into what then were you baptized? or, birds–baptism–birth [a sermon]

a sermon preached for the texas youth academy reunion 2015 and submitted to the texas annual conference annual conference board of ordained ministry in consideration for ordination this year.

acts 19:1-7 while apolos was in corinth, paul passed through the interior regions and came to ephesus, where he found some disciples. he said to them, ‘did you receive the holy spirit when you became believers? they replied, “no, we have not even heard that there is a holy spirit.” then he said, “into what then were you baptized?” they answered, “into johns’ baptism” paul said “john baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, in jesus.” on hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the lord jesus.

mark 1:4-11 john the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. and people from the whole judean countryside and all the people of jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river jordan, confessing their sins. now john was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. he proclaimed, “the one who is more powerful than i is coming after me; i am not worthy to stoop down and untiethe thong of his sandals. i have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the holy spirit.” in those days jesus came from nazareth of galilee and was baptized by john in the jordan. and just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the spirit descending like a dove on him. and a voice came from heaven, “you are my son, the beloved; with you i am well pleased.”

into what then where you baptized?


the lectionary texts that we will be engaging this evening in worship are taken from the future–two sundays in the future, to be exact. so i will ask that you enter into a space of suspended lectionary-time tonight and tomorrow–you may return to your regularly scheduled lectionary saturday evening. secondly, i will be submitting sermon to the board of ordained ministry in the texas conference and am honored, again and again, to bring a sermon to the youth academy family.

let us pray: creating god, who hovered over the formless waters-come and hover over us here, now. birthing god, who cares from us as a hen for her chicks, brood over our lives. god of baptism continue to send your holy spirit to be among us here this night. and may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, o lord, our rock and our redeemer–amen.

a reading from genesis:

genesis 1:1-5 (niv) in the beginning god created the heavens and the earth. now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the spirit of god was hovering over the waters. and god said, “let there be light,” and there was light. god saw that the light was good, and separated the light from the darkness. god called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” and there was evening, and there was morning—the first day.

the word of god for the people of god–thanks be to god, amen.

there are three images from scripture that strike me to the core of my being each time i hear them-one is that of moses turning aside to see the burning bush, one is of jesus surrendering to arrest in the garden, and the third is that of the spirit of god hovering over the waters or formless void of the earth before god speaks day and night into order. it is that last image that i want to dwell on for a while.

in this creation story-while the whole of creation is still formless and empty, god, the creator, is about to name light and darkness into existence. god’s presence hovers over the waters. when a bird hovers it is not a noisy and flapping mess but, rather, it is a steady, quiet endeavor. have you ever watched a bird ride a current of air? the wings are not flapping but rather are out stretched out fully and making tiny adjustments to stay aloft.

creation hover

i once observed a bird of prey that appeared to be suspended mid-air so perfect was her placement. you cannot really tell from this photo that this is not merely a lucky capture of flight but is a capture of a perfect hover. but i promise you not a feather moved.

from this high and still vantage point she can observe all below her in detail. because she is so still, all things below her may not be aware of her presence until she decides to move. but there she rested–floating and upheld by air above the earth.

the earth she sees here is neither formless nor void like the earth in the genesis creation story. but she does teach us about the holy spirit–and has a lesson about baptism for us, too. the spirit of god hovered above the earth before it was ordered and formed. it is from this vantage point–poised above the waters–that god begins to create.

and this creation, as it turns out, is 70% water. 70% of the earth is made up of water. and scientists and physicists tell us this is the same water that has always existed. so the water that you drink, bathe in and sweat could be the same water that the spirit of god hovered over–the same water that god spoke into being.

water is present at the beginning of all created things.

so, too is water present at the beginning of human life. poet john o’donohue writes that “water is our first mother.” when each of us was knit together in the womb of our mothers it was water that surrounded us as we grew–it was water the incubated us in warmth, kept us safe and suspended as our mothers moved around and went about their lives.

the waters of creation and the waters of the womb mirror one another. the waters of creation were full of new life–the womb of our creating god from which all things spring, and the waters of the womb–also shrouded in darkness–bear the weight of new and growing life.

water is present at the beginning of the earth, water is present at the beginning of our life. it is about to become clear that i am a theologian and not a scientists–you have been warned–but is it not interesting that water is what holds us and protects us as we grow in our mother’s womb and that we humans are made up of 60% water? not only is our body 60% water, but 73% of our brain and heart is water. 73% of your brain–that thing you use to think and learn…73% of your heart pumping blood through your body, giving life–that thing that quickens when you see someone you love and aches when you don’t–is made up of mostly water.

you are made up of holy water. think about it–all of the water that has ever been is still here-and it has all been pronounced good by god, is blessed by millions of people the world over since the beginning of time, so that must mean that by now there is not a molecule of water that has not been a part of someone’s baptism, that has not been a part of a cleansing holy ritual of our brothers and sisters of different religions, that has not been made holy by the gratitude shown when rain falls in a dry land. you are made up of that water. you are made of holy water.

