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He Loved Me First
January 11, 1976

St. Paul's United Methodist Church

MARK 1:1-11

I suspect that many ministers of federated churches between a Baptist and a Methodist congregation would think twice before preaching on baptism! But here I go. The major issue that has separated Baptist and Methodist denominations throughout history is the subject of baptism. This church federated about 50 years ago between the American Baptist and the Methodist churches. Since that time, a very viable dynamic relationship has existed between the two. A great degree of compatibility has developed between the two traditions. I hope I don’t blow it all this morning by preaching on baptism from the Methodist perspective! 

Evidently an understanding was reached years ago because the Jesus baptism window which we’re looking at today depicts John the Baptist sprinkling or pouring water over Jesus. So how did the Baptists let that go by? I don’t know. But I do have a certain degree of understanding. I myself started out in the Baptist denomination. I was taken to a Baptist Church by my grandfather until he got too old to go; then I didn’t go anywhere until in junior high school, a neighbor took me to the Methodist Church, and they hooked me. I’ve been a Methodist ever since, but I do have an appreciation and a sensitivity for the Baptist tradition. 

Let’s take a quick historical survey of baptism before we look at the meaning of baptism. The first mention of baptism in the Bible is John the Baptist. In the early pages of the New Testament, as we heard in our lesson, he appeared on the scene calling people to come to be baptized. Baptism was not a practice of the Old Testament, nor was it a practice in those years between the Old and New Testaments called the Apocrypha. But history tells us that sometime within the first century, sometime about the same time as the Christian era, proselyte baptism was practiced by Jewish converts to Judaism. John’s baptism, however, was different for John was baptizing Jews as well as Gentiles. His message was, “Repent, come, be baptized and prepare yourselves for the coming of The Day of the Lord, the kingdom of God. The baptism was a baptism of repentance and a baptism of preparation for the coming of the Day of the Lord. That day came in Jesus Christ. 

When Jesus came into Galilee to the River Jordan, John saw him and according to the gospel and the inscription on our window, John said, “Behold, the Lamb of God.  I’m not worthy to baptize you. I’m not worthy to even tie your sandals. You should baptize me.” But Jesus came and was baptized. At his baptism, a dove descended from heaven, symbolizing the coming of the Holy Spirit into him. Baptism throughout history has been associated with the coming of the Holy Spirit. The holy step of baptism is a preparation for the coming of the Holy Spirit. A voice came out of heaven and said, “This is my son with whom I am well pleased.” Jesus chose baptism as a way of inaugurating his ministry, as a way of announcing, proclaiming, heralding to the world that he was beginning his ministry by being baptized by John. 

How was Jesus baptized? Baptists assume that it was by John immersing Jesus in the River Jordan. The record is not really that clear that he was immersed. The Greek word means to immerse, to put underwater, but on at least one occasion in the New Testament, the word was used in reference to the ritualistic washing of hands before a meal. Hands were washed by pouring water over their hands in a ritualistic manner. For that ritual, the word baptize was used. So it’s not really that clear as to what method was used at that time. 

Certainly in the early centuries of Christianity—post biblical centuries—the method was sprinkling or pouring. Pictures on caves and catacombs depict the practice of pouring water on one’s head. Also, in those early centuries, infant baptism was practiced. The origin of infant baptism is not known. The Bible does not prescribe infant baptism. But neither does the Bible say we should not baptize babies. Many believe that when households were baptized in the book of Acts, those households included children. When converts were added to Christianity, the entire household was baptized. The practice soon became common in Christianity. When a person became a Christian, he was baptized, and with him, his family. The practice soon became common that when children of believers came into the world, when they were born, they were baptized, probably to substitute for the rite of circumcision, which was the rite of initiating male babies into Judaism. (Girl babies didn’t count anyway.)

Baptism became a sacrament and an initiatory rite for infants. This was the practice for over 1000 years until in the 1500s at the time of the Reformation, one of the reformed groups in the Reformation, along with Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, the Church of England, was the Anabaptist group. Anabaptists were the forerunners of modern Baptists. Anabaptists believed in baptizing only believers, only those who had repented, publicly confessed and were ready to receive Jesus as their Savior. “Ana” means again so “Anabaptist” meant to baptize again. Those who had been baptized as infants were baptized again. The method used was immersion, total immersion. 

Thus began the forerunner movement of our modern Baptist denominations. The Methodist tradition has been that all three methods are acceptable—sprinkling, pouring, or immersion, answering the question, how much water is needed? How much water do you need to dramatize and make the sacrament real? Water at certain times throughout history and baptism at certain times throughout history, was seen as having magical powers—the infant was actually saved from hell should he die. It was very important to get a baby baptized, to get that water on his head lest he should die and go to hell. They believed there was something magical about the power of water. Also the practice of holy water as if some words over water would actually give it regenerative power, blessing power, healing power. 

Is there magic involved in being totally immersed? There’s an old story about a Methodist and a Baptist disagreeing over baptism. ”What if I stand in the water? Isn’t that good enough?” ”Nope, you have to be under.” “What about if you just put me under so that my chest is covered?” “No, you have to have your whole body under the water.” “Well, what about if I just go down deep enough so my face is covered with just the tip of my head sticking out?” The Baptist says, “By no means. The tip of your head must be under the water.” “So you mean, it’s very important for the tip of the head to be under the water.” “Yes, it’s very important for the tip of the head to be under the water.” The Methodist says,  “Well, that’s where I put the water!” How much water do you need? 

