When I was a senior in high school I was in this European history class, and we spent a lot of time studying the Protestant Reformation. One afternoon the teacher was trying to show us how the Reformation still shaped us all these centuries later, and so he went to the blackboard and he wrote a list of religious traditions and denominations. And then he turned to us, and one by one, he asked each of us to tell him our faith.
There were a lot of Methodists, Catholics, Baptists, and Episcopalians. A few classmates were Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim. And then there was me. Because he got to my row and called on me, and asked me the question: What religion is your family? And of the entire class, I was the only one who couldn’t answer.
I stammered something about my family being a blend of Catholics and Presbyterians and Congregationalists, but the teacher said I had to give one answer. In the end I think I blurted out “Presbyterian” because we had at least gone to that church a few times on Christmas.
I had been waiting for, and dreading, this day for a long time. I grew up in a place where no one I knew didn’t have a faith tradition. Most were Christian, and they talked about their churches, confirmations, youth groups, and more. But I never said very much, because the truth is of all my classmates whose family was not some other faith than Christian, I was the only one I knew who didn’t have a church. I hadn’t even been baptized.
After school that day, I decided I was never going to be in a situation like that ever again. I was going to have an answer the next time someone asked. And so I drove to a church downtown, and talked to the pastor about being baptized. And I figured that by the time I went off to college in the fall, and I had to fill out demographic forms, I’d have this whole religion thing figured out.
That’s how I got baptized. In retrospect, I don’t think that was exactly what Jesus was looking for back when he told his followers to be born again in the waters of baptism. True, my baptism did not come from an empty place – my faith was real – but it was provoked, quite frankly, by my own embarrassment. And when I received the sacrament later that spring I told very few people about it. Most of my friends had been baptized as infants; I didn’t know what kind of ribbing I’d get as a 17 year old who was doing what babies normally do.
So, that’s my baptism story. I’m telling it to you today because we are hearing two other baptism stories too. The first is the story of Jesus’ own baptism, in which he went to John the Baptist and was baptized by him in the Jordan River. Like John said, Jesus did not need this baptism. But Jesus received it anyway, and as he came out of the river, a voice called down from heaven, “this is my son, my beloved…in him I am well pleased”.
Today is the day that the church remembers Jesus’ baptism every year. And in doing so we are asked to remember our own baptisms, because what Jesus began by receiving his own baptism is what we too are called to receive. All of us who would follow Christ are called to follow the leader into these baptismal waters together.
And today we also tell another story too, that of Lydia. As you know, whenever our church school starts a new unit, I talk about the story in the sermon. And Lydia, coincidentally, is also a compelling story about baptism.
Lydia isn’t a story we tell much in church, which is too bad. Not only is she an example of a powerful woman in Scripture, she is also an example of a person hearing the call to follow Jesus, and responding with an open heart.
The Apostle Paul and his cohort came to Turkey and preached the Gospel, and Lydia heard it and was the first one baptized. Some say that Lydia was the first convert to Christianity in all of Europe.
That’s noteworthy for many reasons, not the least of which is that she was a woman who made this decision for herself. Lydia was in a unique position as a woman who had somehow garnered enough independence that she could make that choice, and she could then even invite these men into her home, something most women would never have been allowed to do.
Lydia had made a living for herself as a merchant who sold purple fabric. And from what little we know we can assume that she was doing well. She had her own money, she had independence, and unlike many women of the era, she had the power to decide who she would follow. She was like a Beyonce song; she was the very definition of an “Independent Woman”.
And so that makes it all the more incredible that she, and she alone, made the decision to be baptized by Paul. She had what she needed, but she still responded to the Gospel in a powerful way. By being the first to step forward and say “this is who I want to follow…baptize me” she became a leader of the growing Christian community. Orthodox Churches have even come to call her the “Equal to the Apostles”. That’s pretty high praise when you think about it.
Lydia’s baptism reminds us that from the very beginning the Gospel has not been restricted to anyone, or withheld from anyone. It’s always been for everyone who has ears to hear it. And the same is true of baptism. It’s there for anyone who wants to share in the sacrament. Even if they are a woman 2000 year ago. And even if they are a 17 year old who is embarrassed in history class.
The truth is that whatever brings us to the baptismal font, no matter whether we were brought there as infants by our parents, or whether we bring ourselves there as adults, the sacrament is the same. And the journey does not end in the waters of baptism. Instead, in those waters we are claimed. We are called God’s own. And we are come to know who we truly are, and whose we truly are.
That’s worth repeating. We learn in baptism whose we are. When Jesus was baptized, God claimed him as he came up from the waters. And when Lydia was baptized, despite all she had accomplished in her life, she truly learned whose she was.
And when I was baptized, even with intentions that weren’t quite right, I was set on a path that has continued to teach me who and whose I am all these years later. And the same is true for every child we bring to this font. Even then, even long before they can understand why we are putting water on their heads, God is claiming them, and we are proclaiming that they are God’s beloved.
In the early church, those who wished to be baptized spent Lent preparing for that baptism. And then, on the night before Easter, at the Easter Vigil, they were baptize and were welcomed into the congregation as full members. That period of preparing was called the catechumenate, and it was a time of learning and getting ready to respond to the Gospel message.
This year Lent begins on February 10th; that’s just around the corner. And this Lent I would like to take a page from the early church. Many of you, particularly many of you who are around my age or younger, grew up in a time when church was optional, and baptism was too. That’s okay. I know what that feels like. And I know what it’s like to wonder what it will feel like to be baptized when all you’ve ever seen are children at the font.
And so this Lent I want to offer a new opportunity for those of you who are interested in baptism, but aren’t sure how to start preparing for it. So, if you are an adult or an older youth who has not been baptized, I’d love for you to join us on this journey by coming to a class each Sunday in Lent, and exploring what baptism might mean for you. And at the end, we will celebrate the baptisms of those of you who would like to receive the sacrament on the evening before Easter, in the tradition of the ancient church.
And, if you have already been baptized, you are not excluded. We do not re-baptize people in the church. Once is sufficient for God’s grace. But, if you would like to take the step of re-affirming your baptism I’d love for you to join us as well. In a way, this formation process will be a little like an adult confirmation class that will end with you renewing your baptismal vows during the Easter vigil and claiming it as your own. It’s a chance to go a little deeper this Lent.
You do not need to make your decision now, but I invite you to open your heart to how God might be speaking to you. Are you being called to even consider baptism? Are you at a place in your life where reaffirming your baptism would have spiritual meaning? Are you at least curious? If God’s love is somehow nudging you right now in your heart, listen to what it is telling you. And join us.
Baptized or not, you are God’s beloved. That’s already true. You are God’s own. The choice you are left with is how to respond to that great love. Like Lydia, at least go hear what the Gospel has to say to you. Because like her, you can make a good life even better. Amen?