Sermon from January 9, 2005
“Rare, Medium or Well Done?” By Rev. Ron Brugler
Scripture: Isaiah 42:1-9 Matthew 3:13-17
Good Morning Everyone! Most of you know that I use the Common Lectionary as the source for our weekly scripture readings and sermon topics. And for those of you who may not know what the Common Lectionary is suffice it to say that it is a series of scripture readings that in a three-year cycle leads one through the Biblical narrative.
According to this year’s series of readings, today, the second Sunday in January, is set aside for us to examine the meaning of one of the sacraments of the Christian Church, the act of baptism. And we are called to ponder the beautiful words that were heard proclaimed from on high — “that this is my own dear son, and I am pleased with him.” Beautiful words, indeed!
I also must state here at the start of this sermon that I believe that baptism is an important topic for us to reflect upon. I say this for several reasons. First, I say this because as one of the two Sacraments of the Christian Church, baptism is something that almost all of us have experienced — even if we do not remember it! And secondly, I say this because a baptism ministry will be a natural outgrowth from our wedding ministry. This has certainly been the case in my previous pastorates. In fact, during the 14 years that I spent at the Church of the Good Shepherd, I conducted over 900 baptisms, most of which involved couples that had been married there.But let me tell you how these ceremonies came to take place. Usually a month or so before their desired date, the mother would call the church and ask the secretary if she could speak to me. The conversation would go like this. “Hi Reverend Brugler. You married Steve and I last year and we now have a baby. We would like to get him done.” And although I knew that the term “done” meant that they wanted a baptism, I always had to resist laughing. I wanted to ask, “Do you want him “rare, medium or well done?” I’m not sure if the parents would have appreciated that humor.
But the fact is that this one word, “done”, speaks volumes about our perception and understanding of baptism. I mean think about it. Baptism is something that is done to you, whether you are an infant, or an adult. As such, it is different from Communion. We engage in that sacrament. We have to eat the bread and drink the wine, and as such, are involved in the process. But we don’t think about baptism that way. The minister is supposedly doing something to the person being baptized. And traditionally, what is being done is viewed as one’s ticket into heaven, so to speak. Yes, for many people, it is the church’s way of assuring parents that if their child dies, they will be admitted into heaven.
You may not know this, but during my first pastorate in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, I worked for three years as a night chaplain at Allegheny General Hospital. During those years, there were several occasions when I would receive an emergency page to go to the nursery where a baby was dying. The parents would invariably want their children baptized. I always performed the sacrament, even though I was not sure that my doing so was doing anything for the child. (Our teachings assure us that children are immediately taken up to the highest heavens regardless of their being baptized.) It meant something to the parents, however, in that it brought them a bit of comfort into one of life’s most difficult and painful times. It was the least I could do for them.
But if the understanding of baptism as a ticket into heaven is not accurate, then what understanding is? Our Swedenborgian teachings make three primary points about this.
1. Baptism is “introduction” into the Christian Church on both an earthly and spiritual level.
2. It is an acknowledgement of our desire to engage ourselves in learning and living and following God’s ways. (except a man be born of water and of the spirit he cannot enter the kingdom of God.)
3. And lastly, it is an acknowledgement of our desire to know God on a personal level, allowing him to work through us. We know this as regeneration.
Let us look at these three points in a bit more detail.
First, Baptism is an “Introduction into the Christian Church, both on an earthly and spiritual level.”
In today’s scripture lesson from the Gospel of Matthew, our Lord went to John to be baptized. I hope that you can see the beauty within this event. John said the he should be baptized by Jesus. Jesus asked that instead, John baptize him. This simple exchange speaks volumes about the kind of church that our Lord wanted to establish, and he introduced it to the world in a very special way. It was to be a true community — a community built upon mutual support, encouragement and caring for all people. It was to respect everyone’s contributions, and all were welcomed and needed. This was affirmed when the voice proclaimed, “this is my son.”
The church was to be, and is to be, an institution of meaningful life relationships. And introduction into the church, through baptism, is meaningless unless that relationship is maintained! But what does this relationship do? This question brings us to the second meaning of baptism.
It is an acknowledgement of our desire to engage ourselves in learning and living and following God’s ways. (except a man be born of water and of the spirit he cannot enter the kingdom of God.)
Water, we are taught, corresponds to truths that we learn. The spirit relates to giving these truths life through living them. And Swedenborg wrote that “to simply bear the name of Christian, and not follow the Lord’s ways in life, is as empty as a shadow, as smoke, and as useless as a blackened picture.” (TCR 681)
For this reason, I always stress to parents that baptizing children, and having Godparents, is meaningless unless they are going to follow this up with action — and that they are to find a church home, teach their children well, and live a life grounded in love. And in a similar way, when an adult is baptized, it is meaningless unless they are willing to honestly and sincerely place before God their thoughts and attitudes and beliefs that need his cleansing power. And what does this do for us? The answer lies in the third use of baptism.
Baptism is an acknowledgement of our desire to know God on a personal level, allowing him to work through us. We know this as regeneration.
Swedenborg makes this point in the following passage, “If we believe that baptism does anything for our salvation, without learning truths and living a life according to them, we are greatly mistaken. Baptism is an external rite, which accomplishes nothing unless it has an internal life. This life stems from allowing the Lord to remove evils and falsities from our beings, so that we can be regenerated.”
This is an incredibly powerful teaching. I say this because regardless of what else happens during a baptism, and as a result of it, whether the water is sprinkled, or poured, or if the person is dipped under water, and afterwards, whether the person laughs or cries, or is simply carried away, the sacrament is ultimately about what God is doing — not what we have done!
I hope that today my words to you have accomplished two things. I hope that you have been reminded of the fact that very little happens to us when we are baptized. But in this sacrament, and especially as we remain open to what our baptism can mean, we can be about the incredible transformation that God can help us undertake.
In baptism, God claims us. Adopts us. Gives us a new name: My daughter! My son! I will take you by the hand and teach you everything you need to know. I will make you mine!
Let us be open to this. And doing so, may all of us be “well done!” Amen.