I remember in my second parish in Baltimore when a mother told me the story of her young son who had been home with her all day. He had been a terror the entire day. With each incident she said, “You just wait until your dad gets home.” Evening arrived, and when her husband got home, she began telling him about their son’s behavior. The dad looked at his son, and before he could say anything, the boy cried out, “You can’t touch me; I’ve been baptized.”
I wish it was that easy… that simple. My first cousin (younger than I) died last week. I had officiated at his wedding in Rhode Island right after he finished dental school. He was forced to retire some years ago when he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Then his wife wound up with pancreatic cancer. She thought she was going to die before him. Then he contracted esophageal cancer and beat her to it. Some of our parish families have had some very sad funerals here recently—there has been so much grieving and personal suffering. I wish we could all say to the sorrows and losses of our lives, “You can’t touch me; I’ve been baptized!” I wish I could say to the struggles and difficulties, the changes and challenges of my own life, “You can’t touch me; I’ve been baptized!” But that is not how baptism works.
Despite our baptism, every one of us has suffered sorrows and losses of life, encountered difficulties and struggles that we would have rather avoided. And despite his baptism, that little boy in the story still went to time-out. And yet, as I reflect on that story, he speaks a deep truth. He is absolutely right: he is untouchable. At some level, even at a very young age, he knows that his existence, identity, and value are not limited to time and space, or to the things he has done or left undone. He knows himself to be more than his biological existence. He knows himself as beloved by God. That means he knows the gift of baptism.
Baptism, and our relationship with God, does not eliminate our difficulties, fix our problems, take away the pain, or change the circumstance of our lives. Instead it changes us and offers us a way through those difficulties, sorrows, and problems– and ultimately, a way through death. Baptism transcends, rises above our biological existence and offers us a vision of life as it might be. Baptism offers us a new way of being– one that is neither limited by, nor suffers from, our “createdness.” Through baptism, we no longer live according to the biological laws of nature but by relationship with God, who through the Prophet Isaiah says in the first reading, “The Lord… formed me as his servant from the womb…and I am made glorious in the sight of the Lord, and my God is now my strength!”
That means when we pass through the waters of sorrow and difficulty, God is with us. The rivers that can drown will not overwhelm us. For he is the Lord our God, the Holy One of Israel, our Savior. To know this, to experience this, to learn to trust this… is the gift of baptism.
Baptism always takes place at the border where “life as it is” meets “life as it might be.” Think of that border as the River Jordan. Geographically, symbolically, and theologically the Jordan River is the border where baptism happens. It is the border between (1) the wilderness and the Promised Land, (2) the border between life as survival and a life that is thriving, (3) the border between sin and forgiveness, (4) the border between the tomb and the womb, and (5) the border between death and life. We all stand on that border at multiple times in our lives. Some of us in this room are standing there now. Some of us experience that border only as a place of fear, pain, and loss. For others it is a place of joy, hope, and healing. When looked at through the eyes of baptism, it is really both at the same time.
The only reason we can stand at the border of baptism is because Jesus stood there first, as John the Baptist testified in the gospel reading today. We stand on the very same border on which the baptism of Jesus took place. As Jesus came up from the waters of the Jordan, a voice proclaimed, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” That is the Father’s recognition of the joining together of earth to heaven, and heaven to earth. It is the joining of divinity to humanity– the affirmation that in Jesus, God stands in solidarity with all humanity.
In the gospel today, John saw Jesus as another human being, but then comes to know him as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world…” and the sins of John’s life. John came to know the importance of Jesus in his life. The good news of Jesus is that God wants to enter our lives, to take hold of our lives. The good news of Jesus is that God wants the place in our hearts that we have in his.
God tells us that repeatedly. We hear this invitation every time something hits us between the eyes and reveals that our grasp on life is not what we thought it was. In these moments, God is asking to come into our lives. Think of the ordinary experiences we have in life—how our children turn out, sensing bodily pain, falling in love—all of these remind us that we don’t have everything under control. And throughout the ordinary and extraordinary moments of one’s life, we experience God nudging us and saying, “You really don’t have life in hand! Move over a bit and make room for me in your life.”
Life has a way of reminding us of our insufficiency. This reminder becomes a moment of grace when we find ourselves left, not on the edge of nothingness, but before God—when we are reminded not only of our insufficiency, but also of the truth that our only sufficiency is found in God. If God has entered an imperishable relationship with us in Baptism, what else matters? If God is in our life, then nothingness does not threaten. Baptism provides us with the knowledge that our lives are held firmly by God in a grip so strong that it will endure even through death.
And so, there is truth in what that little boy once said, “You can’t touch me; I’ve been baptized.” Each one of us might reflect on whether our Baptism has become that real for us. Can we say these words, and actually experience their meaning? “You can’t touch me; I’ve been baptized!