With Water, Spirit, and Promises

Westley Conn
Sermon by the Rev. Westley Conn, Ministry Fellow, Memorial Church, Jan. 10, 2021. (File photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications)



People of God, before we get into today’s sermon, I have a little pre-sermon announcement: Should you have missed the Greetings portion of this service, or perhaps you’re listening only to the sermon, you’re invited to bring a small vessel of water to wherever you’re worshiping today. A cup or bowl of water will do just fine. The purpose of this water will become clear as we make our way through the sermon.


Please pray with me:

Emmanuel, God with us, let the words of my mouth and the thoughts of all of our hearts be pleasing and acceptable to you, our redeemer and sustainer. Amen.


As one of the ministers in the Memorial Church, a great privilege of mine is to attend to baptisms. A big part of this process is meeting with parents to discuss their intent for baptism and its meaning. Perhaps some of you listening will recall bits of these conversations. Most of the baptisms at the Memorial Church are of infants. Occasionally, however, I will have the joy of talking with an adult or young person about baptism. On one such occasion, I sat down with an 8-year-old candidate for baptism, and said, “I wonder what you know about baptism?” To which he confidently replied, “I know everything; I Googled ‘baptism’ yesterday and read all about it.”


Our reading today from Mark’s Gospel tells of Jesus’s baptism in the River Jordan by John the Baptist. It’s unclear if anyone sat down with Jesus before his baptism; however, I’m not so sure he needed instruction. In fact, many of us are baptized at an age when, wrapped in our own swaddling clothes, we wouldn’t make use of any teachings but only squirm with curiosity when held by the pastor in her arms. In our story from the Acts of the Apostles, the Apostle Paul stumbles upon some Christians in Ephesus who, likely baptized as adults, seem to have missed out on the baptism conversation with their pastor; they are unware of the Holy Spirit’s connection with their baptism, and worse yet they believe their baptism is about John and not Jesus.


When Paul meets the Ephesian Christians, he goes through a few questions to get a sense of their faith and identity as people of God. One of the questions Paul asks, in what I imagine to be a snarky voice, is “Into what then were you baptized?” The Ephesians answer Paul incorrectly, so Paul, assuming that their initial baptism was not in Jesus’s name, baptizes them in the name of Jesus.


Paul, from the inked and maybe well-worn pages of our Bibles asks us, “Into what then were you baptized?” In our Protestant tradition baptism is a sacrament, something that, as the ancient Christians described, makes visible God’s invisible grace. And we, as Christians, are baptized because Jesus himself was baptized, which is what we remember today. What do you know about your baptism? When is your baptismal anniversary? If you were baptized at an older age, can you remember any details?


In reflecting on our own baptisms, we can arrive at the answer to Paul’s question: “Into what then were you baptized?” The imagery of Jesus’s baptism gives us a good picture of baptisms. The Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) describe Jesus’s baptism in a flowing river with God opening up the heavens, from which the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove pours out upon him, and the voice of God exclaims to Jesus, “You are my Son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.” During baptism, it is God who acts first, uniting with us. Baptism is God’s claim on us as children of God, something that is independent of any response from us. Whether we cry or smile, sleep or stare, during baptism God offers us unconditional love before we express or know our love of God.


One thing you might recall from your baptism or the baptism of another, are the promises made. Much like Paul asked those few Christians in Ephesus, we too ask questions of the one who is baptized; and if that person is a child, then of the parents. We ask parents if they will see to it that the child they present is brought up in the Christian faith and life. Parents and candidates for baptism are asked to promise to grow into God’s grace and life, to strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being. This litany of questions concludes with a question not for the parents nor for the one who is baptized, but for the church. The congregation is asked, “Will you who witness these vows do all in your power to support the one who is baptized in their life in Christ?” To which we respond, “We will.”


This congregational response of “we will” shows that our baptisms not only bind God with us but also us to one another. Preacher Kimberly Knowle-Zeller suggests that those two words “we will” are how God’s promises take on “flesh across time and space.” That when a church lives out its promises it puts faith into action, doing the hard work of saying prayers, providing food, making encouraging phone calls, “offering a hand in silence and providing presence when no words are left.” The pandemic has presented us with ample moments to live out our promise of “we will,” especially in the long loneliness we experienced this Christmas. I know that many of you have held one another and this church in your prayers. I’ve been on the receiving end of encouraging phone calls and emails. And this leads me to believe that you have made space for one another’s pain in silence and kept watch with the sick and dying over quiet airwaves or still computer screens.


