On my first day in India, I sat with Dr. Santosh George as he described his ministry at Cure International, an NGO that seeks to eliminate disability caused by clubfoot throughout the country. His staff is a group of Christians who pray together twice a week across thousands of miles and multiple offices for one another and their shared ministry.
They serve ALL people who come seeking their services. And they show the same love, care, honor and respect to each person they meet in the clinic and in follow up visits in villages. It would be impossible for them to officially identify as a faith-based organization, particularly as Christians who are a significant minority in the country, in this religiously diverse culture of India.
But Santosh makes it very clear to his staff that this is Christian calling, to love God and love others without reservation, to be the hands and feet of Christ curing the lame.
What I experienced in India was a Christian community more like I imagine the early church. Because of geography, history, sociology…Christians in India are a minority.
They assume no power.
They have only a small voice.
They cannot assume any understanding.
They are attracting the lowest of the castes, the untouchables, because of the hope the Gospel has for the least and the lost.
It is not always safe for Christians to identify as such...it certainly isn’t always easy. But for this group of people, they choose to emulate Christ every minute of every day – to let that be their center force even if they are not seeking to evangelize and convert.
Santosh challenged us on that first day the way he challenges his young staff of social workers, counselors and health care workers –
“Are you courageous enough to give yourself completely for something closer to the Kingdom of God??”
It was the backdrop of this question that framed my adventures in India…and I pray in frames our conversations together for the coming weeks and months.
Now what does all of this have to do with Baptism?
Our text today is from the Gospel of Mark, the shortest, most pared down of the Gospels.
It is the story of a strange man named John whose birth was foretold in two Gospels by an angel, whose mother was Mary’s cousin (I guess that makes John and Jesus second cousins), and the story of his Baptizing Jesus shows up in all four gospels.
It is the beginning of Mark’s gospel
– no Bethlehem,
but baptism in the wilderness followed by Jesus heading out to be tempted by Satan.
It is a story rich with symbols. John’s mission is framed as a fulfillment of Isaiah 40 – “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord.” The reference to wilderness in these times and places would remind those gathered of God’s deliverance of the Hebrews through the wilderness in the Exodus, or maybe of the ways that the Israelites had rebelled against God and thereby found themselves in exile…
John is strangely dressed in camel hair and a leather belt – the community of Mark would have made a connection between this description and that of the prophet Elijah in the Hebrew scriptures (2 Kings). He eats locusts and wild honey, (and no, it isn’t bugs, it would be seeds from the locust tree, probably ground and mixed with pressed dates to make a cake of sorts). A simple diet, an ascetics diet. A holy man seeking simple holy ways.
John is acting the part of a prophet…talking about the strength of the one who will come after him. He’s alluding to big changes. While he is offering a baptism of repentance in water, he promises that what is to come is a baptism with the Holy Spirit. In the context of their world, the Jews that gathered would have understood this as an allusion to the end times, an apocalypse, a turning upside down of everything they knew and understood, a reordering.
Mark tells us that as Jesus is baptized by John, just as he’s coming up out of the water, the heavens are torn apart… That too would have signaled sort of disruption or turning upside down for the gathered Jews. Clearly what was happening in these moments was not just your average revival tent meeting or preaching on the street corner. Something big was happening here…not only was there a visible interruption as the heavens are torn open and a dove descends, but then there was a voice from heaven, “you are my son whom I love; in you I find happiness”…in whom I am well pleased.
That’s quite a day on the banks of the Jordan… No wonder this story found its way into all four gospels…
Why was this baptism so important?
And for that matter, why are we talking about baptism toda, on a day when no one is being baptized?
Let’s take a quick poll. How many of you were baptized as infants or small children? How many of you were baptized at an age at which you can actually remember what happened? Out of curiosity, how many of us have not been baptized or don’t know if we were baptized?
As protestants, and particularly as Methodists, we tend to have experienced baptism at a very young age.
we sit in the pews and read the liturgy in the hymnal
as babies that perhaps we don’t even know are lovingly sprinkled
or soaked and then held up and named
for all the congregation to see and coo about.
