I preached this sermon yesterday at the First Presbyterian Church of Nebraska City as the guest of my friend Greg Bolt. He and others had invited me to Nebraska to speak at an officer training event for Homestead Presbytery and I stayed an extra day to preach at Greg’s church. The text for the day, which was Baptism of the Lord Sunday, was Mark 1:4-11. You can listen to an audio recording of it here.
I’m grateful to Greg for inviting me out here to Nebraska for this weekend. I’ve had a great time visiting with folks in your presbytery and learning a little bit about your communities. I’ve especially enjoyed being here in Nebraska City. Thank you for welcoming me into the pulpit this morning.
I’m sure it sounds a little pretentious for a guy from Chicago to come in here and use a big Greek word—metanoia—in the title of his sermon. But as I’ll try to show in a bit, it’s a word from the Bible that we’ve translated a particular way for a very long time, and the time has come for us to think about it differently. So I invite you to bear with me this morning. I’ll try my best not to jump up on the piano, which I understand is a common practice for the preacher around here.
Sometimes when I’m among Presbyterians, I feel the need to confess that I wasn’t born or raised in the Presbyterian Church. I actually grew up in the Southern Baptist Church. It’s relevant today because my experience with baptism was quite a bit different from the Presbyterian experience. As their name implies, Baptists place a lot of importance on baptism but they never ever practice infant baptism. Baptists practice what they call a “believer’s baptism”—baptism is a sign of renewal and commitment after you’ve been “saved” by coming to faith in Christ and making a public profession before the congregation. And it’s always a baptism by full immersion.
When I was six years old my family happened to live in a small town in northern Canada called Nipawin, and we attended a tiny Southern Baptist mission church. The pastor was of course concerned for my soul and thought I was old enough to present me with the gospel. I vividly remember him visiting me in my house, sitting me down in a chair in my room, and asking me about Jesus. I said yes to whatever he said, stood up in front of the church the following Sunday, and in a few weeks I was baptized at a different church in a neighboring town called Love that had the kind of baptismal pool that is used for immersion baptisms.
About a decade later, when we were living in northwest Florida and I was in high school, I really got serious about religion. It was during that time that I first felt called to ministry. As I found myself more and more committed to faith, I began to think back on my baptism as a six year old child. Since Baptists make such a big deal about only doing baptisms for people who understand the faith, I began to wonder if my six year old baptism really counted. Did I really understand what I was doing? Was I just pressured into something by an authority figure that I respected?
So I asked my pastor if I could be baptized again. At first he tried to dissuade me. Like Presbyterians, Baptists believe that baptism is a one time thing. We don’t get re-baptized. But I persisted because I felt that my faith was being transformed and I wanted to mark my new sense of commitment with some kind of liturgical act. Because I felt that I finally believed the way I was supposed to, I wanted to have a true “believer’s baptism.” The pastor eventually relented and I was baptized for a second time.
In hindsight, especially now as a Presbyterian pastor, I wish my pastor at the time had known about the service we are going to invite you to participate in today, the reaffirmation of our baptismal covenant. It would have been the perfect way for me to mark that transition in my life and my recommitment to faith. It would have been the perfect way for me to embark on a new journey of faith. It would have been the perfect way for me to do what Jesus himself did at the beginning of his journey of faith, the beginning of his ministry among us.
It is a perennial question among children, youth, and those learning the Christian story for the first time: why was Jesus baptized if he was supposedly without sin? Truth be told, it may be a nagging question for those of us who have been studying and living Christianity for a long time. We’re even told that the guy who actually baptized Jesus—his cousin, John the Baptist—wasn’t so sure about it. “I need to be baptized by you,” he said, “yet you come to me?”
After all, John’s baptism is said to be about repentance. For what did Jesus have to repent?
