Sermon: The Power of Baptism by the Rev. Lee Woofenden


Sermon: The Power of Baptism by the Rev Lee Woofenden


Bridgewater, Massachusetts, April 3, 2005
Audio Sermon

Exodus 30:17-21 The basin for washing

Then the Lord said to Moses, "Make a bronze basin, with its bronze stand, for washing. Place it between the Tent of Meeting and the altar, and put water in it. Aaron and his sons are to wash their hands and feet with water from it. Whenever they enter the Tent of Meeting, they shall wash with water so that they will not die. Also, when they approach the altar to minister by presenting an offering made to the Lord by fire, they shall wash their hands and feet so that they will not die. This is to be a lasting ordinance for Aaron and his descendants for the generations to come."

Luke 3:1-18 The baptism of John

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar--when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene--during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the desert. He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet: "A voice of one calling in the desert, ĎPrepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him. Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth. And all humanity will see Godís salvation.í"

John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance! And do not begin to say to yourselves, ĎWe have Abraham as our father.í For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The axe is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire."

"What should we do then?" the crowd asked.

John answered, "Anyone who has two shirts should share with someone who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same."

Tax collectors also came to be baptized. "Teacher," they asked, "what should we do?"

"Donít collect any more than you are required to," he told them.

Then some soldiers asked him, "And what should we do?"

He replied, "Donít extort money, and donít accuse people falsely; be content with your pay."

The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Christ. John answered them all, "I baptize you with water. But one more powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire." And with many other words John exhorted the people and preached the good news to them.

True Christian Religion #685 The purpose of baptism

The first purpose of baptism is so that we may be named Christians. The second follows from this: so that we may come to know and accept the Lord, the Redeemer, Regenerator, and Savior. The third is so that we may be reborn from the Lord; and when this happens, we are redeemed and saved. These three purposes follow one after the other and combine in the last, so that angels think of them together as one. When baptism is performed, read about in the Bible, or spoken of, the angels present do not think of baptism, but of spiritual rebirth.

John answered them, "I baptize you with water. But one more powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire." (Luke 3:16)

The Sacrament of Baptism is based on a ritual that is (I hope!) as old as humanity itself: the act of washing. Most of us wash ourselves in one way or another every day, and think little of it. Not only do we wash our entire body regularly by bathing or showering, but we wash our hands, face, feet, and other parts of our body whenever they get dirty, or before eating, or when we go to bed at night or get up in the morning. We also wash our clothing, the dishes we use to eat, our cars, and sometimes even our houses. And then there are all our other acts of grooming, such as combing, brushing, and cutting our hair, trimming our nails, shaving (some of us, anyway!), and so on. In fact, we put quite a lot of effort into cleaning and caring for our bodies, and making ourselves presentable. It is simply a part of life.

If we do stop to think about it, we quickly realize that life without washing is something we would probably prefer not to think about. Lately Iíve been watching the reruns of the old M.A.S.H. series that ran from 1972 to 1983. In one episode, the two leading characters, Captain "Hawkeye" Pierce and Captain B. J. Hunnicutt go on a shower strike in protest against the French Horn playing of their tentmate, the high-born and sanctimonious Major Charles Emerson Winchester III--who, I must say, is a really bad French Horn player! Hawkeye and B. J. get progressively smellier, until they are barred from entering the mess tent, being forced to eat at a table outside where they canít even stand the smell of one another. Finally, the entire camp forms a mob to hose them down, douse them with soapy water, and give them a scrub. (Charlesís offending French Horn is then promptly dispatched by being run over with a jeep!)

Fortunately, most of us donít allow ourselves to go without bathing so long that we become the target of a spontaneous mass demonstration! But there are some unfortunates who either do not or cannot bathe. They generally live on the fringes of society, outdoors, eating and sleeping separately from the rest of society. Iím referring, of course, to the homeless--not all of whom are careless of their personal grooming, but many of whom do not take care of their bodies as polite society believes we should do. And their unwashed condition is an emblem of their position outside of "acceptable" society.

