We don’t hear about it so much anymore, but for a while during the ‘70s and ‘80s, one of the great themes in pop psychology in our society was “self esteem.” It was said that a great many people simply have a poor self-image; they think ill of themselves, don’t ‘like’ themselves.” I’m not qualified to jump into that subject in a direct way, except to make the intuitive observation, based on my own informal experience as a pastor, that a good many Christians do have a poor spiritual self image.
By this I mean, actually, a spiritual inferiority complex. “Everyone else’s spiritual experience is more real than mine—by comparison, I’m just faking it. Everyone else around me is spiritually more mature than I am. Others seem to have fruitful and satisfying prayer lives, but I feel like my prayers just bounce off the ceiling.” I’m not going to ask for a show of hands, but I am sure that there are some in this church this morning, sitting right here listening to me, who are saying in their hearts, “Bishop, you’re talking about me! I don’t have a very strong sense of who I am in relation to God, or who God is in relation to me, or what difference it all makes. I’m kind of going through the motions here: I’ve been baptized and confirmed and I receive Holy Communion, and I’ve even had my kids baptized and sent them to Sunday School. But there’s something missing.”
When I use the first person—“I”—I’m not just putting words in someone else’s mouth. All these feelings are, at various times, true of me. But there’s one advantage I have over many of you, perhaps, and it comes from not being a cradle Episcopalian. It is, of course, highly preferable to be born in an Episcopalian family and never have to know anything else (!), but for those of us who were not so privileged, there is a consolation prize: Many of us can remember the day of our baptism, because we were eight or ten or twelve years old when it happened. And we didn’t just have a few drops of water sprinkled on our foreheads. We took the plunge, and got thoroughly wet. It was an important and memorable experience. So when I hear someone speak to me of the meaning of Christian baptism, I’ve got something tangible and concrete in my memory that I can call upon to make the teaching and the theology come alive for me.
Now, in the proper context—that is, when a child is born to believing and actively practicing Christian parents—I support and encourage the baptism of infants. I had all three of my own children baptized as infants. It sometimes seems, though, the way we go about baptizing babies, the attitudes and assumptions that we bring to the event, impoverishes the experience for everyone concerned. We have, as a church, certainly come a long way from the time when baptisms were routinely done in the “drawing room” at four o’clock on a Saturday afternoon. But, over the years I was in parish ministry, I got regular requests from non-church members to do such baptisms, and the attitude of that era persists even among church people. It’s still felt to be very much a private and family affair, at which others are now permitted to be spectators. And we still use just a token amount of water, hardly enough to remind us even of a bath, much less a birth or a drowning, which are the symbolic roots of the sacrament.
It’s no wonder, then, that most of us have a very weak emotional and intuitive link with the event of our own baptism. It’s remembered with the same sort of genteel fondness that we associate with something like our first haircut! And so it’s difficult to connect with preachers and teachers who get up and talk about baptism as the primordial Christian sacrament, the event which anchors our relationship with God and from which the entirety of our spiritual life flows. And we are left with a spiritual inferiority complex, a poor spiritual self-image.
There is a form of spiritual therapy that was popular some time ago called “healing of memories.” Healing of memories attempts to enable people to re-visit times in the past which are thought to be the source of pain in the present, and, conscious of the presence of Christ in those times, to respond to them differently than they were able to originally. Without putting too sharp a point on it, I would suggest that the feast which we keep today, the feast of the Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ, offers us the opportunity to heal the impoverished memories of our own baptism.
You see, in his wisdom and in his love, the way God has chosen to save us, the means he uses to rescue us from the power of sin and death, is to configure our experience to the experience of his Incarnate Son. Jesus becomes a template, a pattern, a prototype: what happens to him happens to us. Chiefly, of course, this is seen in the movement of dying and rising. Christ died—we die in Christ. Christ rose from the dead—we rise with Christ. But the pattern plays itself out other ways as well. Today, in particular, Jesus’ experience of baptism becomes the pattern for our own.
Jesus, as St Mark tells the story, came down from Nazareth in Galilee, to the banks of the Jordan River as it wound its way through the Judaean wilderness. Until this point, Jesus had been obscure, the well-behaved son of a carpenter. It’s impossible to say, of course, how aware he was of his unique identity, his unique relationship with God the Father. But we do know that, before he went underneath the waters of the Jordan River at the hands of John the Baptist, he blended into his environment, and after his baptism, just about everything he said and did made him stand out from his environment. Before his baptism, Jesus was inconspicuous. After his baptism, he was so conspicuous that, in a relatively short period of time, he found himself so at odds with the religious and civil establishment that they put him to death. Obviously, the baptism of Christ was a pivotal experience for him. It turned his whole life around. It was one moment that put all the other moments in his life in perspective.
Have you ever had the experience of driving through unfamiliar territory at night, and during a thunderstorm? You don’t really know where you are, you’re not exactly sure where you’ve been, and you certainly don’t know what lies ahead. Father Ashmore and I, in separate cars, had that experience last June driving back from an ordination in Salem. It’s, at the very least, uncomfortable, and can potentially be downright terrifying. But, then, a burst of lightning illuminates the entire landscape for several hundred yards in every direction. It lasts for just a moment—probably less than a second—but in that moment you get a glimpse of where you’ve been, where you are, and where you’re going. The darkness and the storm are not quite so menacing as they were before that momentary flash.
Jesus’ baptism was, for him, like a flash of lightning on a dark night. It told him who he was: The voice from heaven said clearly, “You are my Son.” It told him what he was about: The voice continued, “I have chosen you.” And it allowed him to see what was his destiny: The road that the momentary flash lit up was the road to the cross, and beyond that, the road to glory. Jesus’ baptism gave him an identity, a mission, and a destiny.
And as we contemplate the mystery of the baptism of Christ, we find revealed to us the mystery of our own baptism. The same flash of lightning can illuminate our lives too. At our baptism—whether we were ten years old and plunged beneath three feet of water, or ten weeks old and sprinkled with three drops of water—at our baptism, we were given an identity. We were sealed with the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own for ever. We were adopted as sons and daughters of the most high God, with all the inheritance rights of natural born children.
At our baptism, we were also given a mission. God chose each one of us. The Father’s words to Jesus, “I have chosen you,” are his words to us as well. Each of us, at our baptism, received a unique combination of gifts, and we are called to use those gifts in ministry, within the church and in the world.
And at our baptism, we were given a destiny, a future. As Jesus’ road led to the cross, so does ours. We are bidden to take up our cross daily and follow him. This is the hard part of the journey on which we were launched at our baptism. Just as the forces of evil conspired to divert Jesus from this road, so they try to pull us away. They must not be allowed to do this, and they cannot, as long as our eyes are fixed on Christ. He has already completed the journey, and blazed a trail for us which, if we will but follow it, will lead us beyond the cross and the grave to eternal life with him.
My friends in Christ, I can address you in this way only because of the experience we have shared in the waters of baptism. The moment of that experience, whatever the circumstances, and however it was done and when ever it was done, is the most surpassingly important moment in each of our lives. I commend to you a practice, one which is attributed to Martin Luther. By it, I remind myself each morning of my identity, my mission, and my destiny. As I get out of bed and my feet hit the floor, I make the sign of the cross and repeat the words, “I am a baptized Christian.” May the lightning flash of the baptism of our Lord light up each of our lives this morning and for ever. Amen.