We might suspect, I suppose, that the whole notion of Jesus being sinless was a belief that developed in later periods of Christian history and that this story of his baptism only became problematic when considered in light of this later conviction. In fact, John’s protest against baptizing Jesus is not found in the story as we heard it today from the Gospel of Mark, the first of our four gospels to be written. It’s only in the later gospels that Jesus’ baptism seems to become a theological conundrum, a conundrum that is only amplified by our common understanding of repentance.
But maybe we’re reading too much into this notion of repentance.
Repentance is one of the most loaded terms in the church’s lexicon, theologically loaded and also laden with the baggage of religious experience. Depending on the kind of Christianity in which you were raised, you may associate repentance with a red faced preacher piling on the guilt, trying to bring you to a breaking point that induces some kind of personal conversion or behavior modification. Perhaps you still carry some of that guilt. Perhaps you are all too familiar with the way judgmental church people can make you feel inadequate, inferior. It’s a caricature of Christianity that’s all too easy to find. And it colors the way many people think about themselves—as sinners—and how they think about God—an angry God in whose hands we tremble.
There is a deep tradition in our Presbyterian stream of Christianity that speaks of the “total depravity” of human being. This means that we are so born thoroughly sinful that there is nothing we can do to earn God’s forgiveness, nothing we can do to merit salvation.
While this tradition takes seriously the reality of sin and its consequences in our lives and in the world, it may be that beginning with total depravity gets us going in the wrong direction. Especially when it is used for manipulation or exclusion, the concept of total depravity can leave a destructive impression on our individual and collective understandings of who we are. Why begin with this negative posture? Why make the absolute sinfulness of human beings the beginning of our Christian story?
In the Bible, God’s story begins with the goodness of creation and the goodness of humanity. Before we become totally depraved, we are created in the image of God and God proclaims that we are very good.
The great South African leader and Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who has seen some of the very worst examples of human depravity, insists on believing that people are fundamentally good. He knows what sin is. He has seen it wreak havoc in the world. He has witnessed unspeakable horrors. But he chooses to begin his understanding of humanity at a very different place. And for him, it makes all the difference.
Goodness changes everything. If we are at core selfish, cruel, heartless creatures, we need to fight these inclinations at every turn and often need strong systems of control to prevent us from revealing our true (and quite ugly) selves. But if we are fundamentally good, we simply need to rediscover this true nature and act accordingly.
Rediscovering our true nature as children of God is perhaps the most fundamental goal of spirituality and faith formation. It is the lifeline that connects every stage of our journey of faith.
The Greek word we have historically translated as “repentance” is that word in the title of my sermon, metanoia. Some scholars have suggested that repentance in the sense of being sorry for our mistakes is actually a mistranslation of metanoia dating all the way back to the very first Latin translation of the New Testament in the second century. Throughout the centuries we have turned metanoia into a word of judgment, a word of guilt, a word of condemnation. Yet metanoia literally means “a change of mind.” It indicates a change of status, a change of attitude, a change of perspective.
This actually fits this moment of Jesus’ life quite well. Whatever he was doing for the first thirty years of his life, at the moment of his baptism he is embarking on a radically new journey. Whatever came before has ended. Now is the time for him to get down to business. Now is the time for him to do what he was born to do.
When the sky parts and God’s Spirit descends and a voice from heaven proclaims Jesus as God’s own son, Jesus is set apart. His special connection to God is revealed and consecrated in that moment. He puts aside the person he had been and becomes the person God calls him to be. He experiences metanoia. He changes his heart and life. He sets off in a new direction along a path God chooses for him.
It’s remarkable that this is the way the story of Jesus’ ministry begins. He comes to his cousin John to be baptized as a sign and seal of the new thing God is doing in his life. From the waters of the Jordan River he goes into the wilderness to fast for forty days. It is a spiritual journey of preparation. And in his weakness he is tempted by an adversary to reject his trust in God. Yet he prevails over these temptations and emerges from the wilderness a changed person. He continues to experience metanoia.
