What is Baptism? January 11, 2009
2009-01-06 by Charles Grant
This week’s guest blogger is R. Charles Grant, pastor of Bon Air Presbyterian Church in Richmond, Virginia.
The texts for January 11 are for the festival of THE BAPTISM OF THE LORD. Coming in the first half of the liturgical year, the festival is rooted in annual rehearsal of the life of Jesus (from his advent to his birth, epiphany, passion and resurrection) as opposed to the life of the believer (the focus of the liturgical year from Pentecost through Christ the King). Even so, a sermon on the baptism of JESUS leads the baptism of the BELIEVER.
The sacrament or ordinance of baptism is of course both the great UNIFIER and great DIVIDE among Christians. All Christians administer baptism with the Trinitarian formula, but the unity ends there. Some Christians emphasize baptism as a “sign and seal” of God’s elective and life-long grace. Other Christians view baptism as an act of obedience that follows a mature profession of faith.
THE BIBLICAL BACKGROUND OF BAPTISM
The gospels speak of John the Baptist, a prophet whose ministry overlapped with that of Jesus. John got his nickname because he baptized people. Baptism was practiced by the Jewish community of NT times as a ritual for welcoming a gentile into the Hebrew faith community. They believed that the gentile (non Jew) needed to be CLEANSED of his impurities before entering into life within the covenant community of Israel.
John’s baptism was a radical variant of this proselyte or convert baptism: John the Baptist preached that ALL PERSONS - non Jew and Jew alike - were in need of CLEANSING. Everybody - from the high priest of the temple down to a murderer on death row - needs to repent of his sin in preparation for the coming messenger of God. God is coming to us in a radically new way, John preached, and we need to radically prepare ourselves for God’s coming.
Christian baptism in the early church further developed Hebrew practice and the message of John the Baptist. The CLEANSING idea retained, but baptism took on a new significance: a radical identification with Jesus. As Jesus presented himself for baptism, so do we. In the man Jesus God HAS ENTERED HUMAN LIFE in a totally new way. As Jesus was dead but is now risen, so also, in baptism we are “dead to sin” and risen to new life. Being baptized is like being born anew. Baptism came to be understood as both a SIGN and a SEAL of being united with Jesus the Christ and with the CHURCH.
Baptism is a human act in response to God’s grace. Baptism is something WE do, because of what we believe God has already done. The traditional language definition is baptism is an “Outward and visible SIGN and SEAL of inward and invisible grace.” As a SIGN, baptism announces what we believe God has done for us in Jesus and what God does with us every day of our lives. As a SEAL, baptism is an occasion for us to affirm and reaffirm our faith in and commitment to the God we see at work in Jesus and in the church. Jesus’ baptism was a SIGN, pointing to God. Our baptism is a SEAL of our intentions for God and our neighbor. As a SIGN AND SEAL, baptism is a universally recognized mark of church membership.
In presenting ourselves and our children for baptism we acknowledge that God is present in human lives, present in OUR lives. In baptism we acknowledge of our need for cleansing and repentance: we are not who we were created to be, and we do what we should do. Baptism is not magic. In baptism we acknowledge our sin and our weakness - and God’s goodness.
Baptism is both a GIFT and a RESPONSE to a GIFT. The emphasis differs depending upon whether we are baptizing an adult or an infant, but the sacrament is one and the same - really two sides of the same coin.
When one is baptized as an adult, the emphasis is on RESPONSE. Before it had a religious connotation, the word “sacrament” referred to the oath of allegiance a new recruit took upon entering the Roman army. So also when an adult is baptized, he or she takes the oath of allegiance as a member of the Christian church and the body of Christ.
When a parent presents a child for baptism, that parent REAFFIRMS the oath taken earlier - reenlists if you will. And at a baptism, when we pledge to love and nurture the one being baptized, what we are really doing is REAFFIRMING OUR FAITH, too. Reaffirming our response to God’s gift of life.
When we baptize an infant or a young child, the emphasis is on God’s GIFT. The baby doesn’t know what is happening. A very young child won’t even remember his baptism. Which points us to the mystery and beauty of baptism! It makes no difference! For in baptizing an infant we recognize that God works in wonderful and mysterious ways throughout our lives. God is at work in us before we can call God by name. God is at work in our lives when we have forgotten God’s name. God is at work in our lives even when we turn our backs on God’s ways.
These are some of my initial thought on preaching on the Mark text on the festival of the Baptism of the Lord. What are yours?
Or, to link our reflections on baptism with the hot tub motif of this blog, come on in – the water is just right!
2009-01-01 by David von Schlichten
Thank you to guest blogger Luke Bouman for his illuminating reflection on the wisdom of selecting one motif from the text and exploring it thoroughly yet concisely, rather than touching upon many motifs in a text in a way that either becomes prolix, unsatisfying, or both.
I feel the light-hole gravitational pull of "The light shines in the darkness, and the the darkness did not overcome it." This verse does not say that there is no darkness but that the darkness cannot overcome/comprehend (the Greek can be translated either way) the light.
