The Barrel by John H. Pavelko

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The Water of Committment

Mark 1:4-11 

        Rituals have lost their meaning in our cultural, especial in worship. The trend in the
        American church is for the liturgical free seeker friendly worship service. Not only are the
        stead traditional hymns replaced by more upbeat contemporary music but various elements
        of the services itself have been stripped away -e.g. the responsive readings, unison prayers,
        and calls to worship. The rational is that rituals lose their meaning through repetition and
        over use. This was the argument the reformers used when they changed the Lord's Supper
        from a weekly practice to either monthly or quarterly occurrence. Sometime I wonder if
        people still resist a weekly celebration of the Eucharist because they just do not want to clean
        the little cups so frequently. In any event, people in our over stimulated society easily become
        bored through repetition. We crave excitement and action. We are enticed by glitz and glitter.
        We are captivated by novelty. TV shows understand the dynamics of the human psyche.
        During any given show they will change camera angles 12 or more times during a simple 10
        second segment. They hold the viewers' attention by a constant barrage of changing faces and

        We also tend to minimize rituals because they seldom deliver the spectacular. The heavens do
        not open. The light does not flash. We do not hear the Divine voice. After the prayer has been
        said, the water poured and the bread eaten, we still have the sameness of an ordinary life. We
        feel empty and disappointed. We had hoped for a dramatic event. We had anticipated a
        stunning transformation. We thought all temptation would be erased. All weakness would be
        metamorphosed into strengths. We had assumed that our life would change like it did for
        Thomas Anderson after he was baptized in the movie, The Matrix. 

        By day, Thomas Anderson worked in a small cubicle for a respectable software company. He
        felt that something was wrong with the world but he could not identify the real problem. He
        had an inner sense of dissatisfaction, a lack of fulfillment. His only outlet was through his
        hacker codename, Neo which he used to create and sell illegal software programs. Anderson
        discovered through a beautiful, black clad warrior named Trinity that the world as he knew it
        was a mirage. It was really a virtual reality created by artificial intelligence. Human life was
        not lived in the physical world. Life as he experienced it, was merely a computer construct, a
        complex matrix. Humanity had become enslaved to the machine. Human beings lived
        suspended in pods and are tapped for their energy. They literally had become batteries for
        the Matrix. 

        Borrowing heavily from Biblical symbolism, a prophecy had foretold that, a Chosen One
        would one day come and bring down the Matrix. An underground faction believed that
        Thomas Anderson, Neo, was The One. However, Thomas Anderson had to make a choice, he
        to decide whether he would accept his commission close his eyes to the truth and allow his
        memory to be erased. Anderson accepted his call and is baptized into a new life. The change
        is dramatic. He awakens from his entombment and suddenly set free. He is reborn. He is
        given a new life and a new destiny. 
        But this does not happen to you and me. When the water was sprinkled on our heads nothing
        changed. We still grew up to be self centered people, who struggle to put others first, who
        want our own way more than we are willing to compromise. Each time the plate is offered
        we take a piece of bread and eat it and drink from a small cup but we still spend more time
        storing up treasures on earth than in heaven. Our lifestyles remain the same. We assume that
        the problem is in the ritual. It appears to have lost its power. We assume that our familiarity
        has caused it to lose its meaning, so we stop saying our prayers that we learned as a child. We
        tell the pastor that we do not want to use those same creeds over and over again, we do not
        want to repeat words and actions that have lost their meaning. We expect more spontaneity,
        variety and freedom in worship. However, in our longing for an authentic spiritual
        experience we have lost sight of the true crux of the matter. The problem is not in the ritual
        but in us. 

        The ministry of John the Baptist is every preacher's dream. He did not have to go in search of
        an audience. He did not have to candidate in a neutral pulpit. He did not have to practice his
        delivery to refine his skills in dictation and elocution. He begins his ministry in a remote
        section of the country and news of his message spread quickly. The crowds flocked to his
        ministry. They had become tired of the lifeless rituals of the Pharisees and their worn out
        regulations. They were thirsting after a renewed relationship with their God. They knew that
        something was wrong with their world. They knew they were living a lie and they wanted a
        change. They longed to know the truth and to be set free from their enslavement so John
        called them to repent and baptized in the waters of the Jordon. They rose from the river,
        changed men and women.  

        The question we must ask ourselves is how can we recapture the power and meaning of that
        ritual in our lives today? How can that ancient rite become a living reality for us? 


