Today we honor the feast day of the Baptism of Jesus. Just two weeks ago, he was a tiny baby lying in a manger; last week he was a sassy independent twelve-year-old; and today he’s a grown man, ready to step into the public eye and begin his life’s work.
And he begins by being baptized. By John the Baptist, who was preaching repentance and transformation, and dunking people in the River Jordan as a symbol of their desire to be cleansed and live a new life. Later, Jesus tells his followers to baptize new believers, making baptism by water and the Holy Spirit the rite by which one becomes a Christian.
There are libraries of theology about baptism, what it is, does, and means – as there are about the Eucharist – but ultimately it just is what it is, simple and mysterious, as is the Eucharist. Water, bread, wine, human hands, God’s grace; something happens – we do, we wonder, we trust.
The Gospel of Mark, the first, the shortest, the most to the point of our Gospels, begins and ends with the baptisms of Jesus.In the first chapter, Jesus’ baptism by John in the river Jordan, very much as Luke describes it in our Gospel today. And In the next-to-last chapter, Jesus’ death on the cross at the hands of the Roman government, which is what Jesus means in the Gospels when he talks about his baptism. This baptism, the baptism the Church celebrates today, was only the beginning. As our baptisms are only a beginning.
Who here was raised in a church that doesn’t baptize babies? That teaches “believer’s baptism”? In those churches – and there are many of them – what is normal for us, to baptize babies within their first year of life, is seen as a deeply mistaken practice. Christians in those churches understand faith as contingent on individual belief, on a person’s confession of Jesus Christ as Lord, so infant baptism seems nonsensical, even superstitious.
Those ideas go back to the time of the Reformation,the great time of religious change, creativity, and violencethat swept across Europe in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries. One of the great themes of the Reformation, was that ordinary people should be able to understand the Church’s Scriptures and rites, and participate as believers in the Church’s sacraments and services. Many of the Reformed churches that developed in those decades moved away from the Roman Catholic practice of infant baptism. It didn’t fit their emphasis on conversion and belief. How could a baby be converted to faith in Jesus? How could a baby participate in baptism as a believer?
The great minds who shaped our way of faith, the Church of England, the Anglican way, had to deal with all that. They shared many of those Reformation convictions, but instead of crafting new ways of worship, they adapted the ancient sacramental patterns that we still share with the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches.Those practices included infant baptism.
Thomas Cranmer, the early 16th century Archbishop and architect of our prayer book, and Richard Hooker, the late 16th century scholar who laid the foundations of Anglican theology, both dealt with Reformed objections to infant baptism by stressing that baptism is just a beginning, a first step in the life of faith rather than a completion – a life of faith that will be lived within the Church, the body of Christ, the family of faith, that will nurture and form that child into a mature Christian. They saw baptism as a moment of receiving God’s grace which is then grown into over a lifetime. Hooker uses the image of baptism as planting a seed: “For that which we there professed without any understanding, when we come to fuller understanding later, we are simply bringing to ripeness the seed that was sown before.” (V.64.2, my paraphrase).
That theme of gradual development is key; elsewhere he writes, “Christ imparts himself [to us] by degrees… we are confident that we will eventually receive all of him.” (V.56) Both Hooker and Cranmer stressed that that ongoing, gradual growth in faith happens in the church, in and through its rites, teachings, and fellowship. Hooker describes baptism as a birth, the Church as the mother that cares for and raises the child, and the Eucharist as the meals that feed and sustain. And Thomas Cranmer constructed a baptismal rite that intentionally reminds adults of the promises made at their own baptisms – as the rite in our prayer book does – to remind and call us to continue living into, and up to, our baptism.
So the wisdom of Cranmer and Hooker and the others who shaped our way of faith made us into a church that sees baptism as birth into a new life that, like physical birth, assumes there’s a lot of growth ahead. Baptism, in our church’s understanding, is both complete in itself – as our Prayer Book says, “Holy Baptism is full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ’s body the Church” (298) – and it’s also a beginning, a birth, a threshold. Look at what the congregation says, after the baptism: “We receive you into the household of God.” There’s that image of joining a family, an oikos! The newly-baptized – regardless of her age – is welcomed as a newborn baby into the waiting arms of a family of faith that commits to care, feed, and teach.
Baptism, as a beginning, a birth, an initiation, leads us straight to discipleship. Discipleship isn’t a very Episcopalian word – it’s the kind of thing Evangelical Christians talk about – but I’m increasingly convinced that it’s an important word, with which to name the lifelong process of learning and growing, of receiving and becoming Christ. We use the word “disciples” to describe Jesus’ posse. Although I admit that I often refer to Jesus’ friends, instead – because disciples is a clunky awkward word, and we don’t really know what it means. But we should know what it means. And Jesus’ friends weren’t just his friends.They were his followers. His students. His padawans. He was their rabbi, their master, their teacher, their Jedi master, their sensei.
Disciple means learner, or student. It’s related to discipline – but please don’t think of spankings; instead, think of the discipline of an athlete or artist or a monk, anyone highly-skilled, highly-focused, highly-committed. Their discipline is the set of practices that make them able to do what they do. Discipline in this sense is close kin to training: improving our skills, extending our capacity, meeting and rising to new challenges. Being dissatisfied. Struggling. Improving. Failing. Keeping at it.
