The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
1 Peter 3:13-22
Reflections on the Water
Last week, we witnessed eight baptisms, and today, yet another. That is a lot of baptisms. It is exciting to watch all these new Christians emerge from the water. It's exciting to watch the Church grow. And, so it seems to me that now is a good time to reflect on what we have witnessed, reflect on the sacrament of baptism.
I'm actually asked fairly often, probably because I am a priest: “What do we believe about baptism? What does it mean?” It is a great question; it's also hard to answer. And so my response is usually less than satisfying, usually something like: “Well, it means a lot of things. It's complicated.”
Which is true. But also baptism is ridiculously simple – almost offensively so – like maybe it should be a lot harder to become a Christian. Baptism is this simple water ritual. It is putting a small amount of that which is most common on this planet on something we all have, a head. And I tell people that is complicated. And it is not; but also it is. It's just a little water but it means a lot of things.
It is simple but it means a lot of things. Baptism exists in that place where the simple and the complicated collide and yet neither wins. It truly requires of those who experience it a lifetime of reflection. It is Death. It is Life. It is about family and God and the self. It holds everything that matters in a drop of water.
We come to this simple wooden font, or we bring our children – unsure of all of the implications, knowing that something lurks in that seemingly placid water, something life-changing, something even dangerous.
The warning sign is right there on our font: two vultures perched on a baptismal font, looking down into the water. Those vultures know what is in there: There is death in that water. Baptism is death – one of those things both simple and complicated. Death is simple. Anyone can do it. Everyone does. And death is complicated. It's complicated because it is that change which is most unknowable. In fact, most of us spend most of our lives resisting and delaying that which is most inevitable.
Baptism is death – something of who we are dies in the water. And we bring our children. To be buried in the water. To be buried with Christ. To share in his death. The vultures are perched. And we take a chance on God. The chance that those we bring to this place of death will also experience the power of resurrection, of new life. Baptism means a lot of things; one of those things is death.
A death that ends in life. The paradox of baptism is that we find new life only when we drown in the water. Baptism is life – one of those things both simple and complicated. Life is simple. We live it mostly without even thinking about it. Our hearts pound; our brains function; our lungs breathe; we check off birthdays. And life is complicated. It's complicated because the details and decisions of a life lived are a collection of unexpected opportunities and consequences, because life can be both tragic and glorious in the same day – and often is. Because while life just happens, it also requires of us everything we've got.
Baptism is Life – life lived with Christ, and through Christ, and in Christ. It is new and it is unending and it can be terrifying. It is what happens after we are buried with Christ in his death. And, of course, it requires everything we've got. Baptism means a lot of things; one of those things is life.
Life and death are pretty complicated. If there is one thing more complicated it might be family. And baptism is about family – one of those things both simple and complicated. Family is simple. It is said that we don't even choose it. But boy is it complicated. I'm sure I don't need to tell you that.
Baptism is about family. From these waters the newly initiated emerge. And they are our brothers and sisters. A new family – bearing only the name of Christ – is formed. Pedigree and tribe and nation are washed away. Identities erased. Yet, we are not left on our own; we are not left as orphans. We are adopted into a new household: the household of God. We are claimed, claimed as members of God's family. Today, Aiden comes to the font as a baby; he leaves as our brother. He comes as Jay and Tracy's child; but as of today, he is one of us – forever. It is true: we don't choose our family; God does. Baptism means a lot of things; one of those things is family.
But ultimately baptism is about God. In the sacrament of baptism, we glimpse the nature of a God who desperately desires us. God wants us. God loves us, calls us by name and claims us forever. It's pretty simple actually: for as much as we might like to think that our intellectual grasp of the sacrament or our pro-action makes this go, it is entirely a divine act of grace. God does the work. God forms the bond. God takes the initiative. God grabs our heart. But also it's complicated because God then invites us into a relationship – something the history of humankind suggests we're not great at.
And yet, isn't it amazing, even though God knows us and knows our failures, in baptism God proves God's love for us by formally and permanently linking God's very self to us. At the font, God begins a journey with us. On that journey God will be faithful, and we will not. And God will give us endless opportunities to renew our commitment. And we will, with God's help, of course.
Of all the words that can be said, at its core baptism is simply a bath: God washing away everything except Christ. With everything else washed away, God looks at us and sees only Jesus, only that which is best in us. Baptism is, as the author of our epistle asserts, our salvation. For all of the complications, it's really that simple.
Baptism is a once-in-a-lifetime event but it never stops happening. It is the beginning of a journey of discovery, the beginning of a journey with God. We are continually drawn to renewal and reflection every time we witness this ritual, every time a new sister or brother emerges from the water. We remember our baptisms; we remember that God forever looks at us through through the water. We're always defined by that first acquaintance, by that sacred moment.
To say anything seems too much to say about such a sacred mystery; and yet there are too few words in the world to exhaust the topic. And so I leave you with this baptismal meditation by one of my favorite poets, Anglican priest, George Herbert.
AS he that sees a dark and shadie grove,
Stays not, but looks beyond it on the skie;
More backward still, and to that water flie,
Which is above the heav’ns, whose spring and vent
Is in my deare Redeemers pierced side.
O blessed streams! either ye do prevent
And stop our sinnes from growing thick and wide,
In you Redemption measures all my time,
And spreads the plaister equall to the crime.
You taught the Book of Life my name, that so
What ever future sinnes should me miscall,
Your first acquaintance might discredit all.
This water, this sacrament, this holy moment in eternity, it means a lot of things. But it is also very simple: to those who were bathed in the water, it simply means everything.