In the Presbyterian Church we only have two sacraments, The Celebration of the Lord’s Supper or Communion and Baptism. Both are usually celebrated, not in private, but with the community called the church. Special circumstances such as a communion with a homebound member are done outside the church, but even then, ministers are encouraged to bring an elder with them who represents the congregation if at all possible and the communion is reported to the session for their minutes as it is a worship service of the church. It is, in a way, our family meal.
Baptism is much the same. Because we do not baptize for salvation but as a rite of entry into the community, it is done in the worship services of the church. This might be different than the churches you were brought up in where baptisms might be private family events. I know when I was married, Bo’s family being Episcopal, had a hard time accepting the fact that I could not do baptisms in private settings or at private events for the babies that were born into the family. In fact now that a new generation is being born, I am getting the request again. But I always decline and explain that it is not a part of the Presbyterian Church’s understanding of what baptism is. I can bless babies…. I can welcome in to the world with liturgical celebration…. but Baptism is a rite of entrance into the church and a celebration that the person is a child of God and is marked in baptism as God’s own.
We only believe in one baptism. Whether you were baptized Methodist, Episcopalian, Catholic, or Baptist…. you were baptized. Joining the Presbyterian Church does not mean you need to be baptized again. And it doesn’t matter if you were baptized as an infant and confirm your baptism in your confirmation and joining the church or if you are baptized as an adult…. it is the same baptism. But in our church, when you join, you must have been baptized.
So, the sad reality is that in our denomination we only have two sacraments and although we celebrate the Lord’s Supper monthly here at Riviera on the first Sunday of the month, we don’t have baptisms too often. And they are truly joyous celebrations. Baptism is the celebration of being branded as God’s own. Although we believe in both believer (or adult) and infant baptism, most people who join churches have already been baptized and, well, we don’t have too many child baptisms as Presbyterians are not the most prolific bunch.
I know some of you have learned all this in Sunday School or Confirmation Classes if you were brought up Presbyterian, but many of us come from different denominations and even religions. And if we don’t educate ourselves as to the meaning of our sacraments and own them as ours where they evoke an emotional response to them, they die out and become empty gestures that we do because we always have done it that way. Instead of being sacred to us, they are just empty motions and archaic rites. In an anthropology class I took on symbolism and rites in college, I learned that things that are important to our faith, such as our sacraments, must be continually re-taught, must be understood, and must be emotionally significant to us or they become empty gestures and they die out. Why do them if they have no meaning to us. But when they have meaning, they can bind us together as a community of faith.
So it is wonderful to have one Sunday a year where we celebrate Baptism by reading about Jesus’ baptism and remembering ours. Listen now for the account in the Gospel of Luke 3:15-17, 21-22.
As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah,[a] 16 John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with[b] the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22 and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved;[a] with you I am well pleased.”
Do you remember your baptism? Most of us only know about it from photos we have seen since we were too young. But even though I can’t remember mine, I know where and when I was baptized. There is a photo of me outside the church with my mother the day I was baptized and I have my baptismal certificate in a file somewhere. I know that when I was baptized, my name, which is the same name that my mother, my grandmother, and even generations of women before her were named, was repeated as water was put on my head. My mother shared with me the photo, told me who stood up with her while I was baptized, and even what I wore.
I was baptized Martha, the same name as my mother who held me during the sacrament and the name of her mother who stood next to her. Just as in the Jewish naming ceremony, when the minister asked what my name was, they told him, and he performed the sacrament, saying my name and blessing me. I don’t think the naming part of the ceremony took on the significance it now has for me until I had my own children. Bo and I named our children and those names were spoken as they were brought into the community of Christians throughout time through their baptism. It was a powerful experience.
Baptism is a statement that you are a part of a community. It is a statement that you will be a part of the Christian community, its culture, and its history and heritage. In the sacrament, the person being baptized makes a statement of his or her own faith or in the case of infant and child baptism the parents do. Then the congregation makes a statement of welcome, of their commitment to welcome and share their love, their faith, and their care for the person being baptized. And then the person baptized is blessed and a statement of God’s love and care is said.
The scripture passage from Isaiah says, ‘Thus says the Lord, who created you…. who formed you….. Do not fear, for I have redeemed you, I have called you by name, you are mine. It is a passage that uses powerful sometimes frightening imagery like waters that could overwhelm us and walking through fires that could consume us, but only to tell us that God is with us and won’t abandon us in those times of turmoil. God calls us by name and is with us and we are God’s.
Our lives are not perfect. Our lives have moments of joy and times of security and happiness. But there are times of fear, of unhappiness, and insecurity as well. And, we know…. we have faith in it…. we feel it…. that God calls us by name and is with us.
And baptism is our rite, it is our sacrament that reminds us that we are God’s own. In our baptism we are branded as God’s. We are claimed by the Holy Spirit and enter into a community of believers of all time and space. Baptism is an awesome thing. It is an event in our life that changes everything and an event we only grow to know its significance as we live into our faith and our calling as God’s people.
And in just a few minutes we will reaffirm our Baptismal Vows. We will have the opportunity to remember what it means to be called by name by God and to be God’s own. And hopefully it will be an unsettling thing but a powerful event that also gives us great joy as the promise of Baptism is that we are a part of a family, we are loved, and we are God’s. Amen.