The Methodist tradition has been that baptism is a symbol. When a person is baptized, he may be sprinkled, immersed or by pouring. I’ve never seen the practice of pouring, but on three occasions, I have immersed people. We’ve gone over to the neighboring Baptist Church and used their baptistry. They wanted to be immersed. Immersion is a powerful symbol and a good practice. But our tradition believes the amount of water is not that necessary. 

The other matter of baptism upon which Christians have disagreed is infant baptism. Let’s look at what we believe is the meaning of baptism. Baptism is a sacrament, one of two sacraments—the other being Communion. A sacrament is an outward sign of an inward happening, an inward grace. A sacrament is a dramatic reminder of what God has done, and it is a means by which God still does something. We call a sacrament a means of grace, a method, a means, a vehicle by which God can come into our lives and by which God can do something in our lives today. The sacrament is twofold. It dramatizes the fact that God has done something and it is a means, if we are open and receptive, by which God can work in our lives. 

And what does God do in the sacrament? First of all, God sets his seal upon us. God makes his mark. One of the best definitions of baptism I’ve heard was given by a little girl about 100 years ago who lived in the Midwest prairies, the prairies before they were fenced in and farmed, where the cattle roamed freely, the fields were open. Wild cattle were called mavericks and roamed freely until someone caught one and put his brand on the maverick. Thereby the maverick now belongs to someone. One day, the little girl was baptized by a traveling Methodist circuit rider. Afterwards, all her friends wanted to know, “What happened, what was it all about? She said, “I was just a little girl maverick out on the prairie and that man put the Jesus mark on my head. So that whenever Jesus sees me, he’ll know that I’m one of his children.” 

That’s what baptism is. The brand of Jesus Christ is placed on our lives, his mark is placed upon us. We now belong to somebody. We’re not just a castaway. We’re not just somebody that amounts to nothing. We belong to his herd, we belong to his family, we belong to his church. And that mark, that brand can never be removed, it can never be erased. Baptism is once and for all. It needs never to be repeated. And it can never be removed, never be eradicated. We can repudiate our baptism, we can deny our baptism, we can reject our baptism, we can live as if we’ve never been baptized, but the mark can never be taken away. God has his hand on us. God has a claim on us. Likewise, whenever we doubt, whenever we wonder if we really do believe and if we really do have a relationship with God, whenever we doubt, whenever we wonder, we can always claim our baptism. The water was placed either on me or all the way over me. That water is a sign of his claim upon my life. 

Baptism means that God’s seal is on us and secondly, baptism is the establishing of a covenant relationship. The covenant is at the heart of the Bible. God made a covenant with the people of Israel, and he has made a covenant with the church. The covenant is God’s reaching out to us first. The essential meaning of baptism is: he loved me first. Before I ever believed in him, before I ever knew him, before I ever heard his name, before I ever did any good works, before I did anything of merit, before I ever was righteous, before I ever brought him anything, before I ever believed anything, before I ever went to the right church, he loved me first! Infant baptism dramatizes that before a baby can speak, before he knows anything, before he can make any claims, before he can be arrogant in his righteousness, before he can fulfill what some church lays down what he must believe, before he can speak before a committee, before he can make a testimony, before he can do anything to make him proud, before he can boast of anything, God reached out and God made him his child. Infant baptism dramatizes that our salvation is in Jesus Christ alone. Our salvation is because he loved us first. He reached out and claimed us. God makes us a member of his church in baptism. Any baptized child can sign the attendance pad here in our church. When I read the pads, I realize they don’t know what to do with all those little blanks after the name. Anyone who is baptized should check “member of this church”. Baptized children are members of the Church of Jesus Christ, and they’re members of St. Paul’s Church. Their membership is valid. Then comes that day in Confirmation when they confirm their membership, when they validate their membership, when they respond to the covenant that God reaches out to them. Then they answer back through Confirmation and say “yes” to Christ. Yes, I will believe. Yes, I will follow. Yes, I will obey. Infant baptism and confirmation are two acts that complement and validate each other. 

There is a third meaning of baptism. God sets a seal upon us. God establishes the covenant with us. And God makes a promise. We were baptized in his death and in his resurrection. In Romans 6:3-5, Paul writes, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death.? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death. So that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too, might walk in newness of life. If we have been united with Him in a death like his, we shall certainly be reunited with him in a resurrection like his.” Baptism by immersion symbolizes and dramatizes that we are buried with him is death, so that we might be raised with him in the resurrection. We are buried with him in our old self, in our old dreams, and desires and sins. We are buried by giving God our lives. Then our lives are given back to us in resurrection with the promise of eternal life, the promise of participation with him in his sufferings, in his death, his resurrection, and for all eternity in the kingdom of God. 

God’s promise is dramatized, the promise is made real to us through our baptism. Live like you’re baptized. Live that baptism. Dramatize that baptism in your life by accepting the love of God for you. Accept it and live in the covenantal relationship where God is our Father and we are his children. Claim the promises that he has made to you. Claim them, walk in his Kingdom, experience newness of life, and live throughout all eternity in his love. That’s the meaning of your baptism.

© 1976 Douglas I. Norris