        First we must understand that there is nothing magical in the act itself. It is just water being
        poured upon the head, their just human words being said. The water and the words cannot
        create a mystical experience or endow anyone with supernatural powers. In ancient history
        the critics of the faith thought of Christianity as just another version of Greek sorcery with
        Greek sorcery, with rites, spells, and magical formulas, amulets, and artifacts. The early
        believers may have contributed to this by their preparation for baptism and the actual ritual.
        Before the service the priest would perform exorcisms over the candidates and the
        purification rituals could mistakenly be associated with similar magic spells from the culture.
        "The intonation of these rites had a semi-mystical quality and sounded similar to the chants
        used by Roman magicians. In fact, the phrase Hoc est corpus meum ('This is my body') from
        the Latin Rite of the Eucharist, was later adapted by magicians as 'hocus pocus.'"1 

        Later in the worship service we will be using a set of questions and responses based on these
        early rites. There is nothing magical to the words. They merely symbolism a deeper reality.
        Our unison response cannot change a life or create a vision. They are only the verbal
        expression of an inward response. 


        Secondly, we will only discover the real meaning of baptism by submerging ourselves to its
        life-changing realty through the repentance of sin. This repentance is not merely a change of
        heart, a feeling of regret. It is not an emotional feeling-sorry-for-my-sins. Baptismal
        repentance is the complete self-abandonment of an old way of life. A life governed by
        self-autonomy and pride. It is not a heroic act. It is an act of submission and obedience. It is
        submitting to the power of God, in total dependence upon the Creator of the Heavens and

        At the height of the Iranian hostage crises a pastor talked with a woman who told about how
        she had befriended an Iranian student. In the early stages of the revolution, all access to
        money in the banks was cut off. The young man offered to do some odd jobs for the woman.
        His financial condition continued to decline so she invited him to stay in her home. She gave
        him a room and he ate his meals with the family. The woman's neighbors did not approve of
        this arrangement. Unless the young man was willing to denounce the revolution the
        neighbors were not willing to accept him. They kept their distance. Her pastor asked her,
        "How did you come to befriend someone like that?"  She pounded her fist on the desk and
        said, "Because I am a Christian, darn it. You think it is easy?" This is the call of baptismal
        repentance. The ritual is meaningless unless it is seen as complete dying to self and a rebirth
        to a new way of life that is seldom easy. 


        The ancient rite will become a living reality if we understand that it is not an act of magic, it
        requires a life changing response of repentance and we will always need the fellowship of
        other believers to nurture our faith. 

        One Sunday a pastor baptized two people. One was a man in his early 30s, the other one a
        three-month old baby girl. The middle-aged man had recently been converted to the faith.
        The parents of the child had been members of the church for many years. 

        The pastor took the baby from her mother's arms and baptized her. He then said to the child,
        "Mary, we have baptized you and have received you into the church. God loves you and has
        great plans for your life. But you will need the rest of us to tell you the story, and, from time
        to time, to remind you who you are, and to keep you in God's family. We are going to
        specially appoint some of our members to guide you and watch over you as you grow in faith.
        And all of us promise to adopt you as a sister in Christ." He then returned the child to his
        mother's arms and stepped toward the man. 
        The pastor asked the man to kneel at the baptismal font and poured water over his head. The
        pastor then asked the new convert to stand before the church and said to him, "Tom, we have
        baptized you and have received you into the church. God loves you and has great plans for
        your life. But you will need the rest of us to tell you the story, and, from time to time, to
        remind you who you are, and to keep you in God's family. We are going to specially appoint
        some of our members to guide you and watch over you as you grow in faith. And all of us
        promise to adopt you as a brother in Christ."2 

        Whether the water is poured on a child's forehead or the brow of an adult the act and the
        responsibility of both the believer and the community is the same. Baptism is not an
        individual experience. Ministers are not to baptize in children or converts in a private
        ceremony. When the water is placed on your head, you were baptized into the body of Christ
        and untied with other believers. God never intended for your faith to persevere with just one
        stunning spectacular event. Baptism is not an act of magic that was supposed to transform
        you into a super Christian. Our faith is strengthened through constant reminders. Repetitious
        rituals reinforce our beliefs. Our convictions are fortified by our reaffirmation of vows that
        were once made in our behalf. 


        We stand at the beginning of a New Year. It is an appropriate time to remind ourselves once
        again, who we are and who we intend to be. Along time ago someone may have done it for
        you. They may have answered the questions in your behalf. Since then you have been
        watching baby after baby come forward and receive the sacrament. Each time you were asked
        to remember your baptism and reaffirm you faith through the reading of a Creed. Each time
        you participated with perfunctory compliance. You never saw the heavens open, you did not
        hear any voices and each time you walked away pretty much the same. Today you will be
        invited to do it one more time. You will be asked to turn from evil, to renounce the ways of
        the enemy and to turn to Jesus Christ. You will feel the water that was placed on your head;
        water that claimed as a child of God. And then you will take the bread and the cup. My
        prayer for you is that in this three part dance, that you will experience the transforming love
        and grace of God. 

        1.  David Cassidy, "Defending the Cannibals, "Christian History Magazine Issue 57 1998,
        Vol.XVII, No. 1, ChristianityvToday, Inc., p. 12. 
        2. William H. Willimon, "Family-from out of nothing," Pulpit Resource, Vol. 28 No. 1, pp. 3-5

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