Luke 3:15-16, 21-22

And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” —Luke 3:22

In a few moments, we will reaffirm our baptism. We do this by rehearsing what we believe to be true about ourselves, our world and God through the words of the Baptismal covenant. Later, water will be taken from the font. Remember your baptism. You might hear this said as ministers walk past you, flinging baptismal water every which way. Occasions like this provide a good opportunity to consider what is going on when the church baptizes, and what, if anything, an action like baptism might mean for our lives. To this I would like to attend for the next few minutes.

There is a tradition of Christianity that aligns important stages or moments in human life with the significant rituals and actions of the church that we commonly call, sacraments. This tradition begins with human birth and baptism, and travels all the way to death and Christian burial. In between, eating and communion, growth and confirmation, and even friendship and holy matrimony are linked. The place of sickness in human life finds a companion in the sacrament of healing, and the rejection of God’s goodness, what Christians call sin, is met in the practice of confession. In all, the path that life takes, from birth to death, from eating to friendship, is captured in words, images and actions associated with the worship of God.

On the surface, this linking, as I call it, this bond of significant human moments and divine activity might seem to be about fancy clothing, archaic words, and curious actions. Yet, there is further depth to this tradition, another layer of imagination, if you will, that is operating when human life and divine activity are bound. It has to do with the way our human life and the activity of God in our life contributes to our growing up. By the use of ‘growing up,’ I mean something more than the normal maturing that takes place when a child becomes an adult, or a teenager learns to properly bathe him or herself and even wear deodorant once in a while. What is at stake in this linking of human life and divine activity is our becoming truly and fully human. This is all a little murky and obviously needs some unpacking.

Today we celebrate the baptism of Jesus and, as it turns out, the baptism of young Henry and Leonardo. The ritual or sacrament of baptism presupposes that being born is not enough to make us fully human. Baptism, Christians believe, doesn’t make us a special kind of person, it is the moment when our humanity receives the benefit of God’s grace. And grace is God’s way of making us whole, complete, as sons and daughters of God, and brothers and sisters to each other. Baptism assumes that we are unable to be whole, complete, as humans without the benefit of God’s life, the life of divine love and joy, operating in ours. Opposed to this manner of thinking is what I would call the ‘generally optimistic view of people.’ This view states that human nature is sound already and merely needs a few adjustments here and there. Moreover, since human nature is basically sound we are capable, if we think reasonably about it, of making these adjustments without too much fuss. Perhaps we can read a self-help book or spend a few more hours in the gym. Such a view, I would argue, belongs to the realm of mythological thinking where true human progress is just around the corner, if only we would try a little harder. Under his view, living inhumanly is just a bit of maladjustment in need of more concerted effort.

Christians, however, interpret both our tendency towards inhumanity and our redemption from this state in terms of God. The inhumanity is sin, the rejection of God’s love; the redemption is the forgiveness that is God’s love. Sin is not just a failure to be fully and completely human, it is a rejection of divine life. What God’s love accomplishes in us is to take our ordinary human life and make it whole, so that we can love freely and live wholly into the joy of being what God created us to be: fully alive, fully human, people. This is what I called earlier, ‘growing up.’

To ‘grow up’ in the way I am suggesting, to be fully alive, is to possess a life that is growing up in a particular way, towards a particular goal. I’m not suggesting that the life of grace makes us taller or turns our hair grey, as maturing often does. The growing up that begins in baptism is maturing in light of God’s destiny for us. And this destiny, as John the Baptist states in today’s gospel reading, is what we discover through God’s gift of Jesus, the beloved Son.

The arrival of Jesus at the waters of the Jordan is the beginning of his public ministry. For the person who holds a generally optimistic view of people, this moment may seem like the coming of an individual specimen of the excellent or virtuous person, a figure whom we might try to imitate. It may follow that the only question worth asking in reference to Christ’s arrival and ministry is: what would Jesus do? But I don’t believe that will get us very far in understanding what the coming of Jesus signifies. Whatever the voice from heaven means in referring to Jesus as ‘the beloved, the Son of God’ is it not the coming into the world of someone who is just a moral exemplar. What is announced in the coming of Jesus is a new way of living with God and each other. His is a life well pleasing to God, one symbolized in the dove of the Holy Spirit descending upon his flesh.

From the perspective of his baptism, ministry, and eventual death, the earliest Christians began to see Jesus not just as preaching the imminent coming of the divine kingship of peace and love, but as inaugurating it in his own person. Not just a prophet and saint, but the source of the Spirit, the source of all prophecy and holiness. Not just as one who received the Spirit, but one through whom the Spirit gave life to others (Herbert McCabe and Brian Davies, Faith within Reason). In other words, what his earliest followers recognized was that Jesus offered himself as the center of a renewed humanity, as the source of a new kind of personal relationship, but one that you can only recognize by participating in it.

Our growing up into the humanity Jesus makes possible begins for us in our own baptism. Being ‘born anew,’ ‘born from above,’ ‘raised with Jesus’; these phrases all refer to the new way for us to be together, a way of living a full human life where we are freed to practice self-giving and thanksgiving through all the ordinary moments that define us. Being free, living out of divine joy and love, is the work of grace in us (Herbert McCabe, Law, Love and Language). It is the glorified humanity of Christ operating through the outpouring of God’s Spirit, which is just a more precise way of saying that we are acting all grown up when how we live, who we love, and what we do reflects the life and death of Jesus. To live in this way is just what it means to share in the abundance of God’s grace.

To live fully, is to live into our destiny as a child of God. Such a life, I want to suggest, begins in the waters of the font. In the words and actions of baptism, we are not decrying the incompleteness of what we generally think of as our birth. On the contrary, as the baptized emerges from the waters and is anointed as Christ’s own forever, their life becomes the site of divine activity. With each baptism, we pray that the person will grow, as the liturgy says, into the ‘full statute of Christ.’ Baptism is about this growth, it is about our beginning to mature as a son or daughter of God. It marks the beginning of growth that is nurtured by the holy food of communion, the healing of reconciliation, and perhaps, the deep friendship of holy matrimony. But unlike the first birth that will someday culminate in death, the new birth of baptism into the life of grace is a sign of eternity, of resting forever in the goodness of God.

As we join in celebrating this day of baptisms, may it be for us a renewal of our own life in Christ. God has destined us to ‘grow up’ into this divine life. Today, we are invited to act with the maturity of being a child of God. Remember your baptism.

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