For audio version click here: https://clyp.it/em5egeho
Our sermon series that we begin today is called Living the High Life and no, it isn’t sponsored by Miller Brewing Company. It is an invitation to look at the life of Jesus through the Gospel of Luke and live into the higher way of being that Jesus lived into. As we go deeper into the series, it is my hope that we will not just learn about the life of Jesus but embrace his way as our way of being and living.
Speaking of the high life, there were a number of things I chose to do in college. For instance, I took a long time to graduate, six years to be exact. I had a number of majors: biology, chemistry, political science, criminology, and finally religious studies. I was also a student at several universities: Shorter University, Georgia State University, the State University of West Georgia, and my alma mater, Mercer University.
But one thing that I never experienced during my college days was fraternity life. I think it had to do largely with being a commuter student and working full time for most of my college days. But I have friends who really enjoyed “rushing a frat” and made lifelong friends and connections.
In doing some research this week, I found that despite having no-hazing policies at most colleges and universities, most fraternities and sororities do it anyway. Some take it too far but some take it for what it should be: welcoming new members into a family. Take these rituals for instance:
“Multiple nights throughout the semester we’d pick the pledges up and drop them off somewhere random and make them run back to campus…we called it midnight runs. If they took too long we’d drive them back where they came from and make them do it again.”[i]
“In order to get a bid into our fraternity, we make the kids go 3 rounds with one of our senior members with Sock Em Bopper inflatable gloves. Fun to watch and even more fun to participate in. If they can’t handle that, they won’t handle our pledging.”[ii]
“We always made fun of this one pledge because he had no facial hair and couldn’t grow a beard or mustache so we drew a mustache and a goatee on him with a sharpie and told him he had to make sure it stayed for the whole week. Every morning he had to draw it back on…he looked ridiculous it never got old.”[iii]
The point of all this is bound to the idea of what it means to be a part of something bigger than yourself, something that offers meaning, identity, a sense of connection. For those people who take part in Greek life, this is largely what they are looking for while at school and after they graduate.
Throughout the course of your life, you will take part in many rites of passage. Most all of us will experience these things as transitions from one stage of life to the next. We grow up and start school, learn to drive, start dating, move into our own homes, go to college, and begin families and lives of our own. But rites of passage are not limited to the physical and social, they extend into our faith and beliefs as well.
The spiritual life is no different than any other aspect of life. It also has these moments where we experience rites of passage and being connected to something bigger than ourselves in our relationship to God, the church, and our own spiritual journey. And it is just that, a journey, as life is, where we have moments that are similar to those experienced in life outside the church.
In the Methodist church, we understand these rites as means of grace or sacraments. Means of grace are just what they sound like, it is a way in which the grace of God finds its way into our lives. It can be one of the two recognized sacraments (baptism or communion) or it can be something simpler, more specific to you as a person, like a moment of quiet, a long hike in the woods, or an uplifting, encouraging conversation with someone. But these sacraments and means of grace are born out of our connection to God and the church.
In the story from Luke 3, we see the cousin of Jesus, John the Baptistizer, baptizing. Verse three says, “John went throughout the region of the Jordan River, calling for people to be baptized to show that they were changing their hearts and lives and wanted God to forgive their sins.” Notice what it says here about why they are being baptized: to show they were changing their hearts and lives, the definition of repentance. They wanted to be forgiven of what they had done in the past, who they were in the past. They wanted to start again. An early Christian writer, Cyril of Jerusalem said of baptism “Let us pass from the old to the new, from the type to the reality.”[iv] This was the central theme of why these people wanted to be baptized, to show that they were passing from who they were to who they were becoming. And all the different kinds of people that are there with John: Jews, soldiers, tax collectors, anyone from any walk of life might have been among the crowds that sought to be baptized. The message was a universal message in that there was no one group that could come, all could come and take the plunge so to speak.
As we come to the end of our reading this morning we see that Jesus also came to be baptized. Did he need to repent? Did he need to become someone else? Or is there another purpose of baptism that we haven’t seen? Verses 21-22 say, “When everyone was being baptized, Jesus also was baptized. While he was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit came down on him in bodily form like a dove. And there was a voice from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.”
