Several years ago I was visiting Nazareth. Nazareth was not only the boyhood home of Jesus; it is also a town mostly made up of Israeli Arabs or Palestinians who have Israeli citizenship.
In Nazareth there is an enormous Roman Catholic church dedicated to the Annunciation, that is the story of the angel Gabriel's message to Mary that she would be the mother of Jesus. But just down the street from the Basilica of the Annunciation is a much smaller Syrian Orthodox church also dedicated to the Annunciation that is called St. Gabriel's.
While I was wandering around in St. Gabriel's, I noticed that a Syrian priest was beginning a service. Two young Palestinian men who seemed to be no older than about 15 or 16, were standing in front of him. The priest had them face the west door of the church and then he had them turn and face the eastern end of the church where the altar is located.
I also noticed two other odd facts: Near the priest was a child's yellow plastic wading pool and an orange plastic bucket.
I finally realized that the priest was about to baptize the young men.
He had them remove their shoes and socks and take off their t shirts. By the way, one of the young men was wearing a t shirt that said "Space and Rocket Center - Huntsville, Alabama".
While they stood in the plastic wading pool, he poured water over their heads three times using the orange bucket.
This morning we will baptize King and Leonidas. I have neither a plastic wading pool nor an orange bucket. But sometimes I wish that I did have those implements!
I wish that our baptisms were more like the baptisms that took place in the early church.
I was baptized in a deep pool of water behind the pulpit at First Baptist Church in Hayden, Alabama. My father was also baptized there. My mother was baptized many years earlier in a nearby river.
Baptists get some things right!
But they also get some things wrong.
It has always seemed very odd to me that a church called by the name of the first and most important sacrament has so little to say about the meaning of that sacrament.
I can't remember a single sermon about the meaning of baptism. Nor can I think of a Baptist theologian who has written about the meaning of baptism.
I'm sorry to say this, but I think Episcopalians are almost as bad. When was the last time you heard a sermon about the meaning of baptism?
As I said last Sunday, we are trying to become a Great Commission Church, a church that carries out Jesus' directive to "make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you..."
But what does baptism mean?
The first thing to know about baptism is that it is a sacrament. But that raises an additional question: What is a sacrament?
Traditionally, we say that a sacrament is "an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace."
In baptism the outward and visible signs are water and the words of the priest - "in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit".
It is more difficult to define the "inward and spiritual grace." Some say that the "inward and spiritual grace" are the forgiveness of sins; others say that the inward and spiritual grace are the new birth that Jesus promises in John 3 in his conversation with Nicodemus where he tells Nicodemus that he must be born again by water and the Holy Spirit.
I think both are correct.
Baptism was extremely important for Paul. He refers to baptism in all of his letters. In Galatians 3, Paul says, " For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus."
In other words, being incorporated into Christ in baptism breaks down the most fundamental things that separate us: economic differences ("neither slave nor free"), racial differences ("neither Jew nor Greek"), even the difference between male and female.
In today's reading from Romans, Paul says, "Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life."
In other words, Paul says that in baptism the normal course of things is reversed. In the normal course of things, we live and then we die. But in baptism, we die and then we live.
In baptism we are united with Christ who turns the world upside down. Christ proclaimed that God's blessing was upon the poor, not the rich; upon the hungry, not those who were filled; upon those who mourn, not those whose mouths were filled with empty and raucous laughter. Christ proclaimed that the way to eternal and abundant life was to embrace the cross, to let go of our quest for success and fame and wealth and embrace the way of service and humility.
If baptism is meant to convey the forgiveness of sins, why in the world are we baptizing King and Leonidas today? They are about as innocent as any human beings can be.
The problem is with the letter "S" in "sins". Remove the final "S". Make it singular, not plural.
The problem is with SINS not SIN.
SINS are misdeeds, immorality, bad conduct. SINS are things like driving too fast on I 15; having too many martinis; extramarital sex (and for some conservative Christians any kind of sex at all!).
But SIN - singular, not plural - is not primarily about misdeeds. The relationship between SINS and SIN is the relationship between symptom and disease.
Misdeeds, that is driving too fast, drinking too much, and all the rest, are the symptoms of sin. Sin is the fundamental brokenness and estrangement that characterizes life in this world. Not only are all of us sinners, but every single thing we do, no matter how good, no matter how well-intentioned, is sinful.
The three great prophets of the 20th century - Darwin, Marx, and Freud - demonstrate this clearly.
Darwin showed that we are motivated not by altruism but by evolutionary forces to maximize our species chances to survive.
Marx proved that every single thing we do is done in order to advance our own economic self- interest.
And Freud showed that we are fundamentally irrational.
In other words, we are motivated by sin.
Sin is the drive toward chaos, disorganization, self-interest, and self-aggrandizement.
Apart from the power of God, there is no way to escape from sin, from our tendency to maximize our own well-being. That is why we are baptized.
Baptism connects us to God, connects us to that power that delivers us from chaos, disintegration, irrationality, and self-interest.
One more things about baptism: Up until the 5th or 6th or 7th century, baptism was primarily administered to adults. Why, then, do we practice infant baptism?
It's a good question, and it's not one that I take lightly. I had to think long and carefully about infant baptism before I decided to join the Episcopal Church.
What finally convinced me that infant baptism is right is that it is such a convincing illustration of divine grace.
God's grace comes to us, embraces us, forgives us, before we are able to do a single thing to earn it.
And this is true whether we are baptized as infants or as adults. God chooses us; we do not choose God. God loves us, embraces us, forgives us, take us as the daughters and sons of divine grace even though we have done nothing and can do nothing to earn it.
My first church was way down in rural southwest Alabama. I was actually in charge of three churches. St. Mark's was even further out in the country than St. Stephen's, the largest of the 3 churches that I was responsible for. St. Mark's only had services on one Sunday of the month. The church and adjoining cemetery were cared for by Dell Spree who lived nearby with her son and his family. One Sun morning I got there early and Dell was dusting the church. Dell was a wonderful woman but had had a difficult life and I think it had given her a rather dim view of human nature. That Sun the gospel reading was the story of the Prodigal Son. Dell and I were talking about it and she said, "I don't know, Mr. Vaughn. I think the father was way too easy on that boy. I would have given him a whipping!"
But that's not what God does. God doesn't give us a whipping. God bestows on us grace, forgiveness, freedom, life eternal and abundant.
The baptistery at the church of St. John Lateran in Rome puts it perfectly:
Here is born in Spirit-soaked fertility/ a brood destined for another City,/ begotten by God’s blowing/ and borne upon this torrent/ by the Church their virgin mother./ Reborn in these depths they reach for/ heaven’s realm,/ the born-but-once unknown by felicity./ This spring is life that floods the world,/ the wounds of Christ its awesome source,/ Sinner sink beneath this sacred surf/ that swallows age and spits out youth./ Sinner here scour away down to innocence,/ for they know no enmity who are by/ one font, one Spirit, one faith made one./ Sinner, shudder not at sin’s kind and number,/ for those born here are holy”
"Go, then, and to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And lo, I am with you always, to the end of the age."