Called by God in righteousness, protected and guided by God, he initiates a new covenant with God’s people. He is a light shining in the midst of darkness. He is compelled and empowered to open blind eyes, to set prisoners free, to preach good news to the poor, to liberate the oppressed. “Now is the time!” he says. “Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives and trust this good news!”
Jesus embraced metanoia and he invites us to do the same. Friends, we are called to do as Jesus did, and so we too submit to the waters of baptism. We commit ourselves to change our hearts and lives. We let go of who we used to be and follow God’s path in the way of Jesus.
Yet in a Presbyterian Church like this, how many of you actually made that choice at your baptism? How many of you made a conscious decision to change your hearts and lives and follow God in the way of Jesus? How many of you were baptized as infants and have no recollection whatsoever of your baptism? Did you miss out on that moment of transformation, that moment of commitment and dedication?
As Christianity developed, for many good reasons, baptism eventually became a practice associated with infants. It signifies God’s free grace and love, extended to us from the very beginnings of life. It makes baptism a family affair that involves a network of love and support that is both deep and wide.
But like Jesus’ baptism, infant baptism makes problematic the notion that baptism is primarily about repentance. For what do little babies have to repent?
Yet little children know a lot about change. Their lives are in a constant state of flux and development. They are always growing, always learning, always making course corrections, always changing their hearts and lives as they mature into the people God has called them to be. They most definitely follow Jesus in the ways of metanoia. And so we do for them what Jesus did. We baptize them at the beginning of the spiritual journey that is their life.
But does it end there? Is that all there is to this baptism of metanoia? Is it in fact a “one and done” experience?
One of our sacred traditions suggests that it is not. Though it has something of a peculiar history, we practice the rite of confirmation precisely because we believe that there is a time for young people to choose to adopt for themselves the promises and vows made on their behalf at baptism. Confirmation is a moment of commitment and dedication. It isn’t the end of a journey as much as it is the beginning of a new chapter. It is an experience of metanoia.
Yet again, we must ask if this is the end. Can it really be the case that a decision made by an adolescent, with all the uncertainties and turbulence of that time of life, is the completion of the journey initiated in baptism? Surely not.
Among others, practical theologians Robert Browning and Roy Reed argue that what happens in confirmation is a repeatable act that should be experienced at various moments of life. Our whole lives are a spiritual journey, and at numerous stages along the way we should pause to answer God’s call to metanoia—God’s call to change our hearts and lives. Not once but many times we should reaffirm our baptismal covenant and recommit our lives to the way of Christ. Not once but many times we should mark life transitions by remembering the waters of baptism that shape our identity. Not once but many times we should do what Jesus did.
Young children need to be continually reminded that they are loved and accepted by God, that they too are God’s children with whom God is well pleased. Adolescents need to find their identity in Christ on their own terms. Young adults need to figure out their place in the world and how they fit in the big picture of what God is doing. Mid-life need not be a time of crisis but ought to be a series of reassessments and recommitments. Older adults in the twilight of life should return to the waters of baptism as they near the end of their journey.
At each of these stages of life and in countless moments in between, we do what Jesus did. We remember his baptism. We remember our own baptisms. We remember who we are, who God calls us to be, what God calls us to do.
Where are you right now? Where in your journey of faith, in your spiritual journey that is life, do you find yourself? Is God calling you to make a change? Is God calling you to recommit yourself? Do you need help discerning the way forward?
If so, do what Jesus did. Come to the waters of baptism. Come to the waters of rebirth. Come to the waters of new beginnings and new journeys. Come to the waters of metanoia, the waters of change.
 Desmond Tutu and Mpho Tutu, Made For Goodness: And Why This Makes All the Difference (HarperOne, 2010), 7.
 Mark 1:15 in the Common English Bible.
 Robert L. Browning and Roy A. Reed, Models of Confirmation and Baptismal Affirmation: Liturgical and Educational Issues and Designs (Birmingham: Religious Education Press, 1995).
 See chapters on these life stages in Browning and Reed.