My family joined the Episcopal church after my two sons were born. And since we were Baptists and Baptists don’t baptize babies, my boys hadn’t yet been baptized when we joined the Episcopal church. They were about six and eight years old when they were baptized at St. Mary’s in Scarborough, New York. As we talked about what the priest would say and do and what they would say and do, my youngest, Dan, became intrigued by the words the priest would say as he anointed Dan’s head with oil: You are sealed with the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever. He began to ask us to make the mark of the cross on his forehead and say the words as he was put to bed. You are sealed with the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever. These are words of promise and hope.
The baptism of Jesus is traditionally celebrated on the First Sunday after the Epiphany, so we read Luke’s account for our Gospel lesson this morning. Baptism began as a ritual practice of bathing as a mark of change, a symbol of purification. Jewish synagogues today still have a ritual basin or bath – a place set apart for washing people as a rite of purification or joining the Jewish faith. John’s baptism in the River Jordan was a rite of purification for the people who wanted to change their lives, it was a way to symbolically wash off the old life, with its struggle and disappointment and sin, in order to rise washed clean and ready to begin again.
We’ve lost the sense of what that must have been like – in our Episcopal churches we most often have small baptismal founts that don’t allow for immersion baptisms – we wash the foreheads of our baptizees, sprinkling water three times in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In other protestant churches, which have baptismal tanks like large scale bathtubs as part of the furniture at the altar, people go down into the water and come up fresh and clean – just like what John the Baptizer and Jesus did by the River Jordan – washing away the old life, coming up to new life and a fresh beginning.
In our churches today we recognize that two things happen at baptism – or at least happen at an adult’s baptism. In baptism, we are choosing God. The new life we rise to at baptism is our commitment to follow Christ and his example of loving God and others. AND baptism also represents God’s commitment to us – we receive God’s Spirit to guide us in how we ought to live. The priest anoints us with oil and tells us that we are ‘sealed with the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever.’ God makes a commitment to us – the voice that descends with the dove and says that we are beloved, that God is pleased with us, delighted with us. If we were baptized as children, before we were old enough to understand or to take on our side of the commitment, then I suggest that infant baptism commits God to the child and the child’s parents to raising the child as one of God’s beloved. Confirmation is the rite where the baptized child makes the choice to commit to God, completing the circle of commitment, if you will.
Most of us in this room have been baptized. We’ve been washed in the water. We’ve risen to new life in Christ, blessed with God’s commitment, given the Holy Spirit to strengthen and enable our commitment to God. How are we doing with our side of the equation? Do we love God as we ought? Do we follow as we ought? Do we love others as we ought? Instead of the Nicene Creed, we’ll be reaffirming our baptismal vows this morning. As we read the words, think about your life – are you living out your promises?
We all fall short of where we ought to be. The good news is that God never falls short on God’s promise to us – we are beloved no matter what. We are sealed with the Holy Spirit. We are marked as Christ’s own forever. God doesn’t change no matter how well we do or how far short we fall.
The baptismal font is full of water today. So I suggest that on your way to communion or on your way back from communion or after the service – stop by the font. Dip your hand in the water and make the sign of the cross over yourself – large or small. Remind yourself that you are God’s beloved, you’ve been sealed with the Holy Spirit, you are marked as Christ’s own for ever. And let us recommit ourselves to living out our vows to love God, to love our neighbors, to seek and serve Christ in everyone we meet.
Baptism is part of the love song God sings over us – the same one who said in the book of Isaiah:
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,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.
We are God’s beloved. We are sealed with the Holy Spirit. We are marked as Christ’s own forever. May we know God’s truth deep down into our bones and live out of that truth with joy. Amen.