We are disciples.Try that on. I’m a disciple. Someone learning and growing, seeking and striving, to live as a follower of Jesus. We are disciples together, trying to discern and name and live out the ways Jesus calls us to follow him, in this time, this place. Because the first question of discipleship is, Well, what do I do? I want to be like you. I take you as my Teacher. I trust your Way. How do I begin? How do I act? How do I think?
Our baptismal rite maps out a path of Christian maturity, a way of living and being that flows out of baptism. It’s on page 304, if you want to take a look. Those five questions – our Baptismal Covenant – identify five hallmarks of living as followers of Jesus: faithfulness in worship; resisting evil and repenting when we mess up; proclaiming the good news of God’s love; serving our neighbors; and striving for justice and peace.
Those are some important guideposts to point us in the right direction on the road of discipleship. But I think we could get more fine-grained than that – both in terms of getting a little closer to the ground,talking about what baptismal living and discipleship look like in daily life; and in terms of getting more particular to this community, this oikos. Churches aren’t interchangeable; if you’ve ever been church-shopping, you know that. St. Dunstan’s is a particular church with a particular culture and call, just like every other church. The people who come here, and stay here, are connecting with something distinctive about this household of faith. We’ve made our homes here, some for decades, some for months, because of some sense of fit or belonging or finding what we’re looking for or finding a group that’s at least asking the right questions together. And once you’re here, once you’ve chosen this as your oikos, your household of faith, we interact. We shape each other. We become St. Dunstanites. So it stands to reason that the way we understand the path of discipleship, the work of living our faith, might be distinctive, different in some matters of substance or emphasis from the way it’s understood across the parking lot at Foundry, or up the road at St. Bernard’s or Advent Lutheran or Blackhawk, or even across town at our sister Episcopal parishes.
Up in St. Paul, Minnesota, an Episcopal parish, St. Matthew’s, went through a process together of mapping out their common understanding of the Way of Jesus.The path of discipleship that they share, as a household of faith. A small group led the congregation through conversations and other kinds of group reflection, over the course of several months, circling around questions of discipleship, following Jesus and living our faith, in daily life. Out of those data, they distilled a number of hallmarks that define how they understand and practice discipleship together. St Matthew’s list boils down to six words. I’ll give you just one example: Hospitality. That’s a core value that we can easily ground in Scripture, and that operates at multiple levels – individual, household, parish.You can see how this theme of hospitality would call forth people’s memories, stories and reflections; you can see how, having once identified hospitality as a central element of discipleship, that value would help guide choices and practices in the future.
In the next couple of months, we’ll go through a similar process here at St. Dunstan’s. We’re calling it the “Towards Discipleship” project. PLEASE don’t go Google St Matthew’s and look at their list – I’ve carefully not looked very hard at it myself! I really want our core values, our hallmarks of baptismal living, to rise organically out of our conversations and experiences, not to plagiarize another community’s list. We’ve started this already, through our Church, Faith, Life survey and conversations last summer. Some themes that have already started to emerge, and we will use those data, but we’ll also invite the congregation into some new conversations, over the next couple of months. The questions this time around will be similar, but not the same. I expect the conversations to be just as powerful and lovely as the ones we had last summer. I hope that even more us of will participate, this time around.
The goal, the endpoint we’ll be working towards is a simple, profound, powerful list of five or six or seven words – core values, hallmarks, touchstones of discipleship, as we know and follow that path here at St. Dunstan’s. Something to post on our walls, on our website. Not the same as a parish mission statement, but not entirely different, either – something we can refer to, to orient ourselves, to remind ourselves of what we’ve discerned together about what it looks like to follow Jesus in the world.
One way to visualize that endpoint is to picture yourself having that conversation. You know, the one where somebody says, “Christians are so creepy, I really don’t trust them,” or, “Your church seems like it’s really wishy-washy, are you real Christians?”, or, “Why do you go to church anyway? I just practice my spirituality on my own,” or even, “I wasn’t raised in a church, or the church I was raised in really hurt me, but church seems really important to you; can you tell me why?” And you can say,“Well, I’m part of a transformative and welcoming community that follows Jesus by practicing hospitality, and ….”
We are going to finish that sentence together, find those words, and get familiar with them, and internalize them. I’m excited and hopeful about this work. I kind of can’t wait to see this list. To see the map we create, together, of the path of discipleship as God has shown it to us here. I think that map, that list, will help us both to identify ways to develop our daily discipleship,to live more fully as followers of Jesus; and I also think it will help us to name and affirm the ways we’re already living out our baptisms. I am 40 years old, a priest of the church for nearly seven years, with a seminary degree, and I am still learning how to name my spirituality, to name the moments and activities in my lifewhen I’m most in tune with the Divine and with God’s intentions and desires for me. I have a hunch that all of us have both areas where we’re called to growth, and areas where we’re already living out discipleship,and we’ll be deeply blessed by the holy voice of God speaking through our community to say, Well done, good and faithful servant; keep it up.
Jesus’ baptism was a beginning, a first step down a long and challenging road.Likewise, our baptisms were – or for some of us, will be – a beginning. A turning point. Crossing the threshold of the household of God. Baptism leads to discipleship, to a lifetime of learning and growing, being nurtured and challenged. May the God who has called us together here and formed us into a fellowship of faith, bless our work as we come to know ourselves as disciplesand seek to understand more fullythe walk of faith to which we are called. Amen.