January 8, 2023 Beloved to Love by Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to our God.

There is an old story about an emperor who was converted to Christianity and required his soldiers to also be converted and to be baptized. Some versions of the story cite Constantine as the emperor while others cite Charlemagne. In all versions, the soldiers went down into the river, taking their swords out of their sheaths and holding them high above their heads. When they were baptized, all but their hands holding their swords were immersed. They believed that this would allow them to continue killing without risk of offending Christ.

I expect that this is just a story, but it does give one pause to consider the meaning of baptism. We’ll start with what baptism doesn’t mean in the United Church. We don’t believe that those who are not baptized will not be “saved” or will not go to heaven. Rather, most of us in the United Church believe that everyone is a beloved child of God and has already been warmly embraced in God’s love, whether or not they are baptized—indeed whether or not they are Christian. Most of us believe that there are many paths to God. Christianity is not the only valid path.

So what does baptism mean? Our lectionary readings for today offer us two meanings of baptism. The first comes from an interesting dialogue between Jesus and John which is only recorded in the Gospel of Matthew. John is one of the few who recognizes who his cousin, Jesus, is and John is reluctant to baptize Jesus. “I should be baptized by you,” John insists, because John sees Jesus as the greater one. Jesus replies, “No, it is better that you baptize me so that all righteousness can be fulfilled.” That is a very obscure verse, so let’s unpack it. The Greek word for righteousness can also be translated as right or just. Jesus says to John, “You should baptize me because it is the right or just thing to do.”

So how does Jesus’ baptism promote justice? John recognizes Jesus’ power and identity as God’s chosen one. But Jesus does not grab this power. Instead, he gives it away. In later teachings, Jesus tells us that those with power, those in leadership positions, should be servants. The greatest will become the least. Jesus flips power upside down and uses it to empower others, such as empowering John in his ministry that called people to repentance and to baptism.

That’s the first meaning of baptism in the passage. When we’re baptized, we are taking on the mantle of servanthood that seeks to empower those who have less notoriety, less privilege, less voice than we do. Perhaps those early soldiers understood baptism better than we first thought. They knew that brutal enforcement of the oppressive colonial power of an empire was not in keeping with Jesus’ teaching, nor with the commitment made at their baptism.

The passage from Isaiah highlights this call to justice. It is talking about the role of the servant, in reference to Israel. The nation of Israel shall become a light of inspiration to other nations in its protection of the vulnerable and the flattening of the hierarchy of power. All will receive the fruit of their own labours. In other words, all shall have meaningful work that offers a living wage.

There is one verse in this passage from Isaiah that jumped off the page for me. The servant will not quench a dimly burning wick. It evokes an image of someone cupping their hands around a dim wick until it is strong enough to stand on its own.

A few decades ago, a Lutheran pastor invited Krister Stendahl, a well-known former dean of Harvard Divinity School and former Bishop of Sweden, to lead the liturgy of an evening, candle-lit worship service. Krister did something at that service that left a lasting impression on everyone. It wasn’t what he said, it wasn’t the words of the liturgy, it wasn’t how he presided over communion. Part way through the service, he stopped, set down the communion elements and stood in silence. Finally, he walked over to a small candle struggling to remain lit. He reached out, cupped his fingers, and gently waved the flame back to life. He then walked back to the communion table and continued with the service. Sometimes we are called to stop everything we are doing and give our attention solely to someone or something that is struggling.

Our baptism identifies us as Christian—as follower of Jesus and as part of the one body of Christ throughout the world. In the words of another professor at Harvard Divinity School, as followers of the Way of Jesus, we are called to offer tender care “for those who are vulnerable, for ideas just coming into fullness, for small efforts struggling to plant their roots…True leadership protects what is weak until it is strong enough to stand, and keeps gentle hands cupped around a weak flame until it can burn on its own.”[1] Parents and grandparents understand this intimately.

The second meaning of baptism in this passage from Matthew comes from the last verse. As Jesus is rising from the baptismal waters, a voice declares, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” When we are baptized in Jesus’ name, we become part of the body of Christ and we, too, are called beloved children of God.

If every person in this world understood themselves as being deeply loved and precious in God’s sight, this would be a very different world. We could no longer dehumanize someone else as enemy because we would have to recognize that they, too, are deeply loved and precious in God’s sight. God’s love for each one of us is limitless, so that we can also love without limit.

In addition, we would no longer be able to think of ourselves as individuals. Instead, we would see ourselves as part of the whole human family, beloved by God as a whole. We would learn what Africans have long known as the principle of ubuntu: I am because we are.

There was a European anthropologist who was studying a Zulu tribe in Southern Africa in the 1960s. As he was finishing his research, which some now call his colonial interference, he invited the children to race 100 yards. The first across the line would receive a bag of candy. He started the race. At first, a few ran ahead. But then, they stopped and looked back. They returned and together, the older ones took the hands of the little ones and the stronger ones carried those with disabilities. They made sure that all crossed the finishing line at the same time. They then shared the bag of candies with each other. The researcher was amazed. “Why did you all come together? One person could have had it all.” The children were stunned by his thinking and one child responded, “We believe this is how we should be. I am because we are.”

This is the second meaning of baptism: I am a beloved child of God because we all are beloved children of God, baptized into the one, universal body of Christ.

[1] Stephanie A. Paulsell, “Pastoral Perspective: Isaiah 42:1-9,” Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Vol. I, ed. David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press), p. 218.