Baptismal Meditation delivered by The Rev. Timothy C. Ahrens, The First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Columbus, Ohio, January 13, 2002, Epiphany II, The Baptism of our Lord, dedicated to Gale Evans, Bill Crisp, and Aminata Samura on their baptismal day and always to the glory of God!
Acts 10:34-43; Matthew 3:13-17
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our salvation. Amen.
Some of the greatest theological lessons I have learned in life were never taught in seminary - even Yale Divinity School. This is certainly true in relation to baptism. Neither Yale nor the Bible fully prepared me to deal with these situations around baptismal inquiries and decision-making. Being asked to baptize a stillborn baby, re-baptizing a gay man, and then what to do with that family who wanted a private baptism for their newborn on a Monday morning.
Today, on this glorious day in which you and I were humbled as three young adults came to the baptismal waters of grace and love, I would like to reflect on these three baptismal stories. And each story has to do with the "Go-Between God" who guides my every step.
First, a word about " The Go-Between God"... There is a force in my life -and I believe in the Universe- which causes me to see in a way which I have not seen before. This force makes the landscape or a person or an idea come to life for me and become a presence toward which I surrender myself. I respond, I delight, I fall in love, I worship - yet it was not I who took the first step, who opened up to reality in a holy new love. In every such encounter, there was an anonymous third party who made the introductions and who acted as a go-between making me aware of another being - who makes us aware of each other. This go-between sets up new lines of communication and although invisible is the power source for the Universe and the soul. The Go-between God does not simply exist between two people but activates each from the inside and motivates both into acts of mission and mercy; to live in the power and the grace of God. (Drawn from James V. Taylor's 1973 book, The Go-Between God).
Moses approaching the burning bush is no scientific observer, for that same fiery essence burns inside of him simultaneously. His heart AND the bush are aflame with a fire which does not consume, but rather transforms. He and the bush are caught and held, as it were, in the same magnetic field! This force is personal. Very personal! But, it is also the power source for all Judaeo-Christian reality. We call this source the Spirit of God or the Holy Spirit! To paraphrase Jewish mystic and theologian, Martin Buber, The Holy Spirit turns an It into a Thou.
The Holy Spirit was the one who was and is and forever shall be present when the Lord is present between us. It is the Holy Spirit which holds together while we are absent one from another. This "Go-Between God" is the mortar in the brick of our faith! It is that which binds and holds us together! Without the Holy Spirit, nothing can happen which is the mission of the church! Without the Holy Spirit, our reason for existing as Christians is in absolute jeopardy. But with the Holy Spirit, nothing is impossible!
In our Gospel text from Matthew, known as the Baptism of our Lord, it is the Go-Between God who enters Jesus (and John) during the baptism on the Jordan River! In Acts 10:34ff it is the Go-Between God who gives Peter courage to baptize the Roman centurion Cornelius and his household. It has to be the Holy Spirit because no other power could have carried Peter so far outside his comfort zone to take action on behalf of gentiles - especially a gentile who possessed such an immediate threat to him and his new movement of fledgling believers!
The Go-Between God is here, holding you and me together in Christian community and opening us to stretch outside our comfort zones and join Peter in speaking to those we ordinarily don't speak to or fear for some reason. It is the Holy Spirit who puts these words in Peter's mouth and our mouths - "Surely God shows no partiality!" In other words, "Surely God is not biased! Surely God is not prejudiced! Surely God doesn't show favoritism!" To state this in positive terms- Surely, God is just!"
As for the situations I described, what is it that I was empowered to do with the power of the Go-Between God?
It was a cold, winter day in Cleveland, in 1985 when I received a call from one of my westside neighbors in great distress. I didn't know them and they didn't know me. But, they were at Metro-General Hospital and they asked if I could come over and baptize their baby. I agreed and off I went. When I arrived I found the mother rocking her child who was stillborn and had been dead for several hours. Fresh from seminary, I knew that there was no theological grounding for baptizing a baby so long deceased. But I sat with them for a long time listening. These two young people really needed comfort and consolation. They needed to know that their baby hadn't gone to hell. I assured them their stillborn daughter was already in the arms of God. Using the water of baptism, I offered a blessing for their child, (but not a complete baptism) reassuring them that although God didn't seek to take such a beautiful, God nevertheless welcomed her into his everlasting arms. With that, we prayed and began to prepare her funeral.
The Apostle Paul writes that we are "Baptized, once and for all time." Those words were on my mind when I was approached by a gay man asking to be re-baptized. In fact, they were the words I first spoke to him. However, he told me, I was the first pastor that had ever accepted him for who he was and he wanted me to baptize him. Baptized as an adult, he had always believed his baptism in the dunking tank of his rural Ohio Pentecostal church had been the most powerful moment of his life! But, all that changed when his pastor, who he called his friend, "outed him" during a service of worship then cast him out of the church - all with his children present.
This man told me, "I feel like the church doesn't accept me or my baptism." I assured him that God accepted him and that baptism. My words didn't seem to "hold water" for him. After thinking about this and praying about it, I called him and invited him to come as a new man, with a new heart, and a renewed faith to the waters of baptism. He invited all his children to come to worship. Although several of his teenage daughters had rejected him following the outing and the subsequent divorce, they came for his baptism. That baptismal celebration proved to be the beginning of their renewing relationships. During his baptism, he cried like a baby and so did I. The Holy Spirit was present between us! And today he is reborn in faith, with an understanding of our God who shows no partiality!
As for the Monday morning baptism, some of you know this story... First allow me to state the obvious - If you haven't figured it out in two years - and having witnessed 33 baptismal celebrations - I love the sacrament of holy baptism! And I used to have some very rigid understanding on how this sacrament was to be administered. I used to believe that all baptisms need to be performed in a service of worship, on a Sunday morning - with the exception of certain life threatening circumstances.
Baptism is so important to me, because I have always known that Christians are made and not born. It is through the waters of baptism and the blessing of the Holy Spirit that we are made and created in the name and the image of Christ. And I believe that it is important for the worshiping community to celebrate baptism as a sacrament for all of us! That's why we lift up the renewal of baptism as well today. But, what to do with folks who baptize their babies on Monday morning? Well, in the case of First Congregational Church, Columbus, you called him to be Senior Minister. That's right - that Monday morning baptism in an empty sanctuary was mine.
Here's what I know... I was baptized on a Monday because my grandfather, who baptized me, was a pastor and had to travel from Canton, Ohio to Lansdale, PA after Sunday services to perform my baptism on March 10, 1958. It was Lent after all. He couldn't miss church during Lent. Anyway, I was baptized in a simple ceremony, in a darkened sanctuary with only my immediate family - and the Go-Between God present! It is amazing how viewpoints change when the Go-Between God is present!
In a seaside port city named Caesarea, almost 2,000 years ago, in a household full of theological ambiguity, Peter was transformed by the Go-Between God. Dream weary, road weary, and confronted with the a moment of truth, Peter was changed from a reluctant leader of a persecuted band of beleaguered seekers to a man who understood the very nature of God. Standing with all ears attentive to every word he spoke, Peter was given the chance to explain what Jesus Christ had to do with them. A Roman soldier and his family were soon soaking in the waters of baptism - all because our God shows no partiality. They were embraced by the name of Jesus. They were named and claimed and held together by a force of the universe we know as the Go-Between God.
Thanks be to God for Gale, Aminata, and Bill - and all of you on this day of baptismal renewal - for in their baptisms and in our renewal of baptism we are reminded once again that no ear can hear, no eye can see, no imagination can envision what the Lord our God has in store for those who love him! Yes, thanks be to God! Amen.
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