A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Baptism of the Lord Sunday • January 7, 2018
How do we find things? How do we get where we hope to go? Many of us rely on some form of GPS program today, maps on our phone or some other device. But what if the destination isn’t an address? What if the place is God’s kingdom, what if the destination is somewhere God’s peace reigns? Today we remember the baptism of Jesus and it reminds us to think about our own baptism. Today we share the sacrament of communion, the last supper reminding us that we are included at the table of the Lord. What do these two acts mean?
Both are rooted in ancient Jewish practices. The desert culture which influenced Hebrew worship saw something sacred in water. Their story of creation imagined water, not light, as the first act of God’s creativity: a rain is made to fall and everything comes from it. During the Exodus, it was the Lord’s ability to provide water that sealed the promise of presence. So it shouldn’t surprise us that in the rituals prescribed for God’s people, washing played a prominent role. A variety of things, from illnesses to natural life events, could put a person in a state they believed made them unfit for worship. The solution involved sacred washing, called t’vila, often done in a mikva bath, a bath of blessing. In the period before Jesus, this ritual of washing played a central role in the ritual and life of the Qumran community; they may have influenced John, whom we call the Baptist. In his hands, the ritual washing was connected to the sacred moment when God’s people crossed from the wilderness to the promised land. His preached repentance and newness: the passage between these two states was symbolized by baptism in the Jordan River. Jesus himself came to John for this baptism.
Early Christians took over many Jewish customs. Remembering this event in the life of Jesus, they made baptism a key moment in a Christian’s life: it was when they joined the circle of God’s people. They probably originally immersed people but early on began to use other forms. Still, the act retained this essential meaning: union with the body of Christ, the church of Christ. Once joined to Christ, the church believed Christ would never desert a child of God, so baptism was and is a once for all act.
Every journey has definite marks along the way. We use these to know we are on the path, we tell others about them to help them follow. A sailor looks for buoys; a driver looks for road signs. We give directions by noting special features: “Stay to the right as you go by the state capitol.” Sometimes these marks can change. Years ago, I was often asked how to get to the local high school. “Go down a long block and turn right at the Highway Department,” I’d say. Then someone heard me one day and pointed out that the Highway Department had moved out of that place a year before; my directions were useless.
There are marks along the way of Christian life, marks that can surely turn us toward Christ and we call them sacraments. They are moments in which we act out in a public, visible way our inner spiritual meeting with God’s Spirit. We call these moments sacraments and baptism is surely one. When someone ordained by a Christian Church takes in their arms any person, infant, child, adult, and acts out the ritual of pouring water, we are in that moment also acting out the embrace of God and answering God’s call to become new people. It is a sacrament.
Another such moment is communion. Communion is also rooted in ancient Jewish practice, the rite of Passover. Passover is a story of salvation celebrated with a special meal. Within the meal, there is a progression of matzoh, a special bread, and cups of wine. The gospel accounts put Jesus celebrating Passover just before his arrest and crucifixion: we call it the Last Supper.
Just like baptism, early Christians took up this ritual they knew and fused it with the story of Jesus. First Corinthians gives us a little glimpse of communion about 20 years after Jesus; it looks more like a potluck dinner than our symbolic cups and bites of bread. Yet we can recognize in their act the same act we do, the same purpose of acting out Jesus presence in our own lives.
Over the centuries, Christians changed how they did these two acts, baptism and communion as well as how they understood them. The organized church often traded its spiritual life for worldly power and wealth and part of that added on acts which had no roots in the life of Jesus or the gospel story. By the 1600’s, the Roman Catholic church had seven different sacraments. When our fathers and mothers in the faith set out to create churches that more clearly embodied God’s Word, they trimmed this back to the original two sacraments, baptism and communion. Baptism they understood to be a moment of repentance that recognizes Christ’s intention to embrace us as a child is embraced by a mother; communion reminds us that we are a community on the way to the cross, believing in the resurrection.
This is a lot of history on a Sunday morning. But it’s important to know where we came from, to look back and see that when we pour water over someone here, we are participating in something that touches Jesus and reaches behind him hundreds of years. It’s important to know where we came from, to look back and see that when we share in communion, we are sharing with the Exodus people who first shared a quick Passover meal, with Jesus and his disciples on the last night of his earthly life. This is where we have been: this is where we are coming from.
But, of course, the most important question is: where are we going? This is the season of Epiphany, a word that means showing. It refers to the star that led the wise ones from the East to Jesus. Early Christians would have seen what we do not: that these are strangers, gentiles, people who have no earthly right to a place in the story of God’s people. But here they are, led by a star. Let all the astronomical questions go and listen with your heart. Imagine how important it must be to God to invite these wise ones to the Christ child, so important that just as at creation light was created, God makes a new light, a star, to say, “This way! Come this way!”
Where are we going? Everything we’ve talked about today, from the wise ones following the star to communion to baptism makes up what I call a bee dance. Have you ever wondered how bees find flowers? How do they know where to go from the hive to find the stuff they gather? It works like this: a few bees go out, flying around more or less randomly. They search; they sniff. When one finds a good place, some lush flowers, she flies back to the hive. Now the problem is how to give the others directions. They don’t have a GPS, they don’t have google maps but they do have a dance, called a waggle dance. They move forward, backward, to the side. The dance tells the others where to fly, how to get where they are going, how to find the flowers.
These acts—baptism, communion—are bee dances. When we act them out, we are showing how to find God’s presence. Not everyone knows this— but you do: you know how to do the dance. You know how to smile when a little girl like Olivia is baptized and I carry her to you and say, “Please welcome our sister,” and when you do, you are showing everyone—this is how you get to God, you smile at a child. Jesus says welcome a child and you welcome him, I’m not making this up, it’s right there in his book. It’s a bee dance, it’s directions.
You know how to serve communion. There are lots of ways to share this sacrament but I’ve always loved the way we do it here, passing the plates hand to hand. Because that’s how Jesus is shared: hand to hand, person to person. It’s the invitation that matters, it’s saying, “Here, have this bit of Jesus’ story, let me fix you a plate”—well if not a whole plate, at least a little bit of bread. “Here, have this invitation to a whole new life.” It may look like a little thimble full of grape juice but when you hand it to someone, it’s God saying, “Come on in”.
These are bee dances: they are directions on how to find God. Today, this morning, what we are doing is learning the bee dance that leads to God’s Spirit. So watch, learn, if that’s where you are in the journey; take up the movement if you can. Dance!—Share the invitation, help someone find the path and walk along the way that leads to life. It’s epiphany: we’re not meant to sit still, we are being called to walk in the light of God’s love and share the journey. So do a bee dance: invite someone with your directions to know God’s love.