A sermon delivered by Michael Cheuk, Pastor, University Baptist Church, Charlottesville, Va., on January 13, 2013.

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22; Act 8:14-17

What a joy and privilege for us today to witness the baptism of Li Ming!  I’m struck by the timing since it was only a week before Christmas that I had the opportunity to speak with Li Ming about her desire to be baptized.  With the holidays and my vacation, today was the earliest Sunday we could schedule her baptism, which is fortunate, since Li Ming will be returning to China this Tuesday, and we don’t know when she’ll have an opportunity to return to the States.  Additionally, it just so happens that today is designated as “Baptism of the Lord” Sunday in our liturgical church calendar.  Finally, during this past week, several church members have engaged me in an interesting email exchange about the meaning and importance of baptism.  So I guess I was meant to preach on baptism today! 

For many of us here, having been raised in a Baptist church, baptism is a familiar topic.  But the Gospel and New Testament texts assigned by the lectionary for today have irregularities that raise questions about what we think we know about baptism.  Let’s start with Luke’s account of Jesus’ baptism.  You may have noticed that in our Gospel reading this morning, verses 18-20 have been omitted.  Those verses contain Luke’s account of how John the Baptist was locked up in prison by Herod Antipas.  If we follow Luke’s account chronologically, then John the Baptist was not even present during Jesus’ baptism!  He was already imprisoned.  I don’t know why Luke’s account differs from the other Gospels.  For Luke, it was less important to identify who performed the baptism than to highlight what happened during Jesus’ baptism.

Luke was not concerned with who “officiated” over Jesus’ baptism.  Luke focused on the Holy Spirit descending like a dove upon Jesus to highlight the fact that baptism is the work of God’s Spirit.  Likewise, it is not important who “officiated” over Li Ming’s baptism today.  Theologically speaking, I did not perform Li Ming’s baptism; the Holy Spirit did.  I just happened to have a front-row seat in celebrating her baptism!  Baptism is the work of God’s Spirit. 

Secondly, during Jesus’ baptism a divine voice from heaven called out to affirm Jesus’ identity: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”  Likewise, what happens in our baptism is that our identity as the children of God is affirmed by the Holy Spirit.  Our world tells us that if we don’t wear the right clothes, have the right smart phone, drive the right cars, live in the right neighborhood, have the right job, hang out with the right people, date or marry the right person, then we are nothing. Scripture tells us that in baptism, the Divine Voice affirms that we are everything to God, even to the point of sending Jesus to die on the cross to purchase us as God’s own.  As preaching professor David Lose says, “In an age where figuring out ‘who you are’ has never been more complex, baptism suggests that we best understand ‘who’ we are by paying attention to ‘whose’ we are – God’s beloved children.”[1]

In Romans 8:14-15, the apostle Paul writes: For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.  For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption.”  A while back, one of Beth’s co-workers adopted a child from Russia. The parents eagerly awaited the moment of adoption, the day when they brought a new child into their lives.  From the first minutes, they felt a great love toward this boy, who had spent the first year or two of his life in an orphanage.  Yet they quickly discovered that this boy was not instantly transformed into an average, American kid.  He didn’t speak English, for one thing.  He was shy and nervous about his around-the-globe transplantation, as we can all imagine.  And he still assumed that the rules of his orphanage were true in his new home.  For instance, in the orphanage, children were taught to eat every bite on their plates, no matter whether they were full or whether they liked the food.  If they didn’t clean their plates, they would be punished.  Of course, his new parents didn’t have that rule.  When they saw the food disappear, they simply thought their new son was hungry and a good eater.  However, they soon learned that something was up when they discovered that their son was continuing a trick he and the other kids had learned at the orphanage.  They would simply fill their cheeks with the foods that they disliked, wait to be excused, and then find a good place to hide the yucky food – sometimes in a trash can, but just as likely, under a chair, behind a curtain, or in a drawer.  As you can imagine, the parents were perplexed and a little unhappy to discover this uneaten food.  When they figured out what was going on, they assured their little boy that he would not be punished for not cleaning his plate.  But the boy found the old rules, the old ways hard to put off and the new ways hard to put on.  It was only gradually that he realized that he could set aside the spirit of slavery that led him back into fear and he put on the spirit of adoption based on unconditional love.

 Similarly, for all of us who are baptized, the transformation of one’s identity through adoption is not instantaneous.  Being incorporated into a new family requires a changing of one’s mind – which is a definition of repentance.  Repentance requires unlearning old ways and learning new ways of living, or as Paul puts it in Ephesians 4:22-24: You were taught to put away your former way of life . . . and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.”  This renewal of our minds, this clothing ourselves with a new self, this growing into the likeness of God is the ongoing work of salvation by God’s Spirit called sanctification. 

