In the movie Oh Brother, Where Art Thou, three convicts break free from the chain gang and head off on a journey to the home of the threesome’s leader. Everett, Pete, and Delmar have many interesting encounters and adventures along the way, just like Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey. In one of these encounters, they come upon a group lining up to be baptized in the river. This gathering multitude sings Down to the River to Pray as they make their way toward the river and the preacher.
Delmar seems to hear a call to go down to the river to be immersed. He doesn’t go to the end of the line. No, he runs right up to the front and immediately gets baptized. When he comes up out of the water, he claims to be a changed man.
Well that's it boys, I been redeemed! The preacher warshed away all my sins and transgressions. It's the straight-and-narrow from here on out and heaven everlasting's my reward!
Not only that but the preacher told him all his sins were washed away, even the Piggly Wiggly he’d robbed. And when Everett pointed out that he had denied robbing the Piggly Wiggly, Delmar told him that the preacher told him that God forgave that sin as well. Living this new redeemed life wasn’t going to be easy, and Delmar fell short of his promise, but he tried the best he could to live as one of the saints of God.
Jesus got in line, along with all the other sinners who were going down to the river to be baptized by John. Luke doesn’t describe the baptism itself; he just tells us that Jesus got baptized that day. After he was baptized, Jesus began to pray, and as he prayed, the heavens opened, and a voice from the heavens declared him to be God’s Son, the beloved. Yes, “down to the river to pray, studying about that good ol' way. And who shall wear the robe and crown? Good Lord show me the way.”
Every year on the first Sunday after Epiphany we remember the baptism of Jesus. It’s at this moment in the story that Jesus receives his call to ministry. In the gospels of Mark and John, this is the first time we actually encounter Jesus. Luke, on the other hand, starts the story before Jesus was even born. We even run into him in late childhood. Now, Jesus is an adult, and he comes down to the river to where John the Baptist was preaching a message of repentance and baptizing those who were willing to repent. The people wondered whether John was the promised one, the Messiah, but John told them that the Messiah was still coming! While John baptized with water, the Messiah would baptize with Holy Spirit and Fire. Jesus joined this crowd who came down to the river. He got in line just like everyone else. He doesn’t make a fuss. There’s no spectacle. He’s simply baptized by John and then he goes off to pray. Now I should point out that in Luke’s mind, Jesus wasn’t a sinner, and therefore he didn’t need to be redeemed. So why does Jesus go down to the river? Luke doesn’t say. But it’s clear that Jesus identifies himself with the sinners seeking forgiveness and redemption. After he’s baptized, he receives this gift of the Holy Spirit, ordaining him and empowering him for ministry. Yes, Jesus will be the one who baptizes not with water, but with the Holy Spirit and Fire.
We Disciples practice believer’s baptism. We immerse people upon their profession of faith in Jesus. All of us who have been baptized have stories to tell. Some of us were baptized as infants in other traditions. Some as were baptized as young children, some as teens, and some as adults. Maybe you saw baptism as simply a hoop to jump through; a rite of passage so that you could be counted among the members of the congregation and maybe gain admission to the Lord’s Table. But surely baptism is more than a rite of passage or a necessary hoop for church membership.
Because we remember Jesus’ baptism today, we can also remember our own baptisms. We can reflect on what baptism means and even reaffirm the vows we made at our baptisms or our confirmations. Even if we haven’t heard a voice from heaven telling us that we’re a child of God, like Jesus we have been blessed by the presence of the Holy Spirit. We are, in Christ, counted among God’s beloved. Yes, in Christ we have been washed and redeemed and ordained for ministry.
There was a time when young people, who got to a certain age, were run through a class and then either baptized or confirmed, depending on the tradition. For some this was an important event in their lives, one that marked them for the future. I had a conversation with a person recently who still vividly remembered the day she was baptized. It marks her life to this day. For others, it may have been little more than a ceremony everyone was expected to go through.
I’ve told my own story of baptism before. I was baptized in the Episcopal Church as an infant, and then I was confirmed at age twelve. That was standard practice. Later on I had a conversion experience, and I decided to get baptized once more – at camp in a creek. In the years since I’ve thought a lot about my own experiences and what they mean. Perhaps for me, each of these experiences helped form me into the person I am today.
We’ve not had many recent opportunities to fill the baptismal pool. Our children have been too young, and the adults are already baptized when they get here. Perhaps the time is coming when some of our children will reach the age when baptism makes sense, but there’s no need to rush them into it. There’s also an increasing number of adults who have never been baptized, because they didn’t grow up in the church. So perhaps we will see more baptisms in the years to come. Even though we don’t have any candidates ready for baptism, we can stop and remember and renew the vows we made at baptism. We can renew the covenant God made with us at baptism or confirmation.
While I believe in open membership, which means that we don’t require someone to be rebaptized when they join the church, it’s possible for us to forget how central baptism has been to our Disciple tradition. So I appreciate this word from Michael Kinnamon and Jan Linn’s book Disciples:
We think a phrase that captures who we are is "bold humility" -- bold in our proclamation and service, humble in our hospitality to those who are different. Baptism is a visible embodiment of this tension. Through baptism, God lays claim to us and turns us from other gods; but also through baptism, God unites us with the whole Christian family and opens us to persons unlike our own. Discipleship and openness. Bold mission and ecumenical humility. We believe that this is who we are as Disciples, and that it's an identity worth celebrating! (Disciples, p. 64).
With this I heartily agree. Our heritage of baptism needs to be celebrated boldly and with humility.
Now, when Delmar was baptized in the river, he celebrated his new found freedom from his past. This freedom was very different from the freedom he was experiencing as a fugitive from the law. In Christ he wasn’t a fugitive. He was emancipated from the bonds of sin and death. Nothing he had done before in life would define him going forward. He was a new person. Oh, he still struggled with the old ways, but now he was conscious of them, and he tried his best to make amends where he could. When Everett and Pete stole a freshly baked pie from a window sill, Delmar went back and placed a dollar bill on the window sill as payment.
The people who went down to the river to be baptized by John wanted the same kind of experience. They wanted to be redeemed, but John told them that there was more to the story. He was preparing them for this something more. He baptized them in water as a sign of cleansing and forgiveness, but there was one coming who would baptize with Holy Spirit and fire.
We are people of the Spirit. We’ve been washed in water, but we’ve also been filled with the Spirit who empowers us for service.
Dr. Robert Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
January 10, 2016