Well, when I was a boy growing up in church, I heard a lot about Heaven and Hell, about how Heaven was a place where, if you were good, you were rewarded. But if you were bad, you were punished, and you went to Hell.
But then I also learned that there was a third place, a place called Purgatory. And Purgatory was a place for all the people who had died who had never been baptized. It's kind of in-between, holding place, where God would eventually decide their fate.
And when I was a boy, growing up in church, we were especially encouraged to pray for all those little babies that were in Purgatory, babies from good Christian homes, who unfortunately died before they could be baptized. They were in Purgatory. And then I also heard in church that the world's 1.5 billion Muslims, the world's 1 billion Hindus, and all of the millions of Jews and Buddhists, they also were not in Heaven, because they had never been baptized as Christian, it didn't matter how saintly or holy they were, even Gandhi wasn't in Heaven, because Gandhi was never baptized as a Christian.
Now, maybe you heard similar stories growing up in the Christian church. So what's true? Well, because today, the Christian Church celebrates the baptism of Jesus, I thought it would be a good opportunity for us to talk about the purpose of the ritual of baptism.
As I said, at the beginning of the service, most people in this church and most people watching this morning, were baptized at some point in their lives, either as infants, or as adults. But you know, many of us still really don't understand what happened that day. We're still kind of unclear about the meaning of baptism.
Now, the church in which I grew up, said that baptism was the washing away of original sin, and was the way to salvation. Now, if that's true, why would Jesus need to be baptized? I mean, if Jesus was the Son of God, surely he was without sin. And if it's the way to salvation, how come Jesus never baptized anyone?
And Jesus also never spoke of original sin. If you read all the many teachings of Jesus, He never mentioned original sin, not one time. And the reason he never mentioned it, is because he never heard of it. The concept of original sin was created by the early Christian church, hundreds of years after Jesus of Nazareth died. They created the concept of original sin, and they created the concept of Hell, as a fiery place you go to after you die, you're punished there. They created those concepts, because they wanted to keep people in fear.
Why would the church want to keep people in fear? Well, so people could be controlled. Now Bishop John Shelby Spong, who passed away last year at the age of 90, he was one of the world's foremost biblical scholars of our time. He devoted his entire adult life to the study of the Bible, and of the concept of original sin and the concept of Hell.
Bishop John Shelby Spong said this: “Hell is an invention of the Church, which is in the control business. If you have Heaven, as a place of salvation, and Hell as a place of punishment, then you have control over the population. Jesus, never heard of original sin. Original sin is simply wrong, and it has got to go. We do not need a savior. We need the love and affirmation that accepts us as we are and empowers us to be all that we're capable of being.”
We do not need salvation. We need affirmation. That's what baptism is. That's the purpose, the ritual of baptism, we are affirming that the person being baptized is loved by God, exactly as they are. That is what baptism is all about. That's why the front cover of your bulletin today from the UCC says affirmed by love. Because God loves you so much, just as you are right now. You don't have to do anything to earn God's favor, or to win God's love, because you already have it.
Someone could get baptized this afternoon. And I guarantee you, God's not going to love them any more tomorrow, than God loves them right now. What baptism is, is simply but very powerfully, an affirmation that the person being baptized is loved by God.
So in our readings this morning, the one from Isaiah, that Greg read for us, God says, “I've called you by name. You are mine. You are holy and precious in my sight. You are honored, and I love you.”
That's what God says about you. And in our Gospel, reading from Luke, we hear about Jesus's baptism, how after everybody was baptized, including Jesus that day, the sky opened up. And we hear the voice of God say, “This is My beloved, in whom I am well pleased.”
And that's what we're doing with the ritual of baptism. We're saying to the person being baptized, you have been called by name, you’re holy and precious in God's sight. You are God's beloved, in whom God is well pleased.
That's what John the Baptist was doing. He was taking people who were marginalized, people who were told by society and religion that there was something wrong with them, that they were bad, broken, sinful, and unloved. And he was saying, no, come to the water, you are God's beloved.
