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SHALL WE GATHER AT THE RIVER? – Matthew 3: 13-17

The Baptism of Our Lord, January 14/15, 2017
Washington Memorial Chapel, Valley Forge, PA ~ The Rev. Roy Almquist

Shall we gather at the river, Where bright angel feet have trod,
With its crystal tide forever ~ Flowing by the throne of God?
Refrain: Yes, we’ll gather at the river, The beautiful, the beautiful river;
Gather with the saints at the river … That flows by the throne of God.
[Robert Lowery, 1864]

In the Delta region of Louisiana African-American Baptists sustain their sacred ritual of full-immersion baptisms in rivers, bayous, and lakes. As late as the 1950s, outdoor baptisms were the norm for both black and white Protestant churches in the South. Although the majority of urban and modernized rural churches now have indoor pools for full-body baptisms, some congregations elect to preserve the ancient tradition of “gathering at the river” for this critical rite of Christian initiation.

Some 25 years ago, I stood in the baptistery of the Orthodox Cathedral in Stavropol, Southern Russia, observing young couples with babies as they waited on a cold Sunday afternoon in November for the baptism of their children. One by one the babies, or in one case a little boy of about eighteen months, were totally undressed, presented naked to the priest, who plunged them into what I determined to be the rather frigid water of a deep baptismal font. The blend of outraged bellows and Russian liturgical blessing indicated that each of these children was now a child of God.

Gathered in the rear of Washington Memorial Chapel, at the massive font, a memorial to the First President of the United States and a gift from his family, the Priest-in-Charge gathers parents, sponsors, infants and the entire congregation to participate in the Sacrament of Holy Baptism, a joyous occasion for confessing our faith in a God who is at work in our lives long before we have any awareness.

Baptism ~ the Sacrament of Belonging to the Body of Christ ~ The Holy Christening or the giving of the name Christian … this is the most unifying experience in our world-wide expression of the Christian Church, honored and observed in some manner within all denominations with the exception of the Society of Friends and the Salvation Army.

Tradition and beliefs about Baptism, however, vary greatly among followers of Jesus Christ.
Some denominations emphasize that Baptism washes away sin or drives out the evil spirit … a literal cleansing or exorcism in the waters of baptism;
Others churches associate Baptism with what they would consider the all-important public profession of faith in Jesus Christ and the acceptance of Christ as one’s Personal Savior, the New Birth. Such groups tend to practice adult or believer baptism,
The most common Christian tradition would see Baptism as an act of joining a child into the tradition of the believing community … acknowledging that God’s love is at work in our lives long before we are capable of doing anything more than eating, breathing, soiling our diapers, and crying. Infant baptism is the tradition of all those who place an emphasis on God’s gracious love and acceptance of us, apart from our merit or accomplishment.

Today we remember the Baptism of Our Lord as we hear Matthew’s account of Jesus submitting himself to this ritualistic act we call Baptism. We believe that our Lord did this in order to stand in solidarity with his people Israel at the beginning of his earthly ministry. Jesus’ cousin John had been calling people to be baptized for the forgiveness of their sins. The common understanding of most Christian traditions would hold that Jesus was sinless, and thus in no need of repentance. But still, he was baptized.

Why did Jesus, the Holy One of God, insist that John baptize him? This question has fascinated people for centuries.
Some say he was baptized as a kind of ordination to his unique ministry of bringing on the Kingdom of God.
Others believe he was baptized to stand in solidarity with Gentiles … who needed to be baptized as a part of the process of becoming a Jew.
Some insist that Jesus submitted to Baptism to honor and applaud the critical role John had played in preparing people for Jesus’ coming ministry.

For me, the essential meaning of Jesus’ baptism is what happened when he came up out of the water. Three significant actions marked Our Lord’s Baptism … two in our Gospel lesson and one that followed immediately in Scripture:
First the power and presence of God was revealed in what Matthew describes as the gift of the Holy Spirit: … as (Jesus) came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. [Matthew 3: 16]
Then the voice from heaven spoke those affirming words: … This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased. [Matthew 3: 17]
Finally, all three of the Synoptic or similar Gospels say that Jesus was immediately driven into the wilderness, his hair still wet from his baptism, to be tempted by the Evil One.

Here we have, dear friends, the essential meaning of Baptism … then and now. Nothing will ever happen, in your life or mine that will give us a greater sense of solidarity with our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ than the act of baptism and the knowledge that we have been baptized.
Through the presence of the gathered congregation at each Baptism, along with the precious words of hope and assurance, … every Baptized person is surrounded and touched by the Holy Spirit, made a part of the Body of Christ forever.
With the sacred words and the sign of the Holy Cross, outlined on the forehead of each baptized person, the full power and potential of those wonderful words God spoke first at Jesus’ baptism are now spoken for you and for me: You are my beloved child! You are marked with the cross of Christ indelibly and forever.

In a drawer in the vesting room I have the Seal of Washington Memorial Chapel. Every time I sign a marriage certificate I take out the seal and I emboss the certificate ~ it is sealed forever. We also use this seal for all official documents that are signed by and for the Chapel. Unlike those wonderful new digital signatures that can float around in cyberspace and show up in beneficial and nefarious ways, this embossed seal is indelible; it cannot be faked nor can it be removed.

Today we remember our Baptism and the simple truth that we have been marked by the cross of Christ forever. We may wander far afield … we may make a mess of our lives … but nothing will ever separate us from the love of God.

So, let us joyously … gather at the river, the beautiful river … Gather with the saints at the river … That flows by the throne of God. AMEN