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Texts: Acts 19:1-6
“And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.” – Mark 1:10
God of love, open our hearts and our minds to your Living Word. Amen.
I met Rev. Apwee Ting last year during the two-week study seminar on “Sharing the Faith in a Multi-Cultural and Multi-Faith World” that we both attended in Switzerland. From the moment we were introduced, Apwee struck me as a passionate and thoughtful man of faith who is deeply committed to the works of healing love and the ministries of reconciliation of the Church.
In one of our first gatherings, Apwee spoke openly about the difficult decision he made as a 15-year-old to go against his parents’ instructions that allowed him to go to church as long as he did not receive the waters of baptism. Apwee’s parents were Indonesians of Chinese descent who practiced Buddhism in an overwhelmingly Muslim country. Buddhism was not just their faith tradition; it was also a marker of their unique cultural, ethnic and social identity. When Apwee started attending Christian worship services led by Australian missionaries, his parents worried that he might turn his back on their cultural traditions, religious rituals, holy days and way of life. But rather than preventing their son from going to church, Apwee’s parents told him that he was free to attend the services, learn about the Bible, participate in the youth group, and even sing in the youth choir, but he was not allowed “to receive the water,” which was how Apwee’s parents talked about the Christian Sacrament of Baptism.
Apwee thought that he would be able to honor his parents’ wishes, but every time he went to church he felt a deep spiritual longing to be baptized, to receive the water, to claim his identity as a child of God, a person of faith, a member of the Universal Church and a follower of Christ. Apwee simply could not shake off the yearning to be baptized into the faith of Jesus Christ.
I love the metaphor author Anne Lamott used in her book “Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith,” to describe how God comes into our lives. In her distinctively irreverent language, Lamott said that God follows us around like a little cat that wants you to reach down, pick it up, open the door and let it in. And you know what happens, Lamott wrote, “you let a cat in one time, give it a little milk, and then it stays forever.”
Apwee let God’s Spirit into his life and before he could say or do anything, his life was no longer his own. He had opened the door to God’s love and grace and now the only thing left to do was to be baptized and, after receiving the water, his life was never the same again. Apwee ended up going to seminary, was ordained as a Minister of Word and Sacrament, moved to Australia where he has served local congregations as a Pastor and Teacher of the Gospel and, until last December, he was the National Director for Multicultural and Cross-Cultural Ministry in the Uniting Church of Australia. He has worked tirelessly to heal the wounds of racial oppression and discrimination in Australian society and to open the Church to new immigrants and refugees. Rev. Apwee has concentrated most of his energy on the youth of the Uniting Church of Australia, hoping that young adults will imagine the church as a space of grace where all kinds of people come together to inspire each other to follow the baptized Christ.
At the study seminar in Switzerland, Apwee kept telling the other participants who came from different parts of the world and many theological traditions that while individual Christians may have unique life experiences, viewpoints, and expectations, when we gather, we have to remind each other that the image of God we see in the baptized Christ is a life lived intentionally for others, for the healing of human relationships, for the transformation of human lives and for a new world where every person is loved as a child of God. In the baptized Christ, Apwee repeated many times, we learn to listen to one another, to support one another, and to love the other because baptism makes us more fully aware of God’s love for each one of us. When we receive the water, we let the Spirit of God in and our lives will never be the same because baptism changes who we are at the core of our being.
I was immediately drawn to Apwee’s vision of our Sunday gatherings as a time when we come together to inspire one another to follow the baptized Christ.
As you all know the four Gospels do not offer the exact same accounts of Jesus’ life, teachings and ministry. For instance, the wise men’s visit to the Christ Child in Bethlehem, which we read last Sunday, is only found in the Gospel according to St. Matthew. Luke is the only Evangelist that wrote about Mary’s brave answer to Gabriel, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” The Gospel of John alone speaks of Jesus as the Eternal Word – the logos – that was with God from the very beginning. And Mark, which is one of the earliest and most compact Gospels, is absolutely silent on all the lovely stories about the birth of Christ that we read on Christmas Eve. But, amazingly, all four Gospels tell the story of Jesus’ baptism with uncanny similarity. And we have to ask ourselves why? Why this particular moment in Jesus’ life was so significant that all four gospel writers made sure that the Christian community would not forget it?
In fact, I often wonder how that moment when Jesus received the baptismal water made its way into the gospels. On the day of his baptism, Jesus had not yet gathered the first 12 disciples, which means that none of them was there to witness the moment when Jesus emerged from the river as a baptized young man. Jesus’ own distant cousin, John the Baptist, was put into prison not too long after Jesus’ baptism. And, later, King Herod had John beheaded; so John wasn’t around to tell the story either.