It is rarer to see a youth or an adult at the font in our churches. When we do, we do very similar things…we read, we sing, we lay hands, we sprinkle water.
And then what?
I would venture to say that we see baptism mostly as a liturgical act – something that we mark in worship. In the Methodist church, baptism is one of two sacraments (the second being communion) and a sacrament is understood as an outward and visible sign of works of Grace that God is doing within and around us. In other words, our tradition baptizes to mark God’s work, to make a tangible act of what we understand God to be doing in someone’s life.
I would venture to say that many church-going folks see Baptism as an end in itself. More than once I’ve been in conversations where we reflect on how parents or grandparents feel obligated to get there kids or grandkids “done,” undergoing the act of baptizing children and grand children out of a sense of duty and obligation to make something happen, make something known, give them an identity.
Is it possible that we’ve let this act become just something that we do? Something we feel obligated toward without really resting in the why? And without really holding on to what baptism requires of us both as a community that baptizes and as baptized persons?
I need to shake that up a bit. Baptism was an important act in the life and ministry of Jesus, and it is an experience that we as Christians share with Christ…
Let me say that again, we share our baptism with Christ.
Do we carry that into the world with us each day? Do we live into our baptism recognizing that we share this with Christ?
I used to work with a pastor who always ended baptisms by intoning words about how, with this act of baptism, “so and so” has taken on a new name, the name of Christian.
But there is a risk of taking on the name “Christian” without taking on a life that reflects Christ.
I hear people reject infant baptism because the child needs to make that decision or because the parents will never bring that child back to the church. I will tell you that I believe that baptism is not an act for an individual,
it is an act by the community,
for the Kingdom…
and so, when we baptize infants, we take on an added responsibility for that infant and for every infant ever baptized, to pray for, to teach, to lead, to shape community that helps them grow into people who choose life that reflects Christ.
I want us to remember today how this brief episode ends in Mark, Matthew and Luke. Jesus is driven or led into wilderness where he will spend 40 days (biblical code for “a long time”) tempted by Satan. When he emerges from that time and trial, he will begin the hard work of ministry, teaching, healing, dining with sinners, challenging the social order, cleansing the temple, feeding 5000. He emerges to teach that the greatest command is to Love God and to Love One Another, and to live a life that exemplifies that.
And so, shouldn’t that be the message of our baptism –
not that we become Christian
but that we are sent out from that very moment,
with the help of our families and our church community around the world to try to walk in Christ’s footsteps,
to love God and one another with all of our heart and soul and purpose
so that the Kingdom of Heaven draws close? The Kingdom of heaven isn’t a miraculous act…it is the act of our hard work and radical love and sacrifice.
Too often we wear the title Christian like a name badge…letting the word tell people who we are rather than letting our actions and our attitudes and our priorities do that.
We live in a time and a place where we draw too much from the labels we are given and we give one another…Democrat, Republican, Liberal, Conservative, Lower, Middle, Upper class. Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Jew, Atheist… Redeemed. Church-going. Religious. Baptized. Saved.
Those labels don’t really tell us much about the person sitting next to us. What tells us something is our interactions, our relationships, the story we share, the love and grace we give one another. How we face wilderness and temptation, how we heal and minister and teach without taking credit, without claiming privilege, without demanding anything, even conversion, in return.
Santosh and his staff at Cure International are risking it all to move their country toward a place where the lame can walk. And they ask nothing in return.
The good news of the gospel is not that you are saved…the good news of the gospel is that the low shall be made high, the lame shall walk, the blind shall see, and the poor in spirit will inherit the kingdom of God. The good news of the gospel is that the power structures are turned upside down by radical inclusiveness and love.
You are a child of God. Beloved. Born with a purpose to bring about the very Kingdom of God…to help the low be made high, the lame walk, the blind see, and the poor in spirit inherit the Kingdom of Heaven. Go out in the wilderness and fight the temptation that shows up daily. Proclaim good news.
For this you were baptized…