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A Baptism for Life
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Posted on Fri, Jan 16, 2009
A BAPTISM FOR LIFE
A sermon by Mel Williams
Watts Street Baptist Church
January 11, 2009 (Baptism of our Lord)
Periodically I hear people say, “You guys are Baptists, but I don’t hear you talk much about baptism.” Today our assigned Scripture invites us to reflect on baptism and to talk about it.
When you get around a bunch of Baptists, you will periodically hear some baptism stories. We also easily make jokes about being deep-water Baptists, not afraid of water. But beneath the banter, the reality is that baptism is the defining moment of our lives. Now, you may say, “He’s over-stating the case. We all decide to get baptized; it’s an important ritual; but hey, there are a lot of important rituals.”
Whether we were sprinkled or immersed, baptism is the defining moment of our lives. It’s the defining moment for Margaret Alexander and Chris and Tiffany Husack as they get baptized today. In my meetings with them this week, we’ve talked about why baptism is so important. Why do we get baptized? Because Jesus was baptized. We are his followers, so we follow him straight into the waters of baptism.
Jesus was baptized when he was thirty years old; and he rose from the water to begin his ministry. So, when we rise from the waters, we become ministers. That’s where we get the notion of “every member a minister.” Every baptized person a minister! That’s where we also get the famous Protestant principle: “The priesthood of all believers.” We’re all ministers; we become ministers at our baptism.
This is not some casual ritual; it’s a defining experience. It defines who we are and what we are called to do; it gives us both identity and mission. First, I am a baptized believer, a Christian, a follower of Jesus. As Martin Luther said at any difficult moment in his life, “I am baptized. I am baptized.” I am baptized person—child of God.
Baptism tells us who we are. The Spirit said to Jesus at his baptism, “You are my beloved.” At baptism each of us hears the same words, “You are my beloved.” Who am I? I am child of God, baptized person, deeply loved by God.” So baptism tells us who we are; baptism gives us an identity. Secondly, it gives us our life mission—what we are to do; our mission is to continue the ministry of Jesus—serving God’s people. Baptism gives us both identity and mission. That’s why I say baptism is the defining experience of our life.
Having said this, I want to tell you two baptism stories. The first focuses on our identity, and the second focuses on our mission.
Flannery O’Connor, writing in Milledgeville, Georgia, through the pain of her dreaded lupus disease, gave us a story she called “The River.” In that story she tells about the day Bevel, a child of alcoholic, abusive parents, is taken by his sitter, Mrs. Connin, to a riverside baptismal service being led by a preacher names Rev. Summers.
The people are standing on the river bank, watching Rev. Summers as he warns the crowd that if they have come to this baptism for some easy miracle, they’ve come for the wrong reason. He tells them to come and leave their pain in the river of baptism. “There ain’t but one river,” he says, “and that’s the River of Life, made out of Jesus’ blood. It’s a river of pain itself…pain to be washed away, slow, you people, slow…”
Suddenly Mrs. Connin lifts the boy up in the air and asks the preacher to pray for the boy’s mother, who has been ill. Mrs. Connin then tells Summers that she suspects the boy has never been baptized, and he tells her to hand the boy to him. Summers asks the boy if he wants to be baptized. When the boy says yes, Summers tells him, “You won’t be the same again. You’ll count.” (Flannery O’Connor, The Complete Stories
, pp. 165-66)
“You wont’ be the same again. Now you’ll count.” At his baptism, Jesus came out of the water and he heard a voice saying, “You are my beloved. In you I take delight.” (Mark 1:1) You won’t be the same again.
At baptism we are making at least two major claims. 1. We are saying, “I am a child of God. I am God’s beloved.” God said that to Jesus – and to us. 2. At baptism we do as Jesus did: We begin our ministry. We take our place in God’s business of serving people.” (from Fred Craddock, “Attending a Baptism,” in Cherry Log Sermons
, p. 11)
The second story comes from Fred Craddock. He tells about his time serving as pastor of a church in a little town of 450 people in southwest Oklahoma. There were four churches in town, and each church drew a share of the people. Attendance at church would rise and fall according to the weather or whether it was time to harvest the wheat.
But the best and most consistent Sunday morning attendance in town was not at the churches, but at the little café where all the pickup trucks were parked and all the men were inside discussing the weather and the cattle and the wheat bugs and the hail and the wind —and whether we were going to have a good crop this year.
This conversation at the café went on while their wives and sons and daughters were in one of those four churches. The churches had good attendance and poor attendance, but that café had consistently good attendance. Better attendance than some of the churches. The men were always there.
Once in a while the café group would lose a member because his wife finally got to him, or maybe his kids did. So you would see him go off sheepishly from the café to one of the churches. But the men at the café still felt that they were the biggest and strongest group in town, and so they met on Wednesdays and Sundays to discuss the weather and the news of the day.
They were not bad men. Indeed, they were good men, family men, hard-working men. The patron saint of the group at the café was a man named Frank. He was seventy-seven years old at the time. He was a good man, a strong man, a pioneer, a rancher, a farmer, and a cattleman. He had prospered. He had been a success, and all the men there at the café considered him their patron saint. “Ha ha,” they said. “Old Frank will never leave the café and go to church.”
One day Pastor Craddock met Frank on the street. The pastor said that it was not his custom to accost people in the name of Jesus, so he just shook hands and chatted with Frank. Then Frank took the offensive. He said, “I work hard and I take care of my family and I mind my own business.” He was basically saying, “Leave me alone; I’m not a prospect for the church.”
So Pastor Craddock left Frank alone. That is why he was surprised, and the whole church was surprised and the whole town was surprised and the men at the café were absolutely bumfuzzled when old Frank, 77 years old, presented himself one Sunday morning for baptism. The minister then baptized Frank. Some in the community said that Frank must be sick, said he must be scared to meet his maker. Some said, “He’s got heart trouble, that’s why he got baptized. I never thought old Frank would do that, but I guess when you get scared…” There were all kinds of stories.
But this is the way Frank told it to the minister. After the baptism Pastor Craddock and Frank were talking, and he pastor said, “Frank, do you remember that little saying you used to give me so much? ‘I work hard. I take care of my family, and I mind my own business.’?”
He said, “Yeah, I remember. I said that a lot.”
“Do you still say that?” he asked.
“Yes,” he said.
“Then what’s the difference?”
Frank said, “Back then I didn’t know then what my business was.”
Through his baptism Frank discovered what his business was. It was to tend to God’s business, to serve human needs, to continue Jesus’ work.
Baptism is a sign that we count. We know who we are: child of God, beloved of God. And while we’re still wet from baptism, we find out what is our mission, what our business is. It’s God’s business—serving people, meeting human needs.
It’s baptism that points us to life, fullness of life. A baptism for life!
Acknowledgment: Fred Craddock, Cherry Log Sermons