Baptism of the Lord (January 8, 2017)
December 27, 2016 | by Ignacio Castuera
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Preachers these days need to take a few minutes explaining the meaning of the term “Epiphany.” In common parlance the term conveys a kind of new awareness, an “aha” time and that is congruent with the way the word is used in Christian circles, however, a very clear connection must be made between the time of “waiting for the light,” Advent and the celebration of the arrival of the light, Christmas and Christmastide and the time to make the light manifest to all, Epiphany. It is interesting that the writer most interested in connecting Jewish prophecies about the Messiah to the Jesus story is also the one who uses the idea that the message first received by ancient Israel is meant for all people, Israel is to become a light to all gentiles. This universalizing of the Covenant first adumbrated by Isaiah is now shared by Matthew in the story of the sages from the East traveling to visit the newborn Jesus guided by a light they have seen in a star. Epiphany is a time to display the light to all, to illuminate dark places which abound in the communities where the Gospel is preached.
The task of taking the light of Christ to the world is in the hands of baptized Christians and the observance of the feast of the Baptism of the Lord is a great opportunity to clarify for all the meaning of this sacrament. Many churches have a “remembrance of baptism” where parishioners are invited to place water on their heads and remember their baptism. Preachers have the opportunity to expand on these meaningful rituals and “commission” the baptized to take the radical message of Jesus to the world.
This Sunday offers the opportunity to revisit the baptismal ritual, something that is most needed, especially in those churches where infant baptism is practiced. It is sad that this most important sacrament has become a time to simply display the baby to be baptized instead of a time to think carefully about the meaning of the ritual, the obligations placed on the baptized and on the congregation where the baptism is taking place.
Often parents of a baby will invite the pastor to have the baptism in the family home or in that of the sponsors or witnesses. This Sunday offers a chance to educate all about the importance of having the baptism in the church with the congregation. Where infant baptism is practiced parents, sponsors (witnesses or Godparents) and the congregants assume responsibilities connected with the promises made on behalf of baptized children.
Baptismal rituals are filled with great preaching tools. The vows are most serious and connect all present to opportunities and obligations that baptized Christians have. The dialogue between Jesus and John the Baptist offers a model for us in our day to also dialogue about the meaning of baptism in the midst of the circumstances that surround us. The ritual contains questions about faith (Do you believe in…) and also interrogations about the willingness to perform certain very difficult tasks. In most rituals the willingness to perform difficult tasks precedes the questions about one’s faith. In my denomination, United Methodism, preachers are required to ask “on behalf of the whole church” to renounce the “spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of the world…”
Resistance to “evil, injustice and oppression in whatever form they present themselves” is also a requirement for baptism. Preachers need to lift up the connection between these tasks and the reception of the Sacrament of Baptism.
Keeping the theme of “Christianity as Earthism” gives preachers the opportunity to lift up the role of water in life giving, surely a reason why it was selected for Christian baptism.” This also places the obligation to defend water rights and oppose injustice as it presents itself in the guise of hoarding water and, actually stealing water from communities that are vulnerable and taking it to places where it can be sold at exorbitant prices.
Vandana Shiva, one of the keynoters at the Seizing an Alternative Conference, has been a valiant defender of water rights in her native India. Corporations like Nestle, CocaCola and Bechtel have imposed incredible pain in countries where they have acquired water rights from oligarchies that rule vulnerable countries depriving locals from adequate water supplies.
Even in California and Canada Nestle has operated almost with impunity “buying” water for pennies a gallon and selling it back for incredibly high markups after bottling the precious liquid in pollution creating bottles and transported them spewing noxious gases into the air. Remembrance of baptism can, and should, lift up these issues and urge baptismal resistance to these practices.
Closer home we have the problem of fracking which contaminates water sources for many people. The church needs to be at least informed about this issue and church members need to know about opportunities to speak against this way of attacking our water sources trying to exact more energy to continue polluting the environment. These threats against water are often connected with threats to Indigenous populations such as the Blackfeet Nation in Montana where fracking goes on. Baptized Christians must speak up against those who contaminate the water that is used in many baptisms.
Baptized Christians have from time to time organized themselves as a force of peaceful resistance to regimes. The Confessional Church was organized in such a way as to allow the carrying out of baptismal promises to oppose the forces of wickedness as they materialized themselves during that time. Apartheid in South Africa was defeated in part because of the organized involvement of Christians who faithfully carried out their baptismal duties. The creation of an anti-imperial church movement might be needed in our time and place now.
Finally a clear connection must be made between baptism and eternal life. As pastors many preachers have repeated the formula “As in baptism Name put on Christ, so in Christ may Name be clothed with glory. Baptized Christians are invested with Christ and asked to perform difficult, sometimes daring and even dangerous, tasks. Christians are, as Luther said “little Christs” performing incredible deeds.
As we face uncertain times during this regime change in our country baptized Christians might have to perform ever more difficult tasks congruent with baptismal commitments. If Muslims are going to be forced to register we might have to line up along our Muslim sisters and brothers in actions reminiscent of what the King of Denmark did when the Nazis forced Jews to wear a Star of David on their clothing. The Rector of All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena has already declared that his congregation will be the largest single Christian parish filled with “Muslims.”
Dreamers, children of immigrants without papers, might have to be housed in some of our homes and churches might resurrect the Sanctuary movement that housed immigrants in churches. The opportunities to live out the meaning of our baptism will surely multiply and we must prepare our congregants to become true “Earthist, defending Nature and the most vulnerable members of the human race.