January 7, 2007
Feast of the Baptism of Christ
Hughes United Methodist Church
Wheaton, MDIsaiah 43: 1-7
Acts 8: 14-25
Luke 3: 15-22 Are you familiar with the proverb “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater?” The roots of this pithy saying can be traced back to Germany in the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century and it was even picked up by Martin Luther in the polemical context of the Reformation. The practical context is that babies often used to be the last members of the family to wash in the familial bathwater and by then the water was often so dirty that it would have been easy to forget that baby was there, resulting in baby being carried along when the bathwater was discarded. The meaning of the proverb can be further deduced in comparison with the more biblical aphorism contained in the Lucan gospel just heard: “Don’t throw out the wheat with the chaff,” or more blandly but precisely: “Don’t throw out the good with the bad.” It is quite easy to draw the analogy between this proverb and the Christian sacrament of baptism, but more difficult to draw the analogy with Jesus’ own baptism. Despite the fact that we have stuck the Feast of the Baptism of Christ on the liturgical calendar a mere two weeks after Christmas, a week after the Feast of the Naming and Circumcision of Jesus and almost a month before the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, Jesus was actually about thirty years old when he was baptized. This is all smoothed over quite nicely by the tradition that has developed of baptizing infants, but this was neither the practice of the early church nor of Jesus. However, this development in the liturgical tradition does point to the depth of meaning Christians find in the sacrament of baptism to the point that it became the guarantor of salvation and so of crucial importance to infants who were at great risk for survival for much of Christian history until the modern period, at least for those of us who live in societies with access to the best of modern medicine; the vast majority of Christians live in the southern hemisphere and go without such niceties. It is the depth of meaning to be found in the symbol of baptism that makes the proverb of babies and bathwater applicable to Jesus’ own baptism when it is remembered that Christian theology has taken from Paul the metaphor of the church as the body of Christ with Jesus himself the head as one of the primary symbols of Christian life together. We celebrate today not only the descent of the Holy Spirit upon Jesus and the voice of God proclaiming him the beloved two thousand years ago, but we carry that Trinitarian blessing forward into our own historical moment as the body of Christ. We too are beloved of God and hosts of the Holy Spirit and so we are responsible for seeing to it that the precious gift given us in that baby two short weeks ago is not washed downstream in the baptismal waters of the Jordan. In the psalm for this morning we sing of the love God has for us, for
“The heavens are yours, the earth also is yours;
the world and all that is in it—you have founded them.
The north and the south—you created them;
Tabor and Hermon joyously praise your name.”
We are created by God and so loved by God, and thus we must stand in ultimate perspective before God our creator, to borrow a phrase from my teacher Bob Neville. To stand before God ultimately is to stand responsible for the created lives we have been entrusted with living, and this responsibility is taken up in the sacrament of baptism. Baptism is a visible sign of the love God has for us and a reminder of the responsibility that love implies on our part, namely to discern the baby from the bathwater. Kilian McDonnell finds a similar theology of baptism in the early church, that “the goal of Christian baptism is ‘to become pleasing to the Father.’ The Spirit, therefore, comes down on the Son that he, the Son, might ‘reveal salvation to all,’ to teach us how to attain the Father. The baptism of Jesus sets the pattern for the whole trinitarian economy of salvation.” This sounds rather easy, does it not? If you want to discern the baby from the bathwater, just follow the pointing of the Spirit, the Holy Spirit. But this does not really solve the problem; which spirit is the Holy Spirit? There are many spirits blowing about in the world, but not all of them are the Holy Spirit pointing to the baby amidst the bathwater and thus allowing us to stand in ultimate perspective before God our creator. We can hear these many spirits blowing through our churches quite clearly. How often have you heard it said, “the church really should do x,” or more emphatically, “the church simply must do y”? More often than not it is put negatively: “the church should not do this,” or “the church must not do to that.” How often have you said such things yourselves? I want to suggest that most of these “should” and “must” statements are probably bathwater. Why? Because the whole problem of the baby and the bathwater is that the baby is too small and there is too much bathwater; there are many spirits, but one Holy Spirit. On the other hand, it is entirely possible that all of the things we “should” or “must” do really are from the Holy Spirit of God, they really are the baby. This seems to be a contradiction; how could the same things be either baby or bathwater, both baby and bathwater? The contradiction is resolved when we realize that it is not the things in themselves that are either baby or bathwater, spirit or Holy Spirit, but rather whether and how the things orient us to be able to stand in ultimate perspective, the meaning they convey for us that allow us to stand before God our creator, that makes them one or the other. The discernment of spirits, of babies from bathwater, is finally a human problem. It is true that we must choose the good, we must choose Christ, but the act of choosing is not the end of the story: we choose Christ when we follow in the way that leads to standing in ultimate perspective, when we seek the Holy Spirit anew in every moment of our lives, when we take up our cross daily. I have the privilege of regularly attending Trinity Church in Copley Square in Boston, an Episcopal church of about four thousand members that is just completing renovations costing about $54 million. What better context for posing our question: baby or bathwater? It would be easy to say that paying $54 million for just about anything must be bathwater, but my experience at the church is contrary to this. I came into the community as the renovations were underway and have stayed as they come to completion. I have been quite impressed by the insistence of the church leadership, both clergy and especially laity, that the renovations are only significant insofar as they point not only the members of the church but also the entire city of Boston beyond themselves and toward God and neighbor. The renovations themselves do so in that the homeless of Boston who gather at night on Copley Square sleep on the steps and under the porticoes of the church, but the people who make up Trinity Church carry forth their worship, or their work to employ the literal meaning of the word “liturgy,” to the ends of the world. Trinity Church has an annual