One afternoon I sat on the ordination council of a young man whose response about the meaning of baptism was less than satisfactory. He had not thought through this important sacrament very much. His answers were what you might call “Sunday School answers.” He said baptism was only a symbol, that it represented the cleansing of our sins. But what really bothered me was that he said it didn’t actually do anything. He was a fellow Baptist, and while you might think that might give him a good excuse to say that baptism is only a symbol, I tend to disagree. We are Baptists! And one of the big reasons we are called Baptists is because of our beliefs about baptism! We believe in baptizing people as adults, just as John baptized Jesus when he was an adult. We believe in baptizing people when they have the ability to make a decision about the sacrificial life that they are about to enter into. I kept pressing him. I said, “I do not understand. Please explain to me why we would go through the trouble of getting a fully grown person immersed in a huge tub of water right in the middle of our sanctuaries if what you said is true, that baptism is merely a symbol and that it actually doesn’t do anything?! Why bother?” I wanted him to see why baptism mattered, how truly transformational the act is supposed to be. How have we gotten into a place where we have made our baptisms so ordered and mannerly and routine that we forget that in our baptisms, we invite the Holy Spirit to come down and invade our lives? And asking the Holy Spirit to come into your life is one messy, life-changing adventure.
John the Baptist prepared the way for Jesus. You remember that he invited people into a baptism of repentance, for the forgiveness of sins. He was the weird prophet who sounded the alarm that the reign of God was coming and that the people had better get ready. He preached about the one who was coming who was more powerful than him. He readied the people by cleansing them with a baptism of water and proclaimed that when Jesus came, they would be baptized with the Holy Spirit. In an interesting turn of events, John baptized Jesus, even though Jesus was the one who was more powerful than John. Jesus showed he was a part of the movement that John began by submitting himself to John’s baptism. At Jesus’ baptism, the heavens tore apart, and the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus like a dove, and God spoke words of blessing over him, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” In this powerful moment, Jesus is given the power of the Spirit that enables him to begin his public ministry, to exercise power over demons, sin, and even nature. He is claimed as God’s beloved, which we learn entails a certain kind of life – a life of self-denial, a life of walking in the way of the cross.
It is this baptism story, Jesus’ very baptism, that we pattern our baptismal practices after as Baptists. When we decide we are ready to walk in the way of the cross, to die to ourselves and be raised to new life in Christ, we are invited to enter into the baptismal waters. When we enter into the water and submit ourselves to baptism, something happens to us. It’s not merely symbolic. When we decide to enter into the water and our church family gathers among us and we invite God to meet us there, something happens that changes us. We are claimed as God’s beloved. No matter who we are or where we come from, we are claimed as God’s beloved. Jesus who came from Nazareth of Galilee was claimed as God’s beloved. Nazareth was a place that people in Israel thought was a dump, a place from which nothing good could come, and yet that is the place God chose to be born and raised. And it was a place that God chose to call beloved. Jesus is beloved. We are beloved. Those who come from places that our society, that the privileged world, does not think highly of are beloved. God is always surprising those who think they are great by investing in those the world ignores. In the midst of our broken lives and our bleeding world, the Holy Spirit takes hold of our lives, gives us a new life, and calls us beloved.
What does it mean for our lives that we are God’s beloved? What does this new identity of beloved require? How does it change us? We, like Jesus, are given the power of the Holy Spirit. This Spirit invades our lives and gives us power to participate in the reign of God. We are called to enter into God’s mission in the world, a mission that casts out demons, heals the sick, calms the storm, and feeds the hungry. Our baptisms require that we walk in this way of Jesus, that we participate in this mission of God, and it is a life that will require us to take up our crosses and lose our lives. As baptized people, every day we must decide if we will take up our cross despite the costs, despite the way it might interrupt our plans, despite the way it might call us to change the way we live our lives.
There’s an old story about a Roman emperor who made his legions be baptized all together into the Christian faith. They all went into the water as a group. They were fully immersed, but they kept their right hands, their sword hands, out of the water. The emperor had no plans for them to fully walk in the way of Jesus; he wanted them to keep doing the violence that they were doing with their right hands. We are all tempted to keep something in our lives away from Jesus, aren’t we? We all want to hold something back. We don’t want to give our whole lives over to God’s mission. The ICE officers who arrested our brother Gilles this past Tuesday must have left their right hand, the hand with which they handcuff, out of their baptismal waters. On his social media accounts, David Kunde, the head of the Charlotte ICE office, claims to be a Christian who does mission work in Uganda and talks about how we should love our enemies, do unto others as we would have them do unto us, forgive the guilty, and welcome the unwanted, and yet he did harm to a brother in Christ when he abruptly decided to detain him, when he clearly helped to get the denial of the stay of removal fast tracked, a stay of removal that would have allowed a man with a life-threatening illness to receive the care he so desperately needs.
When I look out into the sanctuary this morning, there is someone missing. Our brother Gilles is not sitting in his pew. He’s not sitting back there on the edge of his seat, hanging onto every word as he did every Sunday. You’ll notice we have his picture back there and his bag. The bag was the only thing that came back with Wes on that dreadful day. As I told those of you who were at the prayer vigil on Wednesday night, when I went home the night Gilles got detained, I read my son a story about Martin Luther King, Jr. I’m always a little frustrated by how much the children’s books sanitize the story of King, but I was particularly troubled that night. The children’s book talks about how King made it possible for all people to eat in the same restaurants, play on the same playgrounds, go to the same schools, but we know that’s not entirely true. How much money we make, what family we were born into, where we come from all affect what places we have access to. The book highlights that King’s speech came true, the one where he said, “I have a dream that my four little children will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” On this weekend when we celebrate and remember Martin Luther King, Jr., I lament that we do still live in a world where we judge people by the color of their skin and by where they come from. We do not live in a world where all God’s children are seen as beloved.
But this morning, I also take hope. I take hope because of Gilles’ example. Gilles called me from the Stewart Detention Facility in Lumpkin, GA yesterday. He said, “Pastor, pastor, I know you all are doing everything you can to help me, and I want to make sure that when you go to church in the morning that you tell everyone how grateful I am.” Gilles is God’s beloved and that beloved man of God who is in a dire, life-altering situation, called me to make sure I told you thank you, that he is grateful, and that he knows God will not leave him. Gilles witnesses to me the power of the Holy Spirit, the power of being claimed as God’s beloved. Gilles inspires me to keep on letting the Holy Spirit invade my life, to keep on letting God interrupt my plans, to keep on walking in the way of Jesus, to keep on working to make God’s mission a reality in this broken world, to keep on trying to set the captives free, and to keep on helping all God’s children see that they are beloved. When we wade into the waters of baptism, we are all claimed as beloved, and we have to decide if we will allow our whole selves to be immersed in those baptismal waters or if we will hold something back. May Gilles inspire us to jump all the way in and to let the Holy Spirit completely transform our lives so that, no matter the cost, we will work to see that all of God’s children are seen as beloved.