I like to think that it was Jesus himself that told his followers about his experience of receiving the water. I imagine Jesus talking to his friends about the moment when he walked into the Jordan, felt the water running down his face and, right there and then, he was overwhelmed by the inner knowing that he was loved, that he had opened his heart, body and mind to God’s Spirit and, for the first time in his life, he knew that he was free to live not just for himself, but for others as well. I believe that Jesus had such a profound spiritual experience at his baptism that he knew that he would never be able to go back to Nazareth, to his mother’s house, to his father’s carpenter shop, to the synagogue of his childhood because baptism had changed him, had awakened in his heart a passion for a whole new way of life. I think Jesus told his disciples that when he was baptized he discovered the real purpose of his life, he understood more clearly that he was called to be not just Jesus of Nazareth, but the Baptized Christ. I think that’s the reason why Mark, Matthew, Luke and even John wrote down and passed along the moment when Jesus received the water.
Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann says that since that day when Jesus received the water, the Church has been inviting people to be baptized, to open heir hearts and let God’s Spirit in. Our understanding of baptism was given a whole new meaning on that moment when Jesus came out of the river and “he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’” Unlike John the Baptist, Christians no longer talk about the baptism of repentance and forgiveness. Because of the Baptized Christ, we have a new language for this moment when each human being receives the water. As Brueggemann said, “Forgiveness and repentance are important, as John understood. Getting right with God is important; but there is more. Our faith is finally not about our being right with God. It is about being transformed by God’s power so that we may be open and vulnerable and courageous enough to be at God’s works of newness. Those who are open and vulnerable and powerful enough are indeed like Jesus, ‘… well beloved with whom God is well pleased.’”
It is never easy to speak openly about those deep, powerful, personal and spiritual experiences that change the very core of our being, open our eyes to things greater than our own existence, and give new meaning and purpose to our lives. I am convinced that Jesus only told his friends about what happened on the day of his baptism because he hoped that we would never forget that baptism is not just a religious ritual; it is not about grandparents who want to see their grandchildren baptized in the church where they hold their membership; it is not about keeping up with family tradition; it is not about giving intellectual assent to church dogmas; and it is not even about getting right with God. Jesus talked about his baptism and his early followers wrote it all down because they understand that it would be important for people like you and me to know that baptism is about letting God’s Spirit in to encourage, inspire, provoke, nudge and even compel us to follow the Baptized Christ into those places where we can create spaces of grace where human beings - whether they are Haitians or Africans, Salvadorans or Norwegians, black or white - will know beyond the shadow of a doubt that they are loved, that their lives matter, that their voices are relevant, that their struggles do not define them because regardless of what the power-brokers of this world may think, they are beloved children of God.
Apwee’s parents were right to feel cautious and even reluctant about what the water of baptism might do to their son. Even though they were Buddhists, I think they had a much better grasp of what receiving the baptismal water means than most people who are sitting in the pews of mainline churches this morning. Somehow they knew that there is something in the water of baptism that opens human hearts to powerful, profound and life-transforming religious experiences. Somehow they were able to intuit the spiritual dimension of baptism; how the receiving of this water turns our lives into gifts of hope, channels of love, and vessels of faith. Somehow Apwee’s parents knew that the water of baptism is infused with God’s Holy Spirit and when we let the Spirit in, she comes to stay; she comes to give us the deep awareness that baptism marks a new beginning in our lives. When we receive the water, we know that our lives will never be the same because something in this water gives us a taste of God’s love for us and for all human beings.
Poet Wendell Berry wrote a poem that makes me think of the life-giving spirituality of the water of baptism. Berry said,
“Like the water
of a deep stream,
love is always too much.
We did not make it.
Though we drink till we burst,
we cannot have it all,
or want it all.
In the evening we come down to the shore
to drink our fill,
while it flows
through the regions of the dark.
It does not hold us,
except we keep returning to its rich waters
willing to die,
into the commonwealth of its joy.”
Yes! When we receive the water, we suddenly become aware that God’s love is a never-ending gift. We cannot ever have it all, but we have enough to slake our spiritual thirst and to be inspired to follow the Baptized Christ into the world to share the power of this water, which never ceases to flow even in our darkest moments and that keeps empowering us to live each day with the same passion, with the same intentionality, with the same openness to God’s Spirit that Jesus embraced on the day he received the water and became the Baptized Christ for all humanity.
On this Sunday when we celebrate Jesus’ baptism, may we all be thankful for God’s love, remember our own baptisms, let the Spirit in and be intentional about following the Baptized Christ and affirming our baptismal faith in this New Year.
May it be so. Amen.
 Anne Lamott. “Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith,” location 607, Kindle edition.
 Matthew 2:1-12.
 Luke 1:26-38.
 John 1:1-2.
 Walter Brueggemann. “Collected Sermons of Walter Brueggemann,” Vol. 2, pp. 33, 36.
 Wendell Berry. “The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry,” p. 108.
Sermons are meant to be preached and, therefore, all sermons are prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation rather than on proper grammar and punctuation required of written documents.