Well, like many of you, when I was a boy growing up in the church, I learned about heaven and hell, about how good people went to heaven, and bad people went to hell.
But then I learned there was also a third place called purgatory. Purgatory was a place for all of those people who had not been baptized. And they were in this kind of 'in-between' holding place, where God would decide their fate. And in church on Sundays, we were especially asked to pray for all those little babies in purgatory. The babies born to good Christian families, who had died before they could be baptized.
And I also learned in church that the world's 1.5 billion Muslims, and the world's 1 billion Hindus, and all the millions of Buddhists and Jews would also not be in heaven, because they, too, had not been baptized. It didn't matter if they had led saintly lives, they still wouldn't be saved, because they weren't baptized.
Maybe you heard similar things growing up in the church. So what's true?
Well, because today, on the church calendar, we are celebrating the baptism of Jesus, I thought it would be a good opportunity for us today to talk about the ritual and purpose of baptism.
Most Christians at some point in their life, were baptized -- some as babies and others as adults. Yet I think so many of us don't really understand what baptism is all about. The church in which I grew up explained baptism as the "washing away of original sin." It explained that baptism was the way to salvation.
So why then 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. Right? And interestingly enough, Jesus himself never baptized anyone, ever, not one time. If baptism is the way to salvation, then why did Jesus never baptize anyone?
And why did Jesus never speak of original sin? The concept of original sin was never in the teachings of Jesus. In fact, Jesus never even heard of original sin. As I've mentioned to you before, original sin was a concept that the early church came up with hundreds of years after Jesus.
The church came up with it, and the concept of hell, as a way of keeping people in fear. And why did they want to keep people in fear? So that they can be controlled.
Bishop John Shelby Spong has devoted his entire life to the study of Scripture. And at the age of 90, he is one of the foremost biblical scholars of our day. Of hell, Bishop Spong said, "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 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 are capable of being."
We do not need salvation. We need love and affirmation. And that is what baptism is all about. The affirmation of love. God loves you so much, right now, just as you are. You don't have to do anything to earn God's love. If someone got baptized this afternoon, God wouldn't love them any more tomorrow than God loves them right now.
Baptism therefore is not a washing away of original sin, but rather a ritual, symbolizing and affirming God's love.
In Isaiah 43 verse one God says, "I have called you by name. You are mine. You are Holy and precious in my sight. You are honored, and I love you."
And in our reading from Mark today, when Jesus got baptized, a voice from heaven said, "You are my beloved. In you, I am well pleased."
That is what baptism is, an affirmation of love, an affirmation that you are holy and precious in God's sight, that you are God's beloved.
Yes, you are.
That's what John the Baptist was doing at the River Jordan. And that's what we're doing with the ceremony of baptism, here in our little church.
As many of you know, we have a beautiful baptismal font here at Douglas UCC. And in the six years that I've been your pastor, I have officiated more than half a dozen baptisms here. And if you've been here for one of those baptisms, you know that we don't view it as the removal of sin, or the way to salvation. It's not like you come up and I say some magic words, and I sprinkle water on your head and then boom, you're saved.
Ceremonies and rituals are not magic. Think about it. Does a marriage ceremony magically create love between the couple getting married? No. That love already exists. We come together in the marriage ritual to recognize and affirm that love. The same is true of baptism. The ritual of baptism is not performed to magically remove sin or to ensure your place in heaven. The ritual of baptism is a symbolic way for us to come together as a spiritual community, and to recognize and affirm the truth -- that the person being baptized is God's beloved.
It is a recognition and an affirmation of God's love for you right now, just as you are.
It has nothing to do with the next life, and everything to do with being immersed in this life. That's why we baptize with water. We know that our bodies are mostly made of water, that our planet is mostly made of water, and that water is necessary for life. When we immerse ourselves in water during baptism, we are being enveloped with the Allness of Life.
The Sufi poet Rumi said it beautifully. He said, "You are not just a drop in the ocean. You are the entire ocean in a drop." And Jesus said, "The kingdom of God is within you."
The water used in baptism symbolizes the immersion of the human into the divine life flow. It symbolizes our oneness with God. And with all that is. So as Reverend Dawn Hutchings said in our Words of Integration and Guidance today, we need to get rid of the concept of God as the abusive parent who punishes us. It's time for us, as Bishop Spong said, to do away with the concepts of original sin and salvation.
Let us instead, begin to see ourselves as God sees us -- precious, holy, and beloved.
When we start to see ourselves this way, we are baptized. If there's anything we need to wash away, it's our thoughts of unworthiness. When we recognize the truth of our being, we experience new life and a new way of living and being. We become empowered, filled with the Holy Spirit, and ready to become all that God has created us to be.
So this week, my friends, may you find time each and every day, to enter into the silence, to enter into the kingdom of heaven within you, so that you may hear more fully the voice of the Divine saying, "You are mine. You are a holy and precious in my sight. You are my beloved, in whom I am well pleased.”
Rev. Salvatore Sapienza
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