This past week, while browsing through the ELCA Clergy Facebook page, I came across a recent article from TIME Magazine, entitled; “The New Testament Doesn’t Say What Most People Think It Does About Heaven”. As you could probably guess, based on the title, it attempts to flesh out what exactly it is that the New Testament says about Heaven, as well as address some of those beliefs that aren’t biblical, that have formed over years of tradition.
For those worried about such things as credentials, the article is written by N.T. Wright; retired Anglican Bishop, author of over eighty published works, Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of St. Andrews, and Senior Research Fellow at Oxford University. Needless to say, he’s more than qualified.
Wright begins with his main argument; That, while, for most modern Christians, going to heaven at the time of death may be the one belief that gives a point to the whole faith thing… as if faith is simply a ticket to be punched at the time of death, guaranteeing us our place amongst the clouds when it comes time to breathe our last… holding said belief as primary, misses the point entirely… In other words, as Wright continues… following Jesus… (having faith and living accordingly) isn’t about leaving earth to get to heaven, but rather bringing heaven and earth together… As Jesus directs us to pray, “Thy kingdom come on earth, as it is in heaven.”
This morning, as we come together for worship for the first Sunday of the season of Epiphany, we celebrate the Festival Day of the Church year known as; The Baptism of Our Lord. The day we celebrate Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan river when he was revealed as God’s beloved Son.
Looking to our gospel, Jesus has made his way from the region of Galilee to the Jordan, travelling roughly 70 miles by foot, in order to be baptized by John the Baptist. So, Jesus enters the scene, and without so much as a hello, John and Jesus get right down to business.
John, clearly confused as to why Jesus, the One he has spent his entire ministry preparing for, wants to be baptized by him instead of the other way around, consents rather quickly, (no point in arguing with the Messiah right?). He baptizes Jesus in the river, and then, before the water can fall from Jesus’ face, heaven itself was opened, the Spirit descending from the clouds like a dove, and landing on Jesus as the voice of God proclaims; “This is my Son, whom I love, with him I am well pleased”.
While our Gospel draws our focus to the events of Jesus’ baptism, it is one that should, as well, cause us to reflect on our own baptism. On what exactly baptism is and what it means for the baptized. To reflect on the question that Pastor Mike and myself ask at the beginning of every conversation we have when people ask about being baptized, whether it be parents hoping to have a child baptized, or with an adult looking to be baptized themselves… Why?
Why? Why get baptized? What’s the point? Because it’s what we’ve always done it? Because it makes mom and grandma happy? To get it done? To punch our ticket to heaven? Why baptize?
As persons of faith this is our question, not just on days like today when we focus on baptism here in church, but on all days. For baptismal vocation, baptismal life, is what our time on earth is all about. It isn’t a means to an end, a ticket to be punched… but rather the beginning of a lifetime spent, as Wright describes, bringing heaven and earth together.
A lifetime spent, doing the best we can, as our baptismal liturgy reads; To live among God’s faithful people, to hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s supper, to proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed, to serve all people, following the example of Jesus, and to strive for justice and peace in all the earth.
Just as it was for Jesus’ baptism, the important event for us isn’t simply the act of baptism itself, but in what follows… in what we do with our baptism… in how we respond to it…
Matthew describes; Jesus is washed with water and God’s word, the heavens are opened, the Spirit descends over him, and God proclaims him as the Beloved Son. And then, as we look forward in the Gospel, what happens next? Jesus is led into the wilderness by that one in the same Sprit that descended over him in his baptism where he is tempted by the devil… his faith on trial… And, it’s in this moment, that his ministry begins.
Wouldn’t you say, that’s about exactly how it works for us? In baptism, we are washed with water and the word, sealed by the Holy Spirit, marked with the cross of Christ, revealed as God’s beloved children, and sent out to live a life of faith; To worship together… to share the good news through our words and our actions… to serve our neighbor… to strive for justice and peace, and make the example of Jesus our example, seeking to bring heaven and earth together amidst the temptation and evil that too often appears to define our world. We will and we ask God to help and guide us.
The Good News is, just as it did for Jesus through the descending of the Spirit, our baptism offers us the assurance, in all that we face… the challenges set before us and the evil that comes our way… that we are never alone. And too, that just as our baptismal responsibilities don’t end with our baptism, neither do its promises. Regardless of what you have said or failed to say, what you have done or left undone, the pain you have caused, and those things you can’t forgive yourselves for, the promise remains.
“As soon as Jesus was baptized… heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. A voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”
As you go in peace to serve the Lord, may you fulfill what is required of you in the covenant of baptismal grace… Delivered from sin and death, may you live into the new birth given to you each and every day in the mercy and love of God… May you walk side by side with God’s people, be strengthened by the word of God and the meal we share at God’s table… and proclaim the good news of God in Christ for those who have yet to experience it for themselves.
And when it feels as though it is a task too great, the challenges of this world too much, rest on the promise given in Christ… that which through both water and blood, has joined his life to ours in birth and in death, and ours to his forever…
Child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever. For this, we give our thanks and praise! Amen.
~Pastor Andrew Geib