And, if you’re like me, there have been times when you’ve forgotten your promise of “we will” or have replaced it with “I won’t” or “I can’t.” Our baptisms are also for these times, for when sin gets the best of us. The waters of baptism, whether they be flowing near the ancient ruins of Ephesus, splashing around in the church’s font or rippling in the bowl in front of you, are life-giving. The freshness of life in these waters is offered in the form of forgiveness: God’s love refusing to abandon us when we forget our promise of “we will.” God’s love stirring those waters to say: “Sin will not prevail over you, for you are mine.”


Still there are moments when we are unsure of how to keep our promise of “we will” or when we believe ourselves to be lacking what it takes to follow through on our “we will.” Discerning our life together, with God and one another, is a part of our baptisms, too. At Jesus’s baptism, the Holy Spirit broke forth from the heavens and came upon Jesus. When Paul laid his hands on those few Ephesians, we are told that the Holy Spirit also descended on them. In the same way, the Holy Spirit is given to us in our baptisms, making God closer to us than our own breath. Through the Holy Spirit’s gifts we learn to understand and keep our promises of “we will,” for the Holy Spirit bestows wisdom and knowledge, healing and faith, peace and patience, gentleness and joy. It is this same Holy Spirit that is uniting us now through the distances of time and space, life and death, heart and screen.


“Into what then were you baptized,” Paul asks. Poet and priest, Rowan Williams, answers it like this, “To be baptized is to recover the humanity that God first intended…God intended that we grow into such love for and confidence in God that [we] could rightly be called God’s [people, God’s beloved].”


So, People of God, in times like the one that we are now living – as chaos swarms around us yet again, when principalities and princes fail, when our very lives are upended – we must know and name our baptisms. When we watch our nation’s seat of government besieged, elected leaders forced to flee, and worst of all, bloodshed, we must remember into who we are baptized: not into fear and hate, but into Christ’s very life and death. This Christ is the One our carols have just proclaimed. Surely their melodies remain fresh on your heart. His law is love, his gospel is peace, and at his name justice shall reign. In life and death, we are not alone. We are bathed in the life-giving waters of baptism and sealed as God’s own. The waters of baptism enfold us and there is no place where these waters won’t flow.


In the midst of a pandemic, in the midst of white-supremacy, in face of all that is evil: Let us declare our beloved-ness and remember into who we are baptized by affirming our own baptisms here and now, let us gather again at the river.


Should you not be baptized or find yourself unready to affirm your baptism, keep listening, stay with us, and let these words of affirmation wash around you.

We begin our affirmation by offering a prayer of praise and thanksgiving for the waters of baptism that are before you:


Holy God, we thank you for the gift of water. Over it your Spirit hovered at the creation of the world. Through it you led your people out of captivity and into the Promised Land. In the fullness of time you sent Jesus, who was nurtured in the water of Mary’s womb. And in this water Jesus was baptized. May this water be for us a reminder of our new life and forgiveness of sin, that we would remain faithful until we are united with you in the life to come. Amen.


I invite you to reaffirm your baptismal promises by responding to the following questions with “I do.”


Do you believe in God, creator of heaven and earth?

Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God?

Do you believe in the Holy Spirit?

Do you renounce the powers of evil and desire the freedom of new life in Christ?

Do you promise, by the grace of God, to be Christ’s disciple, to follow in the way of our Savior, to resist oppression and evil, to show love and justice, and witness to the work and word of Jesus Christ as best you are able?

Do you promise, according to the grace given you, to grow in Christian faith and to be a faithful member of the church of Jesus Christ, celebrating Christ’s presence and loving your neighbor as yourself?


Remember now your baptism by tracing a cross on your forehead with the water.


Let us close in prayer:

Creator and Creating God, through water and the Holy Spirit you have made us your beloved children, brought us into your church, filled us with your Holy Spirit, and given us your promise of life everlasting. Renew in us, your beloved, the promise you made with us at our baptism. Stir up in us the power of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

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