My sermon for this Sunday will be one in which I propose a theme for our congregation for 2009. The theme will be "Personalized Ministry Proclaiming Hope in Christ."
The Prolog helps to provide and reinforce the theme with its emphasis on incarnation, which I see as related to personalization. The Prolog also proclaims hope in Christ by reminding us that the darkness did not, does not and will never overcome the light, no matter how opaque that darkness is.
I welcome thoughts.
Yours in Christ,
David von Schlichten
Selecting a Metaphor from the Text
2009-01-01 by Luke Bouman
This opening section of John’s Gospel provides us with many possible compelling Images for preaching. Among them are: Creation and life through the “logos”; the “logos” becoming flesh, full of grace and truth; light and darkness; the only begotten Son of the Father; God made visible in the Son. There are certainly more. In addition, they are certainly not separate concepts, but linked together. The reason I sorted them is that when I have been tempted, in the past, to treat all of them together in one sermon, I have either only skimmed the surface of each concept, or I have gotten long winded. Neither one seems, in retrospect, a good idea for my congregation.
So I choose to select one controlling metaphor from among this list for preaching this week. This, of course, depends on both where my preaching has been and where it is going in the coming weeks. I usually don’t prepare my sermons in isolation from one another. I consider well in advance my likely themes, and for several reasons. It allows me to explore recurring themes and nuance them over several weeks (which will be especially helpful when the “Bread of Life” texts appear this summer, for example). It also allows me to inform my parish musicians, who will choose hymns and choral music that will compliment my themes if they have sufficient time to select and prepare them. Finally, it forces me to focus and gives me time over many weeks rather than just one week to select illustrations and stories to accompany each sermon.
While I do not mean to suggest that the other themes for this week are not important, I have chosen to use the contrast between light and darkness as my controlling image for several reasons. First, I have dealt with images of incarnation and its implications already twice using texts from Luke 2. On Christmas Day, another preacher dealt with those same themes using part of this same text, which was appointed for that day. Second, I am aware of the coming Epiphany festival and its theme, “Christ the light for all nations.” So I will use this text to segue into the themes of that season, especially since I know that most folks will not observe Epiphany Day on Tuesday. Finally, I think that the theme of “light and darkness” provides some interesting departures for preaching not only about darkness (and current events certainly provide us ample examples of it in the world, our lives individually and corporately provide us with resonance with our need for light and life) but also about God’s bringing of light in a particular way through Jesus.
By tomorrow I hope to explore this theme a bit more as I prepare to preach on Sunday.
Understanding John's Prologue
2008-12-30 by Luke Bouman
The opening of John’s Gospel, our text for the second Sunday of Christmas, is richly layered with possibilities for preaching. John approaches the incarnation not with narrative stories about Mary and Joseph, not in a historical/political setting with Augustus or Herod, but rather with a meta-narrative and a cosmic/theological setting. This should not give us permission to preach whatever we want and link it to this text. John’s sources and dialog partners are not obscure
John is in dialog first with the traditions of his own background, first century Judaism. His invocation of the creation narrative from Genesis in the first verse is a clue. In first century Judaism, the idea of a God who is both creator and yet engaged in relationship with the creation is central to an understanding of God. But God’s presence was most often connected with Torah. John suggests in this passage that Jesus surpasses Torah in giving us a glimpse of God. Thus, the incarnation is decidedly counter-cultural, yet not unthinkable, in the Jewish worldview of the day.
John’s second dialog is with ideas from the Greek philosophical tradition, which are beginning to impact the Christian community (likely as the beginnings of what became known as Gnosticism). Here the idea of the divine word or “logos” which will impart divine truth and reveal the real and spiritual, as opposed to the unreal/physical is certainly one that John is conversing with. But here, John also turns that system on its head, as he introduces the “logos” not as entering, but becoming flesh. John rejects the idea that creation is bad, insisting that what God is doing is saving the creation, an idea that starts here and continues throughout the Gospel (notably at 3:17, and certainly in Chapter 14 in the short discourse with Thomas).
Certainly today we have no shortage of folks who either want to see God clearly through adherence to the law, though often no longer strictly the Torah, on the one hand, and those who see the spiritual as an escape from the physical into another dimension on the other hand. For all of these folks, John’s Gospel serves as challenge, but also as good news of freedom. We are freed from the bondage of the law, sin and death. We are freed for the care of creation and to live as the community that is grounded in the stuff of existence, not trying to escape it. Thus John is tapping into the deeper themes of what it means that God’s “logos” has become flesh. Perhaps by this 11th day of Christmas, the people are ready to hear some of these themes.Of course, the challenge for every preacher will be to take this message of John’s deep, ontologically grounded discourse and translate it into images, stories and songs that the people will relate to. How is it that God makes God’s self known through the Son? How is it that we, as people of God, are called into the work that God is up to? Questions like these will help us take this text and begin to mold our sermons around it.
This week's guest lectionary preaching blogger is
2008-12-29 by David Howell
The Reverend Dr. Luke Bouman, a pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Director of Church Relations for Valparaiso University, and a frequent guest preacher in the Chapel of the Resurrection on campus.
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