Sunday, January 10, 2021 – Pastor Teressa Sivers
Acts 19:1-7 & Mark 1:4-11
The Rev. Dr. Willie Jennings—today he is a professor of theology and Africana studies at Yale University. In the late 90s and early 2000s, he was a theology and black church studies professor at Duke University Divinity School where I was attending seminary. Rev. Jennings was a favorite preacher in our York Chapel in the Divinity school for midweek worship services. He is a powerful, African American, Baptist preacher, who would often have us on our feet and almost on our knees. One day, in a sermon, he recounted his baptism at the ripe age of seven or eight years old. He described putting on the white robe, standing with the others to be baptized, waiting his turn to enter the water. But it was his telling of the act itself that changed my perspective on baptism forever.
Dr. Jennings remembered, “The pastor pushed me under the water, holding me down with one hand. He raised the other over his head and pronounced the words of baptism. ‘I baptize you… (pause) in the name of the Father… (pause) and in the name of the Son… (pause) and in the name of the Holy Ghost… (pause) Amen!!! Can I get an Amen? Amen! Hallelujah!’ All the while holding me down! Under the water!” Willie exclaimed that when he came up finally out of those waters, (shot up out of those waters more like it) he knew he had died! He died to his old life. He died with Christ. And now, oh now he rose! He rose to new life! He rose with Christ! Hallelujah! Praise Jesus! He proclaimed that he had indeed Reeee-peenntt-ed! It isn’t repentance unless it has long syllables.
Dr. Jennings’ story may make us smile, and even giggle a little. And it’s okay. It is certainly a very different baptism than anything we experience in our beloved church family. But his story, and his telling of his story (which I cannot do justice to), hints at a truth about baptism. It is dangerous…life-threatening even. And it is life transformative. It is all about Reeee-peeeeent!
The problem is that we have a complicated understanding of repentance. It has come to mean either simply saying you are sorry (my bad) or something fire and brimstone and condemning. So let’s take a step back from the English word and reclaim the Greek, as the translators of the Common English Bible did for our readings today. In Greek, the word for repent is ‘metanoia.’ It literally means to turn in a new direction, to go in a new way, or, as our readings today state, to change your heart and life. That is the essence of baptism as Paul teaches in Acts and as Jesus embodies in Mark. The waters symbolize death and rebirth, and the act of being baptized calls us to die to old ways and be born to Jesus’ way—to change our hearts and lives, and to be filled to overflowing with the Spirit.
There is such power in baptism, world-changing power. Look what happened in the book of Acts! Paul baptized these 12 disciples and the world shook! The Spirit poured down upon them. They began speaking in tongues (other languages), they began prophesying (proclaiming God’s word). Normal speech, normal dialogue, everyday conversation, the status quo was disrupted. God intervened in the lives of these 12 and the world around them as they opened themselves to the Spirit. These Followers of the Way and their community in Ephesus will never be the same.
If that is not enough, look what happens when Jesus is baptized in Mark’s Gospel! The heavens are ripped open! The barrier between God’s realm and ours is shredded. The Spirit of God, dove-like, is released into the world in a whole new way. God speaks God’s word upon Jesus—and in our baptisms, upon us. “This is my Beloved, my Child, my Delight!” There is such power in baptism! It is nothing less than the power of creation, the power to transform and remake the world. These waters are absolutely the waters of life, the waters that birth new life! It is amazing that the small bowl in front of us can contain such power, such might.
Today, we come once again to these waters. At the beginning of a new year, one already burdened with turmoil and pain, fear and anger, loss and grief, these waters meet us, ready to work their wonder upon us—to change our hearts and our lives. In just a moment, Pastor Debbie and I will ask you once again the vows of this sacrament, this holy mystery. Be careful. We are about to promise to take on the powers of evil and wickedness. We are about to promise to dismantle systems of oppression. We will vow to stand up to anything that seeks to diminish the divine image in each human being. We are about to commit to a very different path than the world walks, to follow the way of Jesus.
Our commitment is a matter of life or death for the world. We saw on Wednesday what happens when we are silent for too long. Social media posts indicate that the domestic terrorists who attacked our nation’s capital are not done, but want to cause more havoc. They are encouraged by the support, and even love, from the current president. This past Wednesday we witnessed the evils of racism writ large, the wickedness of falsehoods and lies, the price of corrupt power misleading those filled with anger and fear. God has a dream for God’s beloved creation, this world, and it is NOT what happened on Wednesday at the US capital building. God’s dream calls us to embrace the waters of our baptism and live those verbs, which we have explored before, of our baptismal covenant—Renounce, Reject, Accept, Resist, Confess, Trust, Serve, and most of all Repent…Reeee-peeenntt!! We promised to resist such evils and wickedness as we saw this past week. We must say something. We must speak out for truth and justice, which is the only way peace can be reached. We must do something. We must stand up, and stand alongside those most vulnerable in our community and world.
Let us open ourselves to the waters that will change our hearts and lives for this new year and beyond. Let us follow with boldness the way of Christ. Let us center our hearts, minds, bodies and souls in this time of offering to God; offering not only our resources, our skills and talents, our energy and time, but also our creativity and imagination, and most importantly our voices and our actions and our very selves. Let us truly reee-pent! Amen.