PREPARING THE SPIRIT
Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps
Old First Church January 9, 2022
Texts: Isaiah 42: 1-9; Luke 3: 1-21
“But, Two Mama” – that's what grandmothers were called in rural Alabama – “I washed already!” I could hear Lynda screaming as her grandmother kept saying, “Now, don't you want you to be as clean and as white as snow?” Poor Lynda, I thought. Two mama sometimes scrubbed so hard it seemed like the skin would come right off. She was definitely a woman to be avoided on those Saturday night when she would scrub her grandchildren while singing old revival songs. And she knew them all.
What Lynda and the other children feared over even more than the Saturday night scrubbing was the week the revival came to town because then Two Mama scrubbed them every night so they would be clean when they promised their lives to Jesus. In spite of her fried chicken and biscuits, I was always grateful that she wasn't my Two Mama.
The summer revivals were followed by the baptisms – full immersion, mind you, none of that sprinkling stuff. They would be in their white robes ready to get dunked in the church's baptistery in the small town where I was deposited to have a so-called vacation. It wasn't until I got much older that I realized the people who were having the vacation were my parents.
Baptism as practiced by John and the early Christian communities was a radical approach to membership in God’s Kingdom. Because the Gospels focus on the ministry and salvific power of God through Jesus, they do not delve into the full extent of the relationship between John and Jesus.
Although there are very few facts about Jesus’ life that seem so patently clear, even the most radical of New Testament scholars agree that Jesus was baptized by John. The baptism is in all four Gospels; the Synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, tell how Jesus went into the wilderness and was tempted while John has a slightly different take on it because John’s Gospel says that Jesus himself also baptized people. So, we ask, aside from the significance that the Church has placed on this rite, what was so important about baptism?
As the text tells us, John preached “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Although not explicitly stated in Luke’s Gospel, it seems clear when we read John that we see the same kind of baptism. Both were certainly preaching the same message: deal honestly with people, be content with what you have, or in the words of Isaiah, live righteously, that is, do justice and practice mercy.
Baptism was what we might call an equal opportunity ritual. It opened God and the promise of the Kingdom of righteousness to all on an equal basis. The early church in spite of the patriarchal society in which it emerged, understood that. Equality before God and within God’s embrace was what was so radical about these communities. Baptism destroyed the old distinctions made between men and women perpetuated by custom and by Jewish law. As the small Christian communities developed into the church with the possibilities of power, this radical equality was relegated to symbolic initiation. Because in the ancient world, men were the primary writers due to the patriarchal nature of education, warped thinkers like Tertullian, who wrote between 180 and 220 CE, were able to push their misogynist ideas, such as women being the Devil’s gateway -- that’s his exact phrase, women ended up being relegated to secondary positions. Tertullian’s treatise on baptism is the earliest writing on the subject outside of the letters of Paul and the stories in the Gospels. Even at this time, this woman-hater had to argue that women could not baptize although it seems clear from the stories in Acts that they were still doing so.
Pretty much all who call themselves Christians have been baptized at one time or another, some as infants, some as teenagers, others as adults. What is it about baptism that serves to prepare our spirits? Our old Baptist ancestors argued against infant baptism because baptism had to be a sign of knowing repentance and faith. The UCC part of our heritage argues for infant baptism as a sign of welcome into the community of faith in recognition that faith is an ever evolving process and that inclusion in the community is what counts.
Those in the more Catholic tradition, including Anglicans, Lutherans, and the Eastern Churches see it as a requirement of salvation. What’s interesting about the baptism of Jesus is that it seems clear that Jesus went into the wilderness to struggle with his understanding of his ministry after he was baptized as if John’s baptism was a door that needed to be opened. In other words, the preparation of the spirit doesn’t happen instantly but over time by the continuing development of our faith.
And the process of growing in faith is a struggle because we don’t live in a bubble but in the world and we must deal with competing interests. In other words, the process of living is complicated. We all certainly agree to that. It continues to be for most of us because we daily are caught between competing interests.
We can’t just rest on our laurels because our church is open and affirming and believes in and practices equality like few others. There’s a new resurgence of anti-equality thinking in America. The whole issue of reproductive rights is just one case in point. And that’s closely tied into how Christianity addresses issues of sex and sexuality. Many of us were raised with a dualistic theological model that we have internalized so much that we don’t even know it’s there. The old Puritan and Victorian ideals are in our language and our culture. It’s only when the church eliminates all of the conscious and unconscious sexism that has built up over the centuries will we be able to prepare our spirits for full equality. Living in the world as if the Kingdom of God has already come seems a bit more than strange at first hearing. How is that possible, we ask. It seems like we're being asked to live in a future that doesn't yet exist.
I would like to suggest that the kingdom, or the realm, of God is within each of us already. Frederick Buechner wrote, “The Kingdom of God is where our best dreams come from and our truest prayers. We glimpse it at those moments when we find ourselves being better than we are and wiser than we know. We catch sight of it when at some moment of crisis a strength seems to come to us that is greater than our own strength.”
The Kingdom of God is within us as we when we reach out to one other person and embrace that person for who he or she is, no matter how strange or alien that person may be. The kingdom of God is within us when we search for ways to live the Gospel. The Kingdom of God is within each of us when we genuinely love, accepting the limitations of others as we wish that our limitations would be accepted. The kingdom of God is within us when we pause from the hustle-bustle of the day and allow ourselves to be embraced by the grace that can embolden us, encourage us, and sustain us. The kingdom of God is within us when we let go of our pride recognizing our own limitations. God’s grace does not leave us where it found us. It will change us, enabling us to live the kingdom that is within us for it is then at that point that we know we are embraced by a love that knows no limits.
When we reflect that grace in the world, the world can and will change. We do have the power to create not just the inner kingdom but the outer one as well. And we will do so with God's grace. But this is what baptism really is: accepting our responsibility for the world as it is and for what it can be. Jesus offered us a new vision of God, the absolute and total equalizer of all people; baptism is the symbol that we will work to realize that vision, that promise and make it into a reality.
Let us pray: Ever expanding God, open our minds and hearts to your radical vision of love that will enable us to establish your kingdom of peace and justice for all. In the name of him who shows us the way, even Christ Jesus our Lord, Amen.