this means that your bodies are holy.

paul asks, in our acts reading for tonight, “into what then were you baptized?” the people had not yet heard of the holy spirit–they had heard of john the baptizer’s baptism of confession and had received the new cleansing ritual of followers of jesus (that most likely resembled a cleansing ritual jews of the day would have been familiar with). john had taught them well–they knew that the baptism of john was to prepare for being baptized in the name of jesus.

baptism hover

and in mark we heard of jesus coming to be baptized by john–and the spirit descended like a dove and again hovered over the created waters of the earth. from this high vantage point the people heard the voice of god saying, “you are my son, the beloved; with you i am well pleased.” a second time we see the spirit of god hover and for second time an act of water is pronounced Good by god.

jesus’ body is holy. jesus’ body is also made up of the same water and dust and microbes as yours. your bodies are holy. holy bodies made up of holy water.

the water of earths creation, the water of your mother’s womb, the water of jesus’ baptism all of it is the same water that washes over you and your water made body at your baptism.

into what, then, were you baptized?

in the united methodist tradition we believe that “baptism anticipates a lifetime of further and deeper experiences of god, further acts of christian commitment, and ministries in the world.” all other steps in ministry (both ordained and lay-no one is excluded) “grow out of what god has done as declared and signified in baptism.”

if you attended academy in a year that rev. dr. warren smith delivered the baptism and covenant lecture you may remember a story that he told of the early church and baptism–how those submitting to baptism entered into the baptismal font shaped like a coffin walking backwards, at the easter vigil. you may remember how in immersion under the water our death to the flesh is symbolized and being raised from below the waters represents the new life in christ. the ritual and symbol of baptism mark a new beginning, a new birth, for these holy water-bodies of ours to continue to grow deeper in our faith–weather we are immersed or sprinkled.

when baptized, this represents an initiation into the adoption, into the body of christ–into the church universal. it marks our saying ‘yes’ to the invitation god gives us. and, in turn, when we have publicly made our pronouncement of “yes” we then become part of the welcoming for those who are baptized after us.

in our methodist baptismal liturgy the pastor gives incredibly important directions–it is not a question, these are instructions: they say, “members of the household of god, i commend these persons to your love and care. do all in your power to increase their faith, confirm their hope, and perfect them in love.”

and the congregation has a response, which we will get to in a moment. first, though, consider these short instructions–in the book of worship they are only 4 lines long and yet contain some of the most important rules for the body of christ. we are commended to one another’s love and care. we are to do all in our power (which means this is more than a one or two times a week endeavor) to increase one another’s faith, confirm one anothers hope and to perfect one another in love.

this is no small task and it is my hope that when you are instructed, as members of the household of god, to care for one another in this way that it is not just something that goes in one ear and out the other. i hope that when you hear these words, from now forward, that you are reminded of the responsibility to love.

ending hover

our community response is: we give thanks for all that god has already given you/and we welcome you in christian love./as members together with you/ in the body of christ/ and in this congregation/ of the united methodist church,/we renew our covenant/ faithfully to participate in the ministries of the church/ by our prayers, our presence,/our gifts, our service [and our witness]/ that in everything god may be glorified through jesus christ.”

every time someone is baptized and you participate in the liturgy you are renewing your covenant and promise for yourself, but also on behalf of the entire community of god.

so, i ask again, into what, then, have you been baptized?

your holy body made of the holy waters of creation has been born of the holy waters of your mother’s womb. likewise, “god’s redemptive, all-encompassing presence/…/is seen to be like a mother’s womb, the life-giving embrace in which she carries her child. baptism, then, as god’s claiming our life, can be seen as an expression of god’s maternal, all-encompassing compassion.”

baptism is a beautiful gift, and we have created a beautiful liturgy to accompany this sacrament. the beauty and grace poured out in these congregational moments are not self-contained. you are baptized into action, not into finality and complacency.

jesus walked on water and beckons us out to join him–how is this different from our baptism? come out here upon this water, the same water that makes up your being–the same water that god created and called “good,” the same water that has filled a mother’s womb, that has crossed the lips of a thirsty person and saved their life–the same water that falls as rain on the just and the unjust alike–you are made of that water. you are literally made of the waters of baptism.

it is the beginning of a new year, and in a moment we are going to remember our baptism together as a body of christ and remember the breaking and resurrection of the body of christ in the eucharist–this seems like a perfect time to consider where it is that god is calling you today–out onto what water is jesus beckoning you? where do the waters of baptism want to carry you in 2015?

with whom do you need to reconcile? who do you need to forgive? who do you need forgiveness from? how do you need to forgive yourself? where is god calling you that seems impossible? what water is jesus beckoning you to step out and walk upon?

into what, then, have you been baptized?

how will you, oh members of the household of god, care for those commend to your love and care. how wil you do all in your power to increase their faith, confirm their hope, and perfect them in love?

how will you use your holy-water-made-holy bodies in 2015?


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