Faith Commons

by Rev. Dr. George Mason

January 7, 2024 | Church of the Transfiguration | Dallas, TX

Scripture: Mark 1:4-11

Do you see what he did, your good rector? He looked ahead at the liturgical day on the calendar for the Baptism of the Lord Sunday and invited George the Baptist to preach! Next thing you know, he’ll install a tub in this beautiful sanctuary and start immersing you baptismal candidates.

Well, probably not, but I should say thank you for the invitation and confess that I relish the chance to preach today on a subject dear to my denominational heart. We Baptists didn’t name ourselves; we were named … by the likes of you. It was a bit of a slur at first, the name Baptist. We had broken off from the Church of England in 1609, right about the time the King James Bible was being translated. We weren’t Protestants, strictly speaking; we were Dissenters and Separatists—two things we have all but mastered through the years, for good or ill.

Baptists thought that as long as the church was wedded to the state, we would always get confused as to where our loyalties lay. When you baptize a person into a Church whose supposed head is a human monarch, you end up with a Church serving the State as its handmaid instead of serving as its moral conscience.

Now, to be fair, that was 400 years ago, and you Episcopalians have figured that out for yourselves just as well or better than we Baptists have. I mean, I would bet you there were more Baptists than Episcopalians who marched on the Capitol on January 6 claiming they were claiming the country for Christ and his man, the former president. So, don’t let me get all high and mighty on you about how our baptism is better than yours, just because we wait for the age of consent or use more water.

Don’t tell the Baptists I said this, but it’s not the amount of water that makes the baptism, it’s what the water amounts to. That is, it’s what baptism means. And the short answer is that we are all in with God by being all in with the Jesus way of life in the world.

The practice of baptism by full immersion in water is a vivid picture of being all in. We don’t dip our toes in the shallow end; we go all in. And even if you sprinkle, just be sure to realize you are truly diving in. This a complete turning from an orientation to self, as if faith were a way to get God’s favor for you at the expense of others. 

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel put it well: Any god who is mine but not yours, any god concerned with me but not with you, is an idol. So, to those of you being baptized today and those of us remembering our baptisms: I hope you hear the same words in your spirit that Jesus heard at his baptism: You are my Child, the beloved; in you I am well pleased. But understand that Jesus is a stand-in for all humanity, not just for you. You are baptized into a church where all equal in the eyes of God and one another. We are all in with one another. And we are all in defending and protecting every other person made in the image and likeness of God. Which is, of course, every human being.

As we pick up our Gospel lection today, John is out in the wilderness where he is at home with the jackals and eats locusts and wild honey. He is a Baptist separatist, don’t you know?! He is not in Jerusalem cozying up to Temple priests and Roman politicians who have a neat little arrangement to keep the peace and close their eyes to injustice. When religion serves the empire, it baptizes the values of inequality and the violence necessary to maintain it.

The historical details of this story are fuzzy if not disputed, but some stories are too good not to be true. Ivan the Great—not to be confused with his grandson, Ivan the Terrible, was tsar of Russia in the Fifteenth Century. Ivan had arranged to marry Sophia of Palaiologos, a Byzantine princess. But this would mean that Ivan would have to baptized into the Greek Orthodox Church.

So, a priest was dispatched to Moscow to instruct Ivan in Orthodox doctrine. Ivan was a quick student and learned the catechism in record time. 

Arrangements were concluded, and the tsar made his way to Athens accompanied by 500 troops—his personal palace guard. He was to be baptized into the Orthodox church by immersion, as was the custom of the Eastern Church. His soldiers, ever loyal, asked to be baptized also. The Patriarch of the Church assigned 500 priests to give the soldiers a one-on-one catechism crash course. The soldiers, all 500 of them, were to be immersed in one mass baptism. 

Crowds gathered from all over Greece.
What a sight that must have been, 500 priests and 500 soldiers, a thousand people, walking into the blue Mediterranean. The priests were dressed in black robes and tall black hats, the official dress of the Orthodox Church. The soldiers wore their battle uniforms with of all their regalia—ribbons of valor, medals of courage. and their weapons of battle.

But there was a problem that had to be negotiated first. The Church prohibited professional soldiers from being members; they would have to give up their commitment to bloodshed. They could not be killers and Church members, too. In the end, the interests of the Empire prevailed over the doctrine of the Church, as it inevitably does. A compromise was struck.

As the words were spoken and the priests began to baptize them, each soldier reached to his side and withdrew his sword. Lifting it high overhead, every soldier was totally immersed—everything baptized except his fighting arm and sword.

John’s baptism, we are told, is a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Jews baptized proselytes—Gentiles who wanted to become Jews. Jews didn’t need baptism for themselves the way Gentiles. They were already the chosen people. But this is what makes John’s baptismal call to Jews so radical and compelling.

They understood in their bones that something had to change. And change is what repentance is all about. John is telling Jews that God demands that they come apart from their complicity with the Empire and religious leaders who looked the other way at injustice, employing or defending violence to keep the peace of Rome. This was the sin that needed repentance and forgiveness. It wasn’t thinking impure thoughts about your girlfriend or boyfriend or overcharging for your pomegranates at the market. It was a massive unfaithfulness to the covenant of Israel that called for an alternative way of life in the world. 

In his baptism, Jesus shows his solidarity with God and with us sinners who are called to renounce the destructive ways of the world. When the heavens are torn open at his baptism, that language suggests a break with settled realities of earth. Heaven is coming down. The power and glory of God are being released. The Spirit descending upon him in the form of a dove indicates that the values of heaven are rooted in peace and justice. 

You are my son, the beloved; in you I am well pleased is not a sentimental blessing of God the Father to Jesus the Son. It is the combining of two passages from the Hebrew Bible that indicates the meaning of his mission. You are my beloved son comes from a coronation psalm of Israel’s kings. In you I am well pleased comes from the Suffering Servant passages of Isaiah. Jesus understood that he was a leader of a different kind. He would embody the way of revolutionary love that would fulfill Isaiah’s prophetic vision of a world of abundance and blessing for all humanity.

To see that through, he himself would suffer at the hands of sinners rather than take up sword against his enemies. Only by exposing the folly of violence and the futility of injustice can the world be saved from its warring ways.

This is what it means to follow Jesus in baptism. We are all in with God and the way of Jesus in the world. Not only must we baptize our sword-bearing arms, but we must also speak and act nonviolently as agents of peace and justice in a world that won’t go down without a fight.

Friends, we are living in a violent culture with enormous social inequities that fuel that violence. Those who are left out and pushed aside are apt to take up arms in the cause of their freedom. And those who retaliate do the same to put down rebellion in the name of their own survival. 

This is vividly demonstrated in Gaza. Hamas’s horrendous attack on October 7 with more than 1,200 dead and many others raped and wounded. It provoked a massive retribution that continues to this moment with more than 21,000 Palestinians dead, 80% of them women and children. And where do you think Israel has gotten those weapons of death? From us, paid for by our tax dollars. So, when we say we unconditionally support Israel in their fight against Hamas, we are effectively denying our baptisms, not to mention abandoning our Palestinian Christian siblings in the process.

And what about the ongoing slaughter in the U.S. due to gun violence? How will we ever see an end to school shootings of children if the church doesn’t speak up? We are more committed to our legal right to bear arms than to the moral right of our fully baptized arms!

On this day when we remember that in Jesus’ baptism he was all in with God’s way of peace and justice, the question is ours to answer: are we who are baptized in his name all in too?