Understanding baptism as receiving a spirit of adoption challenges a common caricature of baptism as a personal insurance policy or a ticket for the one baptized to get into heaven.  An insurance policy or a ticket does not lead us to change our identity, to change our mind or our way of living.  Once we’ve purchased the policy, once we’ve gotten our ticket punched for heaven, then there’s nothing else we need to do, except wait for death!   But our lives are meant for so much more!  Of course, there is nothing that we can do to earn our adoption as God’s children.  We are saved by Jesus Christ and not by our baptism.  But our baptism is an outward sign of the continuing saving work of sanctification by God’s Spirit.  Therefore, baptism is not the end, but a new beginning of our Christian spiritual journey. 

The Christian journey is not a solitary journey; it is best lived out with others, and baptism is understood as an initiation into the one Church of Jesus Christ.  The apostle Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 12:13: “For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body.”  In the Baptist tradition, we often have equated baptism as the entry requirement into membership of a particular Baptist church, but as I read the Bible, the New Testament links baptism with incorporation with the one universal church, and not so much with membership in a local congregation.  In our scripture lesson from Acts, among its many interesting irregular details, is the fact that the Samaritan converts to Christianity did not receive the Holy Spirit after being baptized by Philip, and that when Peter and John laid their hands on these converts so that they did receive the Spirit, these converts were not made members of the church in Jerusalem.

This strange event took place during a time when the church was expanding from Jerusalem and Judea into Samaria, a region long considered by the Jews as a God-forsaken land.  Perhaps the reason why Peter and John were sent to check on the Samaritan believers was not to legitimize or authorize Philip’s baptism.  Rather, Peter and John were sent so that they could see for themselves that God’s Spirit was breaking human barriers.  Preaching Professor Karoline Lewis writes, “God [could] indeed work outside of the bounds, boundaries, and limits that we so desperately want to place on God.”[2]

The fact is, we cannot control the work or timing of God’s Spirit.  In my conversation with Li Ming last week, she told me that Christianity is spreading like wildfire in China, and barriers to Christianity are coming down, even within the Communist Party.  For Li Ming herself, it took ten years for her to come to this point, but as we’ve seen already, God’s timing is perfect.  Also, in her spiritual journey, Li Ming did not walk alone; she had devoted friends showing her the unconditional love of Jesus.  Before Li Ming was immersed in the waters of baptism, she was immersed in God’s love.  Before she was surrounded by the waters of baptism, she was surrounded by this place, this sanctuary, and by God’s people, the body of Christ.  Before she was lifted up out of the waters of baptism, she was lifted up by the practice of singing holy hymns and hearing God’s words that touched her heart strong and deep.  Even though she will not become a formal member of University Baptist Church, there is no doubt in my mind that Li Ming has been incorporated into universal Church of Jesus Christ.  And I pray that as she returns to China this Tuesday, God will lead her to a local congregation where she will be able to continue to grow and mature in the likeness of Christ and be sanctified by God’s Spirit.

Please don’t get me wrong, membership in a local congregation is important, and that is one concrete way to be incorporated into the universal Church of Jesus Christ.  Therefore, it behooves us as staff and as more mature believers to teach new Christians about the workings of a local congregation.  But I think it is even more important for us to teach and disciple each other on what it means to follow Christ.  For at the end of the day, when we meet our Maker, we probably will not be asked whether we voted one way or another at a church business meeting, or whether we served on the finance or personnel committee, as important as those things are.  No, I hazard to guess that on that final day, we will be asked in what ways we have shown ourselves to be God’s beloved children by feeding the hungry, visiting the sick, clothing the naked, welcoming the homeless and the stranger, praying for our enemies, walking the extra mile, forgiving others, and sharing the good news.  In other words, we will be asked how we have lived out our baptismal confession that “Jesus is Lord,” so that our allegiance to the Kingdom of God is higher than our allegiance to any other principalities and powers of today, whether they be communism in China or capitalism in America, or materialism, liberalism, conservatism, fundamentalism, “moderate-ism,” or any other “isms” that binds us as part of our identity. 

Being baptized by God’s Spirit is affirming; we hear the Voice of God announce that we are the children of God.  Being baptized by God’s Spirit is also challenging; we anticipate the Fire of the Spirit working to burn away the dross and the chaff of our lives so that what remains is the pure likeness of image of Christ.  The good news this morning is that we don’t make this journey alone.  We journey together as a community of faith, even as Jesus the Christ goes before us, God the Spirit goes within us, and the abiding love of God the Creator surrounds us every step of the way.  Amen.

[1] David Lose, www.davidlose.net/2013/01/what-is-baptism/.

[2] Karoline Lewis, www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?lect_date=1/10/2010.

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