Yes, we take washing for granted . . . until we encounter those who donít wash, and then we realize not only what a regular part of our lives it is to keep cleaning ourselves, but what a critical part it is. Because not washing has not only social consequences, but also consequences for our health. The dirtier we get, the more likely we are to contract various sicknesses that come with the growing filth. In short, dirtiness is a hazard both to our social relationships and to our health. And persistent dirtiness is usually a sign that something is seriously wrong with us.

Perhaps this sets the stage for an understanding of both the necessity and the power of the Sacrament of Baptism.

Of course, as a physical act, Baptism doesnít accomplish much. For those who practice full-immersion baptism, Iím sure the people being baptized do come out just a little cleaner than they went in. But Iíll bet they take a shower that morning anyway! For those who use only small, symbolic amounts of water, as we do in our church, the physical effects of baptism are virtually nil. Well . . . perhaps it produces a few crying babies . . . but that is soon taken care of when the little one is handed back to his or her parents!

Clearly, the purpose of baptism is not physical washing. And in fact, John the Baptist himself pointed to a deeper meaning of baptism when he told the people, "I baptize you with water. But one more powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire." John introduced people into the Christian Church with the baptism of water; but he understood that this was only an introduction; the real baptism was a matter of spirit and of spiritual fire.

What, then, does baptism do for us spiritually?

By itself, if we take it as a mere ritual, it does very little. But even as a ritual, it does accomplish at least one thing: it introduces us into the Christian Church. Baptism is universally recognized by Christians as the sign that a person is a Christian. And though some Christian churches require re-baptism into their own church, our church, and many others, recognize any Christian baptism as a sign that the person is--or is to become--a Christian.

And this leads to the second power that baptism carries with it. Once we are a part of the Christian Church, we have conscious access to the one for whom the church is named: Jesus Christ. Of course, anyone, of any religion, can read the Gospels and learn from the wisdom of Christ. But only Christians will approach Jesus Christ as "God With Us"--as the unique human presence of the God and Creator of the universe. When we call ourselves Christians, and introduce our infants and children into the Christian Church through baptism, we bring ourselves and our children into the church where we can know, love, and follow our Lord, God, and Savior, Jesus Christ.

And notice that we are not only to know the Lord, but also to love and follow him. This leads to the third power of baptism: our spiritual rebirth, or "regeneration." It is not enough merely to be called a Christian and to believe in Jesus Christ. The Lord himself says, "Not everyone who says to me, ĎLord, Lord,í will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only those who do the will of my Father who is in heaven" (Matthew 7:21).

It is no accident that the Lord chose a ritual of washing to symbolize introduction into the Christian Church. But the washing that he wished to lead us to was not physical washing--as important as that is for our life here on earth--but spiritual washing, which is essential for our life in eternity.

You see, even if, as we believe, there is no such thing as original sin, there certainly are many inborn tendencies to evil in each one of us. And I think we all realize that each one of us has also indulged in many words and actions that are not right. In plain terms, we have all said and done things that are evil. These things are like internal dirt that clings to us and causes us to become odious to the people around us, and to sink into spiritual disease and death. And of course, as long as we are spiritually filthy, we can never enter the eternal brightness and beauty of heaven. To do that, we must wash ourselves and make ourselves clean through the practice of inner baptism--which is, with the Lordís help and in the Lordís power, cleansing our lives of all evil thoughts, feelings, and actions.

As we do this, we become Christians not only in name, but in spirit and in reality. This is the true, spiritual power of baptism: the power to make us new creations in Christ. Amen.

Audio Sermon


Image of John the Baptist
Arlington Street Church: John the Baptist, Boston, MA
Tiffany stained glass memorial window, designed in 1898
Photo © of: Cambridge 2000 Gallery

Music: Amazing Grace
Courtesy of Gospel Midi

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