And that's what we're doing in the ritual of baptism. You know, we have a beautiful baptismal font. Oh, it's not up here. It's in the friendship Hall today. But we have a beautiful baptismal font. And in the years that I've been your pastor, I've officiated more than a dozen baptisms right here on this altar. And if you've been here for one of those baptisms, you know that we are not washing away anybody's sins, and we're not guaranteeing them any place in heaven.
I mean, think about it. Do you really think someone could come up here, and I would have the power to say some magic words, and sprinkle some magic water on them, and then boom, they're guaranteed a place in heaven. I mean, that's silly.
Religious ceremonies and rituals are not magic. Think about the wedding ceremony. When people get married here on this altar, and I officiate their wedding. Did I create the love between them? That love already existed. We're just gathering together as a spiritual family at the wedding, to affirm, to honor, and to celebrate the love that already exists. And that's what we're doing during baptism. We're gathering together to honor and to celebrate that the person being baptized is loved by God. It has absolutely nothing to do with the next life. The ritual of baptism has everything to do with this life, with being immersed in this life. And that's why we use water in baptism. We know our bodies are mostly made of water. The planet is mostly made of water and water is necessary for life. So what the water symbolizes is the immersion of the human into the divine life flow. I think the Sufi poet Rumi said it beautifully. He said “You are not a drop in the ocean. You are the entire ocean in a drop.” And I think that's what Jesus meant when he said the kingdom of heaven is within you.
Within you is God's presence, power, light, and life. And that's what we're honoring and recognizing during the baptism ritual. So we have to do what Reverend Dawn Hutchings reminded us of, in our Words of Integration and Guidance this morning. We've got to do away with that idea of God as the abusive parent, as someone who punishes us, as someone whose favor we have to earn, whose love we have to earn. And we have to do what Bishop John Shelby Spong, said. We've got to get rid of this idea of salvation, and hell as a place of punishment.
And instead, what we need to do is to remind ourselves and remind ourselves often, that God loves us unconditionally, perfectly, just as we are, right here and right now. We need to remind ourselves, that the Divine is within us, that we and God are one. As Reverend Dawn said, in her words this morning, we need to recognize that God loved us so much that God gave us of its very self. It's time to claim our inheritance, as sons and daughters of God. When we recognize that truth about ourselves, we’re baptized, we become empowered by the Spirit to become more and more of who God created us to be.
And so my friends, I'm hoping this week that you'll find some alone time with God, that you'll find some time to just be still and know, to get quiet, and still, because within you is that still small voice of God, that is still speaking.
And in the silence this week, may you begin to hear more and more of God's words of love for you. May you hear more fully. I've called you by name, you're holy and precious in my sight You are my beloved, in whom I am well pleased.
Rev. Salvatore Sapienza
Words of Integration & Guidance
by Rev. Dawn Hutchings
Jesus goes down to the Jordan for a different kind of baptism: Not a baptism for the repentance of sin, but a baptism in which God claims Jesus as his beloved in whom God is well pleased. The best kinds of parents that I know don’t keep their children in a state of constant fear and guilt. They don’t use the threat of punishment as a way to encourage their children to grow. The best kinds of parents encourage their children to grow by loving, nurturing and encouraging them. Really good parents know the importance of empowering their children. If you read the baptism story of Jesus carefully you can almost hear the Creator of all that is and all that ever shall be beaming with pride saying, “That’s my beautiful child! Just look at him! Isn’t he marvelous! I’m so very pleased with him!” No wonder the skies opened up and the Holy Spirit descended on him! What parent wouldn’t empower a child that pleased them so? It's time for us to get rid of the image of God as an abusive parent and begin to see God as the best parent we know how to be. That image will still fail to reflect all that God is, but surely it will give us a better glimpse of some of what God is. And then we can begin to see that like any good parent our God is a God who empowers us. Then we can begin to see that in our baptism the power of the Holy Spirit was given to us. That we too are children of God, and that God delights in us. Maybe then we can begin to claim our inheritance as children of God. Maybe we will see that the power of forgiveness has been given to us and that mercy is ours to bestow. And empowered by the Spirit, we can grow into all that God created us to be.
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