came to the Table. And in the breaking of the bread, by God’s grace, my eyes were opened.

My heart was opened, too, by the pure poetry of the Eucharistic Prayer, and the universe of meaning in the words “This is my Body.”

In an instant, God’s love dissolved the wall of denial I had built; love filled and embraced me.  In every atom, every fiber of my body and soul, I knew that I was God’s  beloved child, accepted exactly as I was.  I had found my home in God, in the Episcopal church.

. . . . .

Such awakenings come in different ways and in different times throughout our lives.   Some of you have had a quiet confidence of God’s companionship all your lives.  What a blessing!.   I was a real late comer, and I was stubborn enough and far enough removed to require extreme measures: getting whacked by the spiritual 2 X 4″

“You are my child, the beloved, with you I am well pleased.”

Jesus opened the door for everyone to share in the blessings he received. First, with baptism–the beginning of a new life within this life, a new identity with God and within the community of faith.   At whatever age we are baptized, we begin anew and we take our place in the mystery we call the Body of Christ.

Then there’s the belovedness. Like Jesus each of us is God’s beloved child.   We know it in silence, in solitude.  We know it here, as well, with one another, in the prayers, in the bread and wine.

Baptism is a once in a lifetime experience (at least for Episcopalians!).   But the belovedness is infinite–it knows no restriction. no limitation.  Eternally present within us, it waits for the soul to open to receive it–whenever and however we can.

Here today five persons–five souls–begin a new relationship with God and with this family of faith. Each one will be sealed by the Holy Spirit, marked forever with the sign of the cross.

We do not know how their lives in faith, their lives in Christ, will unfold.   We do not know “the hour when their soul shall open itself, having found its God and its home”–when they will be blessed deeply to know their belovedness.

All we know today is that they will.

As we celebrate their baptism and our own renewal as a Body of Christ, we entrust each of them to God’s presence and care for this life and for the life to come.