Well, like many of you, when I was a little boy, growing up in the Christian church, I heard a lot at church about heaven – and hell. I learned about how if you were good, you went to heaven after you died. And if you were bad, you went to hell. But then I also learned there was a third place, a place called purgatory. It was kind of this in-between place. And as a boy, in church, we were especially encouraged to pray for all the little babies who were in Purgatory. These were infants who sadly had died before they could be baptized. And then I also learned at church that the world's one and a half billion Muslims, and the world's 1 billion Hindus, and all the millions of Buddhists and Jews. They also weren't in heaven, because they had never been baptized.
So my question for you this morning is, is that true? As I mentioned at the top of the service, today, we're celebrating the baptism of Jesus. So it's a good time for us to look at the meaning of the ritual of baptism. Most of you were baptized, some of you as infants, some of you as adults, but I think most of us really don't understand what happened that day.
The church in which I grew up, explained that baptism was the washing away of original sin, and the way to salvation. So my question then is, why did Jesus need to get baptized at the age of 30? I mean, if he was the Son of God, surely he was without sin. And if baptism is the way to salvation, how come Jesus, the Savior, never baptized anyone? And as for original sin, Jesus never spoke about it. Because Jesus never heard of it.
Original Sin was a concept created by the church hundreds of years after Jesus died, they came up with the concept of original sin and the concept of hell, as a way of keeping people in fear. And why would they want people to be in fear? So that they could be controlled.
I've spoken to you before about Bishop John Shelby Spong.He passed away in 2021, at the age of 90. He was one of the foremost biblical scholars of our day, and devoted his life to studying the Bible. And on the concept of original sin, and of Hell, Bishop Spang 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 on the population. Jesus never heard of original sin. Original Sin is simply wrong and it's got to go. We do not need a savior. We need love and affirmation that accepts us and empowers us to be all that we were created to be.”
We do not need salvation, he said. We need love and affirmation. And that is what the ritual of baptism is all about. We are affirming that the person being baptized is loved by God unconditionally.
God loves you so much – beyond your wildest imagination. If you got baptized this afternoon, God's not gonna love you any more than God loves you 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. And you don't need to do anything to ensure your place in heaven. Because your place in heaven is already assured by an all-loving and all-forgiving God.
Our scripture readings today speak to this. Isaiah 43 says, ‘You are holy and precious in my sight.’ And in Jesus's baptism, we hear the voice of God say, ‘This is My beloved, in whom I am well pleased.’
That's what we're doing at the ritual of baptism. We're affirming God's love for the person being baptized, saying, ‘This person is God's beloved, in whom God is well pleased.’
And you know, we have a beautiful baptismal font here at Douglas UCC. And if you've ever been here for one of our baptisms, you know that we do not say that it is the washing away of original sin, and the way to heaven and salvation. I mean, come on, it's not like someone comes up here, I sprinkle magic water on their head and say a few magic words, and then boom, they're saved.
Rituals and ceremonies are not magic. I mean, think about the wedding ceremony. When a couple comes up here to be married. Do I create the love between them? No! The love already exists. What we're doing during that ceremony is we're just coming together to affirm that love. And that's what we're doing in the ritual of baptism, affirming God's love for the person being baptized.
Now we use water in our baptismal font, because John the Baptist baptize people with water. But as we heard, in our reading today about Jesus's baptism, John the Baptist said, there's someone coming after me, that's going to baptize you with fire in the Spirit.
And that brings us to today's burning bowl ritual. This is an ancient ritual that many churches around the world participate in, during the first month of the year. The burning bowl ritual uses fire. It's light comes from our Christ candle. And what the burning bowl ritual is, is a way to release and to let go of all the things that are no longer serving you so that you can begin the new year, anew again, as Isaiah 43 says, ‘All who are in the light, old things are passed away, and all things are being made new.’
And so this morning, my question for you is, what are the things you want to release and let go of for 2023? Maybe you want to get rid of thoughts of worry. fear, anger, resentment, lack, a poor self image. Those thoughts are not thoughts of your higher self. They're not thoughts of your true self, your Christ-self.
So on the tissue paper that is in your pews, I'm going to ask you if you wish, to write on that piece of paper what you want to let go of and then come up to the burning bowl ignite it and drop it there after you burn your paper. Stand before the bowl and silently express your gratitude to God for the transformation and healing that is taking place, for all things are being passed away. And all things are being made new.
Rev. Salvatore Sapienza
Words of Integration & Guidance
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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