food drive called “Loaves & Fishes” to help stock food pantries around Boston, they host and fund the Trinity Education for Excellence Program to provide leadership development for students in the Boston public schools, they have been involved in an interfaith effort to bring health care to all Massachusetts residents, and they send several teams to Honduras each year to help with structural improvements, various services, and medical treatment, to name just a few ways that Trinity reaches out to its neighbors. Trinity Church is a wonderful example of the fact that choosing Christ, choosing the baby, is an issue of orientation beyond ourselves in the midst of many conflicting symbols and realities, many spirits vying for our attention. We choose the Holy Spirit when we choose according to the fruits of the Spirit, some of which Paul outlines in the fifth chapter of the Epistle to the Galatians: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. These fruits alone, however, are just as prone to perversion as any other norms so long as they are not oriented beyond the people who adopt them. This is why the great commandment, to love God and neighbor, is really one commandment. We are oriented properly to God who is beyond ourselves by also being oriented beyond ourselves toward our neighbor even as we are oriented properly to God who is at the very depths of our being by also being oriented toward our neighbor for whom God is also at the very depths of being. I would suspect that many of the “should” and “must” directives to be heard in churches are oriented more toward those proclaiming them than they are toward God and neighbor. Many churches are desperate for funds to pay the utility bills, keep up with regular maintenance, and generally keep the doors open. Out of desperation, these churches turn much of their attention to raising money for the sake of the building and to increasing membership in order to raise more money for the sake of the building. Members of these churches are deeply concerned about the facility because it is where their families have worshipped sometimes for generations. Pastors are concerned about losing their pensions and benefits if traditional denominational structures fail. Churches imaginatively construct golden ages from the remembered past, hopelessly and helplessly seeking to establish the foundations to rebuild this ephemeral “Christendom.” Such churches, members and pastors have not just thrown the baby out with the bathwater, they have thrown out the baby and kept the bathwater of fear and illusion! Glen V. Wiberg elaborates on this by paraphrasing our passage from Luke’s second volume, the Acts of the Apostles, in his Christian Century article “A Costly Baptism:” “A local businessman observing the visitation of the Holy Spirit wants to make a deal. Since everything has its price, he thinks, why not the Holy Spirit? Just name your price! But Peter speaks the terror: To hell with your money! And you along with it! Repent of your arrogant presumptions of striking bargains and offering bribes for God's costly gift.” The church is guilty of throwing the baby out with the bathwater not only in its internal concerns but also in how it goes about interacting with the world. Over the centuries, the church has adopted many authorities as trustworthy guides for her members in walking the paths of life. Some of these guides include the scriptures contained in the Bible along with other texts written through the first century of the Common Era, the decisions of councils of bishops especially in the fourth through eighth centuries but continuing into the present for our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters, the investigations of theologians shining the light of God through human intellect, and the daily lived experience of each and every Christian in all of its guilt, fear, anger, love, joy, peace, and hope. The problem is that in many churches the guides have become ossified into absolute authorities and so ends in themselves instead of means to the end of standing before God the creator in ultimate perspective. Furthermore, the ability of the church to speak authoritatively into this historical moment is made laughable by reliance upon these ossified authorities, leading many to charge our trustworthy guides with lacking credibility, a charge that holds so long as they remain absolutized. We throw the baby out with the bathwater when we fail to exercise the vocation adopted in baptism to be discerners of spirits in the care of trustworthy guides and instead lazily cling to absolute authorities. So what is it like to stand in ultimate perspective? I think it is probably a lot like baptism; at least as early Christians experienced it. I quote here from Aidan Kavanagh, longtime professor of liturgy at Yale Divinity School: “So they stripped and stood there, probably faint from fasting, shivering from the cold of early Easter morning and with awe at what was about to transpire. Years of formation were about to be consummated; years of having their motives and lives scrutinized; years of hearing the word of God read and expounded at worship; years of being dismissed with prayer before the faithful went on to celebrate the eucharist; years of having the doors to the assembly hall closed to them; years of seeing the tomb-like baptistry building only from without; years of hearing the old folks of the community tell hair-raising tales of what being a Christian had cost their own grandparents when the emperors were still pagan; years of running into a reticent and reverent vagueness concerning what actually was done by the faithful at the breaking of bread and in that closed baptistry. Tonight all this was about to end as they stood there naked on a cold floor in the gloom of this eerie room. When all the catechumens have been thoroughly oiled, they and the bishop are suddenly startled by the crash of the baptistry doors being thrown open. Brilliant golden light spills out into the shadowy vestibule, and following the bishop (who has now regained his composure), the catechumens and the assistant presbyters, deacons, deaconesses and sponsors move into the most glorious room that most of them have ever seen. It is a high, arbor-like pavilion of green, gold, purple and white mosaic from marble floor to domed ceiling, sparkling like jewels in the light of innumerable oil lamps that fill the room with heady warmth. The windows are beginning to blaze with the light of Easter dawn. The walls curl with vines and tendrils that thrust up from the floor, and at their tops, apostles gaze down robed in snow-white togas, holding crowns. These apostles stand around a golden chair draped with purple on which rests only an open book.” To stand in ultimate perspective is to participate in the greatest mysteries of human existence. Thankfully, we have been graced with trustworthy guides and fruits of the spirit at baptism so that we do not walk the path either blind or alone. Let us walk forward together, or better yet take up the dance together with God, renewing our commitment to being a community in love with the baby and unafraid to let the bathwater flow gently away. We are Christians not only as disciples of Christ, but also as discerners of spirits. Amen.