Monday, January 11, 2016

Claimed and Called (Baptism of the Lord Sunday)

Churches that follow the traditional "liturgical" church calendar usually celebrate the baptism of Jesus on the second Sunday of the year. At Main Street, our traditional services remain strong and vital, so we tend to observe these special Sundays. Having come to Main Street from a less traditional setting, I've enjoyed exploring the meaning of these special days. 

This year for Baptism of the Lord, I felt the need to explain how we United Methodists understand baptism. I realize that many of my closest brothers and sisters in Christ will not agree with this. That's OK. What matters is that we agree on this: "Jesus is Lord." I offer this sermon, not to throw rocks at other people's views (which I respect and admire), but simply to explain who WE are. 

Matthew 3: 13-17

Everybody say this: It’s more about God than it is about me.

Right after I graduated from high school, I went on a youth beach retreat. And during that retreat, I made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ. I accepted Christ as my Lord and Savior. 

(And by the way, let me say: If you have not done that yourself, you need to do that.)

So I went off to college full of passion and faith. I was excited, I was pumped – I thought, “Man, I have found Jesus. Now, God is at work in my life.”

Well, I got involved in a Christian group on campus, and some of the leaders told me that since I’d made a new commitment, I needed to be baptized. I said, “Oh, I was baptized as a baby.” And they said, “That’s not baptism. You need to be immersed as a believer.” And I said, “OK,” and in January of 1981, I was “baptized” in the swimming pool of Woolen Gym on the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill.

And for the next 12 or 13 years, I was confused about baptism. Is it babies, is it believers? Is it pouring, is it immersion? WHO do we baptize, and WHY do we baptize, and WHAT does baptism really mean?

That confusion lasted through my time at Duke Divinity School. I wrote a paper about it. The paper was entitled, “A Confusing Legacy: John Wesley’s Theology of Baptism.”

And then I graduated and I became a pastor, and I was still confused about baptism. And then my son was born.  And I was still confused about baptism! So, despite the pleas of my parents, I did not have him baptized.

But then – I went on the Walk to Emmaus, which is the Methodist version of Presbyterian Pilgrimage. It’s a 3-day spiritual retreat. And if you’ve done this retreat, you know that it’s all about grace. During that retreat, I experienced God’s grace like never before, and for the first time, I understood God’s grace like never before.

And here’s what I learned about grace: It’s more about God than it is about me. I thought that God entered my life when I accepted Christ at age 17. I thought that when I went on that youth beach retreat, I found Jesus. But what I learned is that Jesus is not the one who was lost. What I realized on the Walk to Emmaus is that from the moment I was born, God was coming after me, calling me, wooing me, hunting me down to offer me a relationship.

The technical term for that is Prevenient Grace, from the Latin pre, which means before, and venir, which means to come.  So Prevenient Grace is the grace that “comes before” salvation. Before I said yes to God, God had already said yes to me. Before I started looking for God, God has already been looking for me.

In other words: It’s more about God than it is about me.

Well, by the time my daughter came along, I finally understood. Yes, personal faith is crucial. You have to accept Jesus for yourself. Ephesians 2:8 says, “You are saved by grace through faith.” But we don’t baptize babies as a sign of their faith. In fact, we don’t baptize anybody as a sign of their faith. We baptize people as a sign of God’s grace.

It’s more about God than it is about us.

So, I decided that on January 24, 1993, I would baptize my two children. My daughter Mary was still a baby, but my son David was now three years old. And he was a pretty smart kid, very verbal, so before the baptism, I sat down with him and talked about it. I said, “David, Mom and I are thinking about having you baptized. Do you want to be baptized?” And he said, “Oh yes.” And I said, “Now being baptized means you’re going to follow Jesus. Do you want to follow Jesus?” “Oh yes.” And I said, “Being baptized means that mom and I are going to promise to take you to church. Do you want to always go to church?” “Yes.” And I said, “And being baptized means we’re going to raise you in a Christian home. Do you want to grow up in a Christian home?” And he said, “No, I want to live here with you.”
(That really happened. I promise it’s not a joke.)

Today is Baptism of the Lord Sunday. This is the day that churches all around the world celebrate and remember the baptism of Jesus. And now here’s something else to be confused about. In fact, John the Baptist himself was confused about this. Why would Jesus present himself for baptism? Baptism is about washing your sins away—but Jesus had no sin! John the Baptist had said, “I baptize with water for repentance”—but Jesus didn’t need to repent!

So why was Jesus baptized?

This is an important question, because it will help you understand your own baptism. Especially if you were baptized as an infant, and you have friends telling you, “That’s not baptism.”

When Jesus was baptized, two things happened that I believe happen in every baptism. Whether it’s an infant brought by her parents, or an adult who chose it, or a teenager who just did it because all the other kids were doing it—in all of those baptisms two things happened; two things that happened in the baptism of Jesus.

Number one: You were claimed. And number two: You were called.

First: You are claimed. When Jesus was baptized, a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Jesus was identified. He was claimed by God. And in the same way, when you were baptized, God was there. And whether you were an adult who chose it, or a baby who didn’t, God said, “This is my precious child, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” You were identified as a child of God. God claimed you.

You say, “But I didn’t know what was going on!” That’s OK. Why? Because it’s more about God than it is about you. If you’ve been baptized, God has claimed you. And so now the question is, Will you claim God?

A lot of you know that my dad’s a pastor. Rev. Jack Kayler—that’s my dad. And he’s not able to get out much anymore, but I used to love to have him come to my church and preach for me, (while I was there). And sometimes when he didn’t have services, I’d have him come help me on Christmas Eve. And on those occasions, I would just grin from ear to ear, because I was so proud to be Jack’s son. In fact, that’s my middle name: Jack’s Son. Jackson. Really and truly—my full legal name is Claude Jackson Kayler.

