“New Life in the Waters” Colchester Federated Church, January 8, 2023, (Matthew 3:13-17) The Baptism of Christ Sunday

Today is Baptism of Christ Sunday where we remember Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist in the waters of the Jordan River.  On this day, we also remember our own baptisms or the baptisms of those we love.  Or perhaps we haven’t been baptized yet, and we use Baptism of Christ Sunday in the liturgical calendar to look forward to our baptisms.  Whatever the case may be, we recall that the unforgettable moment of Jesus’ baptism was the heavens opening as he came up out of the water and seeing the Spirit of God coming down like a dove and resting on him.  The moment when Jesus heard a voice from heaven say, “This is my Son whom I dearly love; I find happiness in him.”[1] 

Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist marks the beginning of his public ministry.  It signifies the moment Jesus shows his full commitment to God and to the ministry before him.  Jesus shows his willingness to preach and teach, to heal and be present with those on the margins, embodying God’s compassion.  In some ways, all of what’s to come in Jesus’ ministry begins in the waters of baptism.  This is one reason that we hold baptism to be so sacred in our Christian tradition.  Baptism is something that Jesus himself experienced. 

From the beginning of the Christian faith, baptism has been an important symbolic action to usher in new life for the one baptized with water and the Holy Spirit.  In the early days of Christianity, there was a practice that some converts would put off being baptized until they were on their deathbeds.  Deathbed conversions to Christianity were a reality.  Because the thinking was that it would be harder to sin as someone lay dying, so that was an ideal time for a person to get baptized and would guarantee their place in heaven.  The Roman Emperor Constantine who famously converted to Christianity (and brought the Roman Empire with him in time) had wanted to be baptized in the Jordan River just like Jesus had been.  Though Constantine became ill when preparing for a battle against Persia and ended up being baptized on his deathbed. 

As an interesting aside, Constantine was a politician and despite having policies that favored Christianity, he still practiced pagan rituals that Christians wanted nothing to do with.  Constantine got away with this because he was the Roman Emperor and because he had not been baptized yet.  So technically he was friendly toward Christians and inclined to become a Christian, but Constantine didn’t take that plunge of baptism until he was dying.  When Constantine was baptized, he apparently had his imperial purple robe taken off and instead donned the white robe that was given to newly baptized Christians.[2]  It was a significant act for the emperor to become like any other Christian in the waters of baptism.

Church Historian Justo Gonzalez (who wrote The Story of Christianity that was our go-to church history text in seminary) wrote about Constantine and early Christian baptismal practices.  Gonzalez shared that Christian basilicas were built to have three main parts: the atrium, the naves, and the sanctuary.  Other buildings would be near the basilica, including the baptistry.  The baptistry was usually round or polygonal and large enough to hold several dozen people.  In the center of the baptistry was the baptismal pool.  Several steps needed to be descended to enter the pool and baptism was celebrated both by pouring and immersion.  In the middle of the baptistry a curtain separated the room into two parts, one side was for men and the other was for women.  The separation was there because in the fourth century the person being baptized would descend down into the waters naked and would be given a white robe upon rising from the waters.[3] 

Now this history may make some of us uncomfortable.  Deathbed conversions.  Being naked in the baptistry.  Why does it matter?  The point is that baptism is one of the most important religious acts in Christianity.  Baptismal practices and traditions were developed early in the Christian faith.  The symbolism of baptism should not be lost on us, even if the symbolism has changed over time.  In our present context, there are infants that I have baptized who wear a baptismal gown that has been worn by generations of family members, and the gown is always white.  There’s a reason for that and it goes back to the 300s with the white robes given to those coming up out of the waters.  For in baptism, we receive new life in the waters.  As our opening hymn “Gather Us In” proclaimed, “Here we receive new life in the waters; here we receive the bread of new birth; here you shall call your sons and your daughters, call us anew to be salt for the earth.”

The truth is that in our church, we have different understandings of baptism.  In the United Church of Christ, people are baptized as either children or adults—typically inside a sanctuary using water from a baptismal font that’s sprinkled on a person’s forehead.  In the American Baptist Church, people are baptized as youth or adults (believer’s baptism) and must be fully immersed in water—whether the church has a baptistry in the sanctuary or the congregation travels to a body of water like we do here at CFC with the Salmon River.  Christians have different understandings of how to perform baptisms, where to perform baptisms, when to perform baptisms in a person’s life, and even different language that we use to describe this act.  For UCCers it’s a sacrament and for ABCers it’s an ordinance. 

Though the commonality is the belief that baptism is the act that fully incorporates a person into the Church, the body of Christ.  The water, the words, and the actions of the act of baptism are visible signs of an invisible grace.  Baptism is both God’s gift and our human response to that gift, a sign and seal of being disciples of Jesus Christ.  This is the moment that we hear and fully experience that we—you and me—are beloved children of God.  Just as Jesus heard that he was God’s Beloved Son the moment that John baptized him and he came up out of the waters.  “This is my Son whom I dearly love; I find happiness in him.”[4]  The moments we are named and claimed by God in the waters of baptism are not quite so dramatic.  Though just like Jesus, we are baptized and beloved by God.  Let this story sink into your heart should you ever struggle with feelings of worth.

In the end, the question on this Baptism of Christ Sunday becomes what do we do with this grace?  How do you and I respond to this sacrament that we have received or will receive in the waters of baptism?  It is often the sad truth that hurt people hurt people.  Do people who know their worth and believe that they are named and claimed by God, loved by God, have an easier time loving others?  We can make it so.  Here we receive new life in the waters.  New life, amazing grace.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Matthew 3:17, CEB.
[2] “Constantine I” in Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Constantine-I-Roman-emperor/Commitment-to-Christianity and Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, Volume 1: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation, pgs. 120-123.
[3] Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, Volume 1: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation, pgs. 126-128.
[4] Matthew 3:17.

Photo by Rev. Lauren L. Ostrout