A Tale of Two Baptisms

(A sermon for Baptism of Christ Sunday    January 11, 2009    Acts 19:1-7; Mark 1:4-11)

I have a lifelong weakness for redheads. I’ve loved them as friends, as improbable crushes, as characters in books and TV shows, from Anne of Green Gables to Danny Partridge. And in case you’re worried, I’m married to one, though maturity has cooled the fire of his hair’s tone.

It may not surprise you, then, to hear that my most memorable baptism as a pastor involved an attractive armful of toddler boy with a head of hair like Johnny Storm, the Human Torch, when he says “Flame On!”

Lucas came in with his parents to discuss baptism soon after his first birthday. I knew his great-grandmother and recognized the family name from the membership list, but the baby and parents did not come to church. I always wonder why people who don’t attend church want to have their babies baptized, but I am also always willing to talk to them about it and see if we can achieve a meeting of the minds.  Because baptism means different things to different people, and we need to be sure we agree on what those things are.

Paul had a similar conversation with the Ephesians, though it was not about their babies. In the first century, baptism belonged to adults, to believers, people ready to change their lives. John came to preach and baptize a radical change of life, and this is the baptism the Ephesians assured Paul they had. Their teacher never told them it could be more. Somehow he missed a piece of the narrative, and Paul had to explain it to them better.

They knew about John, that wild man who holds the focus in most of the passage we heard from Mark. The Ephesians didn’t seem to know the rest of the story, or that there was more to baptism. In Mark’s story of Jesus, baptism is the birth narrative. Jesus makes no earlier appearance. There are no angels or shepherds, no magi or Herod. There is no visit to the Temple or Flight into Egypt. Instead we have a rough prophet and an awakening from the water, as Jesus is born into his ministry.

I often wonder if Jesus knew what he was getting himself into that day. He went to the river, as so many else did, and he walked into the water. Did he have any idea what would happen as he came out from under the water?

When Lucas and his parents arrived at church on a beautiful September morning, he looked luminous. His red hair wet-combed to the side, dressed in an old-fashioned baptism suit of white, he shone like a beacon from the far pew where his family sat, while his great-grandmother beamed. Later, as we poured the water into the font, he watched in wonder and exclaimed “Wa!”

His parents came knowing that although we understood baptism to contain God’s forgiveness, we weren’t really suggesting this little fellow was by his nature sinful, or that God would only love him because of this act of baptism. His parents understood, because I told them so, that in baptism we would mark him as part of the Church Universal, that the church would make promises for other church people everywhere. But mostly they came to present him to God, in the presence of their families, to say “Here is our beloved son, we hope you will be pleased with him.”

Parents have all sorts of reasons for bringing their children to be baptized, and people have all sorts of reasons for wanting it themselves. I grew up as a Baptist, and I saw many people baptized by immersion, grown-ups and teenagers. The process fascinated me, the way they disappeared from the sanctuary and reappeared through a door and walked into a pool of water right there in the building. They crossed their arms over their chests and the minister, Mr. Kersey, pushed them back into the water; at least, that’s how it looked to me from a distance.

My Baptist mother married my Methodist father, but they kept their own traditions because, as he told her, “I think your church means more to you, but I can’t go to yours; it would upset my mother.” No doubt, he was right. After eleven years of marriage, they adopted their first child, me, and when the paperwork became final some 18 months later they both felt something more needed to be done. The legalities did not say enough about who I was, they felt. It’s as if a couple married in the judge’s chambers decided they needed to go to church, too.

An enrolled Baptist baby with the Cradle Roll certificate to prove it, I suddenly found myself being christened in the chapel of the Methodist church, with the Baptist minister in attendance.

Of course I don’t remember that day, but I like to think it nourished my ecumenical tendencies. For my parents it meant becoming, well, my parents in the eyes of God. And for my parents, like Lucas’s, it meant I had entered a particular community, the circle of those loved by God and called by name as beloved children.

I give a lot of credit to Mr. Kersey, the pastor at my childhood church, who did not cling  to any sort of orthodoxy when I came forward at an altar call 12 years later and told him I wanted to be baptized. All those years sitting in the pews and watching other drew me in; I wanted to make a profession of my faith, myself. He met with me and asked me some questions and apparently decided I understood well enough what it meant to walk through that special door and into the water two Sundays later.

Now, no one needs two baptisms. The Methodist minister had done the job, and I didn’t go to the sort of Baptist church where a fuss would be made saying ours was superior. Our Congregational children do much the same thing I wanted to do at Confirmation, when they confirm their own belief in and commitment to the promises someone else made for them long ago.

But do we ever come to baptism knowing what will happen to us?

I remember dressing in the special robe in a little room behind the sanctuary. I remember the kind but solemn face of my minister. I remember walking into the water, vaguely seeing familiar faces in the congregation. And then he was asking me questions, and I was answering, and then the water. Oh! The water closed over my head and for a long moment that must have been only seconds the world disappeared, and then I came up again, a new person.

I promised you a tale of two baptisms, and those were mine, but I have an idea that I’m not the only one who had two baptisms. I believe it happens to all who are baptized.

When I held Lucas in my left arm and began to speak the words that would baptize him, he looked at me very seriously. “Lucas,” I said, my hand atop his head, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son…” Water dripped down his face as I spoke, and he continued to regard me as I continued, “and of the Holy Spirit: One God, Mother of us all.”

And as if to punctuate the statement, a smile popped onto his beautiful face!

There are two baptisms: one of Body and one of Spirit.

After church that day, someone remarked that they wished the young family would come to church, that it seemed sad to see these little children only on such an occasion and not all the time.  I pointed out that other children came to us who had been baptized at their grandparents’ churches, and that we would be to those children what we hoped someone else might be to Lucas, in some other church home.

That’s all true, but it’s not all there is.

There are two baptisms: one of Body and one of Spirit.

We don’t know what God worked in Lucas that day. We cannot measure or ascertain what wonders God may have performed, what influence that moment may have in making the person Lucas will grow up to be. I only know something touched that sweet child in more than body.

Paul brought the Ephesians the baptism of the Holy Spirit. He brough
t them a fuller story of Jesus, not just a tale of John baptizing in the wilderness, but the absolute mystery of God-made-man, of a love for us beyond our limited understanding, of a Holy Spirit still working wonders wherever people believed.  Twelve of them received the Spirit that day, a mystical number, and this tale of the early church assures us they spoke in tongues: to them, an obvious sign of the Spirit.

I came out of the water the day of my second baptism and put on a pretty dress my mother had made for me. I received the embraces of everyone in the church, and then we went home for a special luncheon with flowers on the table. My parents included family friends of various religious traditions.  Baptists and Methodists and Episcopalians of both the High and Low Church persuasions, all with different practices and habits concerning baptism, gathered to have a meal and celebrate together: to us, an obvious sign of the Spirit.

There are two baptisms, one of Body and one of Spirit.

We take the action of the body. We present our little children to be named, or we bring our older selves to be known anew. We feel the water, drizzled or poured or washing right over us. That is the baptism of the body, and whether we come to it for acknowledgment or repentance, God will be there.

God takes the action of the Spirit, responding with love, with forgiveness, with ultimate knowledge of who we are and utter grace in receiving us. We are God’s children, the beloved. That is the baptism of the Spirit, and whether we know it or not, it is ours. Amen.

7 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Baptisms”

  1. so lovely. thank you. however you preach it will be a blessing to those gathered.

  2. Thanks “sister” for sharing your wonderful thoughts and beautiful writing. Were you unable to preach this sermon because of the cancelled service?

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