Toorak Uniting Church

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Baptism

Matthew 28: 19 – 20   Colossians 3: 12 – 17
Rev. Anneke Oppewal
10:15am, 25 November 2007

Just then we baptised 3 children. We called their names and we invoked God’s Name over them. We baptised them, like Jesus called us to according to Matthew 28, in the Name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Most of us will be familiar with that formula. Because these three names are said at every baptism, in every Christian Church, all over the world. These words are the same, always and everywhere, and have been for over two thousand years, even though the way we are baptised, with lots of water or with only a little bit, when we are adults or as infants, sprinkled with water or dunked into a pool, all of that can be different.

So what is the meaning of those words: "I baptise you in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit?"

The first thing that may come to mind is that it means we baptise on behalf of, in the name of, on the part of ......... Meaning that with God not at hand to do the baptising himself the minister baptises in God’s place.

It is not as simple as that however. When we read Matthew more carefully and in his own language, the Greek, the words take on a much deeper and broader meaning: when you read it literally the Greek reads into rather than in. Describing a movement rather than an ascription. The minister doesn’t baptise in the Name of God, she baptises God’s Name in.

Now what could that mean? Baptising into the Name.

As I said: There is movement in that. A movement which is much easier to imagine when we think of a house. Going into a house means ending up between four walls. Means going from the outside into the inside of certain, defined space.
But into a Name? What should we be imagining when we say that?

To be able to understand this we first need to understand what Name means in a Biblical sense.

We receive a name at birth, from our parents. A name that doesn’t usually say a lot about what we become. Our parents may chose it because they like it, or because it is a name that is part of the traditions of our family. But it doesn’t say anything about who we are or will become.

That’s different with a nickname. A nickname we receive on the basis of who we are or perceived to be, what we look like, or what we have done. It is a name which will usually say something about our past.
It is a name that stays with you even when everybody has forgotten why you ever got it. We can probably all think of examples of such names.

Biblical names are a more like nicknames, the difference however is that they don’t connect to the past, to what has been, but that they are instead given from the future, from what somebody is meant to become.

Jesus is a name like that. It means saviour. And that is exactly what he had to become.

Abram is also such a name: father of a big nation. A name like a program, coming true as life unfolds.

Jacob is again that kind of name. Cheat is what his name means and that is what he will become: a liar and a cheat. And when Jacob changes, later on in his life, his name changes also, then he is called Israel which means fighter, God fighter.

A name in the Bible tells something about who and what somebody needs to become, about someone’s life program, about his destiny.

In Exodus 3 Moses asks God for His Name. What he really asks though is: Who are you? What is your program? What do you stand for.

God response can be interpreted as: I will be who I am, the God who liberates you from Egypt, leads you out of slavery, that God am I, that God I am going to be. Trust me, stake your life on it.

It can also mean: I am who I will be, meaning only gradually as we go journey together will you discover who I am. Only by what will happen in the future, as we travel through life together, will you know who I will be for you, will you get to know who I am.
There are 4 hebrew characters which form the name of God in Hebrew, four consonants which can mean different things depending on which vowels we add to them. I will be who I am, I will be who I will be, I am who I am, I will be who I was, I was who I will be, all and more variations of translation and interpretation are possible. A name difficult to grasp, a name which is there, at the heart of our faith, unfathomable, mysterious, offering a framework for understanding who God is and at the same time going beyond anything we can imagine. Journeying with us, present here and now, in the past and in the future all at the same time.

Baptising a child into the Name then means bringing it into the life of God and the program that is written into his mysterious, unpronouncable Name. I am who I am, I will be who I was, saviour, God of the Kingdom, the God who stands for love, peace and justice.

Baptism then is to bed a child down in that God’s history, in that God’s program for this world, to put in on the road to his future, going in the direction of his Kingdom.

A history the whole which is compressed in the span of about 15 minutes when we baptise a child or children. Going through the water, rising from the depths of death to new life. We do that because we have seen in the life of Jesus Christ that this is the life of one who will live his or her life within the program of God’s history. Resisting the powers of darkness, maybe being overwhelmed by them, but rising to new life every time.

