Following Jesus is a group project. It is not a solo performance. Nothing illustrates this more clearly than our practice of baptism.
Let’s think about this together by considering three basic things about baptism:
Baptism makes us a radically new kind of person.
Baptism is the beginning of a process of lifelong conversion.
Baptism gives us a sense of belonging that transforms our hearts.
Water, Spirit, and Fire
Today’s Gospel teaches us that baptism makes us a new kind of person.
People have been waiting for the Messiah, and John the Baptist is very clear that he is not the guy. He baptizes with water. The Messiah will baptize with Spirit and with fire.
Maybe John’s listener’s got his meaning without flexing a mental muscle. Like how we would hear, “Take a right at the light.” We wouldn’t have to think about it. But most of us have to scratch our heads when John distinguishes baptism with water from baptism with Spirit and with fire.
Here’s one way of looking at what John is saying. People came to John to be freed from the burden of their past. They regretted things they had done or things they had neglected to do.
In addition to that, they saw that they could not make things right. They were sorry and wanted forgiveness. They wanted a second chance.
John immersed them in water to symbolize that God had given them a do-over in life.
There is just one problem with John’s baptism, and John seems to know it. Having a do-over is just terrific, but if you’re the same person who blew it the first time, then you’re likely to end up doing the same thing all over again, maybe with just a slightly different twist.
There are all sorts of things we might regret: spending too much money, exercising too little, eating too many sweets, losing our patience, giving unwanted advice, saying unkind things about others, gunning it when the traffic light turns yellow.
Some of us take our spouses for granted, lose touch with our children because we work too hard, or spend more time with television or golf or hunting than with Holy Scripture.
We regret what we do. Or don’t do. We then spend days, weeks, maybe even a few months being attentive to loved ones or hitting the gym or stopping at yellow lights. We only realize that we’ve slipped back into our old ways when feel lonely, have trouble buttoning our pants, or get the ticket for running a red light.
We don’t just need freedom from the past. We need a new “us” to make a new future. And that is just what Jesus’ baptism is all about. He baptizes with Spirit and fire. In Christ, we get more than a do-over. We are a new creation. Only, not all at once.
Baptism is the beginning of a process of lifelong conversion. That may sound odd to you. Lifelong Conversion.
We’re accustomed to hearing about conversion experiences, unique moments in time that organize the story of our life into a before and after. Before that experience we were lost. Afterwards we were found. Saved. That’s because the moment is defined by a decision for Christ.
Some of us can recount the day and time that we accepted Jesus as our Lord and Savior, while others of us follow Jesus never having had such an experience. The teacher and preacher R. C. Sproul once advised not to confuse the experience of conversion with the reality of conversion and that it its the reality, not the experience, that matters.
He’s right about that, and to see what he means we have to be clear about what conversion is. Conversion is a turning: a turning away from and a turning toward.
Christian conversion is turning away from seeking to justify our lives by career success, financial security, social status, celebrity status, peer approval, good grades, or any of our own achievements and turning toward Jesus to supply the significance, value, and purpose for our life.
Conversion means turning away even from trusting our own moral uprightness or rigorous piety to win God’s affection and trusting in Jesus alone to make us right with God.
This is a gradual and uneven process. After all, unlearning the habit of trusting in our own abilities and our own achievements is remarkably slow, to say nothing of learning the habit of trusting in Jesus. And our conversion is not our own doing anyway. It is the silent, patient, persistent work of the Holy Spirit with which we cooperate more or less actively at different times of our lives.
The process of turning toward Jesus continues throughout life. There is always more of ourselves to give to him, even if we happened to be that rarest of exceptions who never takes anything back that we once offered him. Just for the record, I’m not one of those. I have given myself to Jesus and taken bits back from time to time. I give him my family and my career and my health only to find myself sitting in the pilot’s seat again from time to time.
At some point along the way, we may become keenly aware of this process. That is a conversion experience. The conversion process may have been going on for years, and it will certainly continue throughout our days, but for some reason we felt and embraced our spiritual turning. But as Sproul pointed out, the turning is what matters. Not the experience of it.
In other words, we are continuously learning to be baptized persons, to be followers of Jesus. Sometimes a change of heart will bring about changes of behavior. But Christian life assumes that shaping the heart happens from the outside in. Life in community is crucial to lifelong conversion.
In the Episcopal Church we follow the norm of public baptism, baptism within our faith community. Through baptism we belong.
Belonging is the beginning of the journey, but belonging itself is a process. The rite of Baptism grafts us into the Body of Christ in a deep, spiritual way. But the real shape and texture of our belonging is something that unfolds over time, and our decisions and commitment are crucial in this.
We have to show up. Be present with and to the community. Participate in the practices of our community.
At first, the practices are unfamiliar. We learn how to juggle the prayer book and the hymnal, to participate in ministries like outreach, music, evangelism, and formation. There are leaders, exemplars, in each community who show others how to belong. They model belonging behavior and the rest of us deepen our belonging by following their examples.
It is our belonging, not our isolated personal decision, that nurtures the habits in us that the Baptismal Covenant outlines: proclaiming the Good News of Christ, respecting the dignity of every human being, seeking justice in our fractured world.
Those are just the kinds of behaviors you would expect from hearts filled with joy and devotion. And yet we all know that our own hearts sometimes feel so ruined. We want to be people who forgive readily, give joyfully, and serve humbly, but we find ourselves holding grudges, clinging to our money for fear that we won’t have enough, and feeling resentful about the meager recognition we’ve received.
We do sometimes have that joyful heart. But our ruined heart keeps showing up from time to time. The key to giving ascendency to the joyful heart is the power of community, the community in which Christ dwells. He is in our midst, modeling through us a way of being in this world that will, over time, change our very own hearts.
When we make a habit of performing loving behaviors, our hearts begin to assume a loving shape. We don’t form these habits through our individual willpower. We learn them from the beloved community.
Jesus’ grace works from the outside in. The waters of baptism are poured upon our heads as the symbol that the Spirit is slowly saturating our whole being. We belong to him by belonging to one another.