Where's the Fire?
This story begins with John the Baptist- the son of Zechariah and Elizabeth, who went off to the wilderness to preach repentance, eating locusts and honey and dressed in burlap. These days he might get made fun of as a trust-fund hippie…back then, folks wondered if he might be the messiah. He set everyone straight, though, telling them that the one coming after him is the messiah…John explains that he baptizes people with water but that the messiah will baptize you with the holy spirit and with fire!
We can see from this passage that Jesus didn’t invent the whole baptism thing. It was likely an already existing Jewish practice- in fact, converts to the Jewish faith to this day still dunk themselves in a mikveh, a small pool for ritual cleansing.
In early Christianity, baptism similarly marked the end of a long conversion process. Potential converts would spend three years in catechism (that’s sort of like church school), studying the ethical and behavioral requirements of a Christian life. Before they could be baptized, they would be examined on their behavior. Were they living up to the demands of a Christian life? Were they feeding the hungry, visiting the sick, sharing with the poor?
The word conversion literally means to turn around- had these potential converts turned their lives around and oriented themselves toward Jesus’s life and teachings? Only if they were doing these things, only if there was evidence of conversion would they then be baptized, finally welcomed as full members of the faith, sisters, brothers, and siblings with their fellow Christians.
Down the centuries in the Protestant church have evolved two paths of baptism: infant baptism, and adult baptism, which is perhaps more accurately called believers baptism since it isn’t only adults who are baptized in this construct. One of the denominations that still practices believers baptism is the Baptist church- one of United Parish’s founding denominations. Believer’s baptism means that baptisands are old enough to earnestly make a decision to live life as a Christian. They are believers.
Churches that practice believer’s baptism often have a dedication ceremony for infants; churches that practice infant baptism often have a rite of confirmation for adolescents or young adults. According to Theologian and local pastor Martin Copenhaver, both models- dedication and baptism, or baptism and confirmation, celebrate two important rites of passage in the life of a Christian, the first being the “passage into life and life within the church” and the second being the “passage into adulthood as a believing Christian”.
When baptism is used to mark the first passage, the “passage into life and life within the church”, we are marking the infant as claimed by God, as loved by God, even before they know what that means.
I see elements of today’s gospel story in both the practices of infant and believers baptism- Just as we heard God say to Jesus in the gospel story, God says to the baptisand, “you are my beloved child, with you I am well pleased”.
Last week Kent talked about our spiritual home, and I think that this is part of it- our identity as a beloved child of God is a spiritual home for us. It’s somewhere we can always return to and something that nothing and no one can ever take away from us. We talk poetically about baptism as a visible sign of an invisible gift, but in plain language, baptism is a way of intentionally celebrating and claiming an identity that has already existed- existed since we were knit together in the womb.
When we practice the rite of believers baptism, or confirmation, we mark “the passage into adulthood as a believing Christian.”
And, I see elements of today’s gospel story in that practice as well. Do you remember how John the Baptist proclaims that Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire? I think this might be the fire part that he’s talking about: Adulthood as a believing Christian.
When we as believers make the conscious decision to be baptized, we are not only claiming our identities as beloved children of god, but we are also choosing to share in the life of Jesus. We, much like the early Christian converts, are choosing to embark on a journey that necessitates a sometimes radical shift in behavior and lifestyle.
Now, the early Christians, their baptism solidified an “allegiance that could get you killed as an enemy of the state”. Here in Christian-normative America, we don’t really face that risk…but, we do know that the road to following Jesus is paved with behaviors and ethics that irritate the forces of empire. And the empire often strikes back.
The phrase baptism by fire, in our common everyday usage, is used to describe a situation in which someone begins a new role or responsibility or experience and immediately must overcome a nearly-overwhelming challenge. An OB-GYN is called into an emergency c-section on their first day- a new parent wonders if a baby has EVER been as colicky as theirs…an equestrian shows up for their first riding lesson and the horse spooks and gallops across the field…you’re fishing with your family and this rando shows up and says he’ll make you fishers of men and you’re thrust into a new way of seeing the world and loving the world and relating to God and then your beloved teacher is executed for insurrection and they might be after you, too, so you deny ever even knowing him.
Living a Christian life is a baptism by fire. Yet as the prophet Isaiah reminds us, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God”
Baptism isn’t an assurance that the road will be easy- that there won’t be rivers to cross or flames that lick at your heels. Baptism is an affirmation that we know we are never alone on that road. Whenever we celebrate a baptism at United Parish we reaffirm that right from the start, we are never alone. We tell parents that when their children do scary, poignant, or heart-wrenching things, they are not alone. We vow to the baptisands that as they grow in Christian faith, they are never alone. Baptism makes visible the ways we are bound to God, and solemnizes the way we are bound to one another as a community of faith.
And whether we are baptized as infants, children, adolescents, or adults, our baptism reminds us of our identity, it calls us by our true name: beloved child of God. It calls us home.
And the invisible gift that baptism visibly celebrates, this knowledge of our true identity and our spiritual home in community, it spans our lifetime, back into our past and forward into our future.
Martin Copenhaver explains, “the gift of new life may not mean all that much to an infant, but in time it will and when that time comes, the gift will still be there, as fresh and new as the day it was offered. Likewise, we may not see that an infant has any need for forgiveness. We see not evidence of sin in the child. But it’s there all right, a tiny hidden seed,” I’d add that it’s probably nestled within the child’s humanity, and it’s there “even from the beginning. And one day,” Copenhaver says, “when the need for forgiveness becomes evident, the baptized person can recall the continually renewed promise of baptism that was offered one day when the child seemed not to need it and is still present when they need it most.”
I was at a Mumford and Sons concert earlier this month, and when they got to the song The Cave, I found myself in the midst of a very moving spiritual moment. In their words I heard a baptismal anthem: “And I’ll find strength in pain, and I will change my ways. I’ll know my name as it’s called again.”
Whether our baptism happened at a point of conversion or whether it was celebrated before we even knew how to love God, we can draw on this incredible, invisible gift whenever we are in need of turning around; whenever the water seems deep or the road seems dark or the flames lick at our heels.
Because we are beloved children of God, we are never alone, and the flames will not consume us. Because we know we are beloved children, we have the courage to walk into the flames in the first place.