But there was a time when I rejected my identity as Jack’s son. I rebelled against my upbringing. I didn’t want to be known as the son of a preacher man, so I tried to like a son of the devil. Obviously I’ve changed since then, and I’ve accepted my identity as Jack’s son, and now I’m pretty excited about being a “child of Jack.”

The question for you is, are you excited about being a child of God?

If you’ve been baptized, you’ve been claimed. You’ve been identified as a child of God. If you were baptized as an infant, you don’t need to be re-baptized, you just need to accept that identity for yourself.

God has claimed you; now you need to claim God.

So first of all, you’re claimed. And then second, you are called. A lot of theologians see Jesus’ baptism as the beginning of his ministry. Why? Because when was baptized, the Holy Spirit came upon him. And just a short time after that, he said this:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
        to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
    and recovery of sight to the blind,
        to let the oppressed go free,
 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

When Jesus was baptized, he was called. When you were baptized, you were called. You say, “But I don’t want that! I didn’t choose that! I didn’t ask for that!” But remember: It’s more about God than it is about you. The call is there whether you answer it or not. Jesus says, You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit…”

Now: You can reject the call if you want to. God has given you free will. You can reject the call, but I don’t recommend that as a course of action. Go read the book of Jonah, and read about a guy who ran from God, and became fish food. Or go read Exodus, where God calls Moses through a burning bush and Moses makes a bunch of excuses—“I don’t speak well,” and “I’m not a good leader”— and finally it says, “The Lord’s anger burned against Moses.”

You can reject your call if you want to, but I don’t recommend it.

Listen, I’m not saying you’re called to be a pastor like me and Rick and Amy. Your call might be to teach Sunday School, or to cook meals, or to help the homeless, or to volunteer at a school, or to work with youth, or to lead the Boy Scouts, or to sing in the choir. There are all kinds of calls, but if you’re baptized, you’ve got one. Reject it if you want to. But I don’t recommend it.

So, you say, “How am I supposed to know what God is calling me to do? How do I find my call?” A theologian named Frederick Beuchner said, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” I like to say it like this. Take your two hands. With one hand, get a grip on how God has made you. What are your gifts, your talents, your abilities, your passions? And then with the other hand, get a grip on the world around you. What do you see going on? What are the needs out there? What problems in the world keep you awake at night? And then bring your two hands together in prayer and your call will emerge.

When you were baptized, God claimed you—and now you get to spend the rest of your life growing into that identity. And when you were baptized, God called you—and now you get to spend the rest of your life answering that call.

By the way—something I understand now: When those guys dunked me in the swimming pool in Chapel Hill, that was not my real baptism. My real baptism happened on December 1, 1962, in Mills River, North Carolina, when I was six weeks old. My father took me in his arms and said, “Claude Jackson Kayler, I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” And what happened that day absolutely changed the course of my life. And the fact that I had no idea what was going on does not matter. Because why? Say it with me: It’s more about God than it is about me.

[Service of baptismal reaffirmation]


  1. While I enjoyed your sermon very much, I tend to look to the scriptures for precedent. As I told the youth in Sunday School, there are several opinions about baptism and I want for them to read their Bibles and find out what they believe. MOst times in the Bible, people believed and were baptized as an outward sign of an inward change or washing.

  2. Hey, there--sorry I took so long to post your comment and respond -- I haven't thought about my blog since Monday.

    You are absolutely correct that most baptisms in the Bible are believer's baptisms. And also, as I said in the intro to this blog, I have no problem with Christians having different understandings of baptism. I probably should have emphasized that point a little more strongly in the sermon. I'm not a Methodist pastor who "pushes" infant baptism. When parents talk to me about whether they should have their babies baptized, and they say that maybe they'd rather wait and let the child choose for himself, I always say I'm OK with that.

    Like you and I both said, most baptisms in the Bible are believer's baptisms, but there are "household" baptisms in Acts 10, Acts 16, and 1 Corinthians 1, which may have included children. Further, it was very early in church history that Christians began to baptize their children as the sign of the New Covenant that corresponded to circumcision, which was the sign of the Old Covenant.

    My main concern on Sunday was not to denigrate believer's baptism, but to do two things: 1-Tell MY OWN STORY of how I've struggled with baptism; and, 2- reassure those who were baptized as infants--OR WHO WERE BAPTIZED AS TEENS OR ADULTS, BUT THINK THEY WEREN'T READY that they do not need to be baptized again. (Did you get that last point? I have in fact run across people who say, "I was baptized by my own choice but I didn't know what I was doing then, so I want you to baptize me again.")

    One last thing: The main point of the sermon -- "It's more about God than it is about me" -- is one I stand by. I hope that even those who insist on believer's baptism will agree with me on that. Even when a believer goes under the water by his or her choice--the emphasis is on what God is doing, and will do, in the person's life.

    Here's a pretty good explanation of the UM view of Baptism. Again--not saying everybody has to buy into this. It's just who WE are:

  3. Thank you for a good answer. You must have some Baptist in your background but I put much more stock in believers baptism. To me, baptism is an outward sign of an inward change and is a matter of obedience to God but I accept that there are other baptisms. I think about maybe Peter asking what certain believers were baptized into and they said Johns baptism and he went ahead and baptized them into believers baptism. The new birth is the important thing and the baptism is secondary. I think Methodists get that backwards sometimes!

  4. YES! The New Birth is the important thing. John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement, said exactly that:

    "This, then, is the foundation of the new birth, -- the entire corruption of our nature. Hence it is, that, being born in sin, we must be "born again." Hence every one that is born of a woman must be born of the Spirit of God."