Notice the words attributed to God here, “You are my son”, “I love you”, I am happy because of you”. These words are not words about forgiveness or repentance or changing your life. These are words about acceptance and caring and love for another. You are my son, my child, one who from me. I love you, I have the greatest of affection for you, I want the best for you. I am happy because of you, I derive joy from you being you and from simply being with you.
When we put this together with the baptisms of John earlier in the passage we get a ritual act that offers the chance to declare that you are someone seeking a new life and way of being, someone who loved of God, belongs with God, is happy in God’s presence as God is happy being in their presence.
Some theological statements about baptism
Theologians have long debated the merits, functions, and every other aspect of baptism and what it means. They cover a wide area of denominational and theological ideas to try and explain what baptism means. One theologian I read writes about how baptism mimics the original creation as a re-creation, cleanses us from the wrong we have done, makes us part of the church, gives us the Holy Spirit, and makes us a new person.[v]
In another explanation of how different traditions see baptism, Ted Campbell catalogues several perspectives and lists some of the ways they see things differently,
“Some churches have insisted that baptism is only an outward sign of membership and so has no direct relationship to our salvation (the belief favored by churches that practice believers’ baptism and by many liberal protestants).
Churches of the Reformed tradition insisted that baptism is connected or linked to our justification and regeneration (new birth), but not “automatically”: the moment when water was applied might be different from the moment from the moment when a person was justified and born again.
Older Christian traditions, including those of Eastern Orthodox, Catholic, and Lutheran churches as well as Wesley’s own Anglican church have insisted that baptism is itself the means of justification and regeneration, that is that those who have been baptized have been justified and born again.”[vi]
Of course, as United Methodist, we have an official church statement on the denominational website,
“In baptism, the Church declares that it is bound in covenant to God; through baptism new persons are initiated into that covenant. The covenant connects God, the community of faith, and the person being baptized; all three are essential to the fulfillment of the baptismal covenant. The faithful grace of God initiates the covenant relationship and enables the community and the person to respond with faith.”[vii]
All of that sounds great and is fun to discuss if you are a seminary student or as one of my friends like to say, a “theology nerd.” But for the rest of the church, what are we really getting at here. I think it goes back to the idea of declaring that you are someone seeking a new life and way of being, someone who loved of God, belongs with God, is happy in God’s presence as God is happy in theirs. It is symbolic. It is spiritual. It is justifying and regenerative and covenantal and all of those things in some sense, but to me it is most importantly a way of saying to both God and the community around us, “I am a follower of Jesus. I am someone who wants to be a different, better disciple of the Way. I am someone in the eyes of God and want the help other people see themselves as someone to God, too.” I believe for the child or infant being baptized, it is the parent saying these things on behalf of the child, as a promise to live into these things that the child might grow to live into these things.
To me it is, most of all, belonging. It is an outward sign that participate in to show those around us the inward act of change that we have experienced and the connection to others like us who have changed and chosen this way of life as well. In this act of baptism, we celebrate this belonging to God and to one another and with that make a pledge to God that we will live this renewed life we have been given with our entire heart, soul, mind, and spirit, loving God and loving each other. This is our entry way to the path that is Living the High Life. The hope is that whether you began this journey as an infant or an adult, whether you were sprinkled, poured over, or dunked, that you can see baptism as the door entering into something engaging, mysterious, and tremendous that will draw you closer to the person and path of Jesus.
Campbell, Ted A. Methodist Doctrine. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2011.
Jensen, Robin. Baptismal Imagery in Early Christianity: Ritual, Visiual, and Theological Dimensions. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic Publishing, 2012.
Jerusalem, Cyril of. The Christian Theological Reader. Edited by Alister E. McGrath. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2007.
McLaren, Brian. The Voice of Luke. Nashville, TN, 2007.
[iv] (Jerusalem 2007), p.549
[v] (Jensen 2012)
[vi] (Campbell 2011), p.80-81