That’s where God’s history is going is what we say with each baptism. Not to doom and destruction, not towards death, not to laying down and dying to sin but to resurrection and new life, to hope and new possibilities and opportunities opening up wherever people connect their lives to God’s.

Baptism is therefore every time a confession of faith by the Church. A witness to hope saying that God is there to save, to liberate, to give new life and new hope, no matter how desperate the situation may seem.

So why don’t we use that one, single, mysterious name, like the Jews do who only point towards it with a couple of letters and refrain from defining it altogether. Why the three names, Father, Son and Holy Spirit? Why is that?

Well, that’s because "I will be who I will be" has made himself known through us in history, in these three distinctive ways.

Father means that God is someone with his own will, his own dream of where this world should be heading towards. He is the head, he wants to lead, and he knows exactly where. Not like an authoritarian father who does not accept any initiative, not as a bossy non considerate bully, but as a Father who can see further and knows more than his children, loves them and tenderly and gently seeks to lead them in a direction that is beneficial for them.
A trustworthy father, someone who stays with you, who will keep holding on to you, and who is strong, stronger even than death. A father who will forgive you, even the very worst of things, even where you hurt him or one of his other children.

This is how Jesus saw God; He called him "Abba", daddy, and showed us as no other what it means when you let your life be led by that God. We even confess of him, of Jesus, that he was connected to this God in a most intimate way, that in him God took shape, became flesh and blood in this world.

And so we arrive at God’s second name: The Son.

This tells us that God is not only different from what we are, Father, but that he is also the same. That he became part of human life and understands about suffering, about death and despair.
In the Christian Church we believe that Jesus shows us who and what God is and what his will is. A human among humans, sharing their suffering, their deepest despair, even death itself, going under and rising again, stronger than death, a healing presence, erecting signs of the coming Kingdom everywhere.

Father and Son. God above and beyond us who comes in the midst of us, vulnerable as a child, sharing the best and the worst of our life with us and not letting go when it gets really difficult. A God who in Jesus Christ has gone ahead through suffering and despair, through death to new life, to another existence, a new future where other rules apply. Who showed us a hope impossible to kill and new life coming forth even from the deepest deadest places in life.

A message which got people in its grip at Pentecost, wouldn’t let them go, changed their lives, filled them with inspiration and passion, with the fire of new enthusiasm and the light of unquenchable hope.

A message that started to give direction to their lives.

They described that experience later as a storm blowing up, a fire taking over, as water flowing and giving life and the growth to love seeds sown in their lives. They called it the Holy Spirit.

Another name for how "I am who I will be" took shape. A message, a power, a fire, a passion for love, for peace, for justice, to infect us, guide us, inspire us, change us today like it did Jesus’ disciples then.
The Holy Spirit is that aspect of God that even today seeks to encourage us, to draw us into God’s program, God’s name and guide us onto the road to his Kingdom. The way of love and forgiveness, of humility, of goodness and patience. Inviting us to give shape in our lives to a world we long for in God’s name: a world where people will live in peace and harmony, where justice is done and love reigns.

God in that sense is a movement, a movement you can enter into and become part of. Ethan, Lucas and Hugh have been drawn into that movement today, a movement the Church tries to be a sign of. They have been made part of God’s Name, his history, his program.

A history of dying and rising, of hope against hope, of healing and wholeness for the whole world and all its people.

Ethan, Lucas and Hugh this morning went (symbolically) through the depths of everything a person can drown in and rose again, cleansed by that water and brought to new life with new opportunities for growth and development opening up.

That still has to become true in their lives, we baptise from what someone can become when they are moved into what the name of God stands for. It is something that needs to be learned, gradually and with a lot of practice, from our parents, from others in the community, from the guidelines we receive in scripture: make mistakes, get it wrong, be forgiven en try again.

And that again is a movement that is represented in baptism. We loose our footing, we fall, the journey leaves marks all over us, but every time we emerge from it cleansed by the waters of God’s forgiveness, invited and encouraged to start and try again, and never give up.

We do this within the boundaries of God’s name, held together by hope and love, expecting and trusting his program is stronger than anything else in all creation and will conquer the powers of death and despair by growing peace and justice in the world for us and for our children by being what he is: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, now, in the past and forever more.
Amen.

© Rev. Anneke Oppewal, 2007


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