Rev. Ken Kovacs preaches to the congregation at Catonsville Presbyterian Church


Claimed, Cleansed, Called

May 26, 2024

Our journey in the Christian life begins with baptism. Our calling, our vocation, our ministry, and our life together all flow from the font of blessing.  We are born out of these waters.  We begin at the font, in the waters of our baptism, where we are claimed, cleansed, and called—again and again.

From the Greek baptizo meaning “to dip” or “to plunge” into water, baptism doesn’t necessarily mean “to wash” or “to take a bath,” although it’s implied. Ellen shared with me earlier this week that Gabriel and Graham said they were looking forward their “bath-ism” today. To the chagrin of many Presbyterians, baptism doesn’t mean to pour or sprinkle a little water over the head of a baby or child (although we will do that shortly). Baptizomai means to dip or plunge under, to be overwhelmed, overcome by water, flooded, swamped, and fully immersed. To plunge down or into the water implies a surging up and out of the water.  Going down into the depths is followed by a coming out of the depths.  Dying and rising.  And it’s the rising up out of the water after having gone down in and through the depths, then surging up to the surface, which signifies the beginning of something new.

As we know, water is elemental.  The human body comprises about 60–75% water, or 50–70% of body weight. The brain is 95% water.  Seventy-one percent of the Earth’s surface is water-covered, and the oceans hold about 96.5 percent of all Earth’s water. Around 350 million years ago, we swam our way out from primordial waters and crawled upon dry ground.  We develop in water. Scripture tells us that water is associated with birth and new birth and renewal, beginnings and new beginning, from the waters of Genesis to the waters of the flood, Israel’s exodus from Egypt through walls of water, from slavery to liberation. Jesus’ gestation in the water of Mary’s womb. And it was at the River Jordan—in the river itself—that Jesus claimed his identity as a beloved child of God, received his calling, discovered his vocation, and realized the purpose of his life.

Today, we often think of baptism as the first step in becoming a Christian or the ritual of entry into the church.  Both associations are true today, but they don’t make any sense when applied to Jesus, who wasn’t baptized a Christian and never joined a church. Jesus plunged into the depths, into the chaos of the waters, into the turbulent tides of the river, and emerged, free from its control, released from that which overwhelmed him.  And then he came up out of the water.  He rose out of the water into a new life, conscious of a new identity born in the depths, born under water; he came up from under the water, I like to think, gasping for air, as we enter into the world gasping for air.  He stepped out of the water with a new sense of God’s purpose for his life, empowered by the Spirit. “You are my beloved, in whom I take great delight” (Mt. 3:17).

From the beginning of the Christian experience, we know that to be baptized meant not necessarily to be baptized into the church, but baptized into Christ.  The Apostle Paul tells us we are baptized into Christ. “As many of you were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ” (Gal. 3:27).  We are baptized into Christ’s dying and rising, which means we, too, have been clothed with Christ through our baptism, which means that we belong to Christ, which means that, like Christ, we belong to God—every single one of us.  We are children of God. The Spirit of God’s Son is alive in our hearts, and so we cry, “Abba!” (Gal. 4:6).

To be baptized means that we are claimed as a child of God, and cleansed, and made new. To be claimed inevitably means that we are called. To be baptized is to be called. If you are baptized you are called—and there’s no getting out of it. If you are baptized, then you are called. Called to love. Called to serve. Called to forgive. Called to embody grace.  Called to strive after all that is good, and all that God considers good. Called to make this good happen in this world.

There’s something so elemental about baptism that it drives us “right back to the beginning,” as Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) once said. The German Luther pastor-theologian wrote these words about baptism from a Nazi prison cell in Berlin in May 1944. He was reflecting on the upcoming baptism of his namesake, Dietrich Wilhelm Rüdiger Bethge, the son of Eberhard Bethge (1909-2000), one of Bonhoeffer’s closest and dearest friends.  I remember I had the privilege of listening to Bethge when I was a seminarian. I’ll never forget that.“We are once again,” Bonhoeffer said, “being driven right back to the beginning,”[1] driven by the cataclysm of the war, which forced the German Church (both Protestant and Catholic) into a confessional crisis. Who is truly the head of the Church, is it Christ or someone else who wishes to the worshipped? This coming week we mark and celebrate the 90th anniversary of the Declaration of Barmen, written by Karl Barth (1886-1965) and signed by members of the Confessing Church, denouncing National Socialism. This statement is part of the Confessions of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). It was that crisis that occasion Bonhoeffer to write.  In letters and scraps of paper smuggled out of Tegel prison in Berlin, compiled by Bethge and later published—which I encourage you to read, Letters and Papers from Prison—we find Bonhoeffer wrestling with profound existential questions:

Who is Christ for me? Not for my neighbors, not for my parents, not for my family, not for my friends, not for my pastors or church school teachers—who is Christ for me?
What does it mean to bear the name Christian?
What does it mean for me to say, “I am Christian”?
What does it mean to be his disciple in this age?
What is the Church?
What is the Church really for? What are we being called for and toward?
What is the future of the church?
What will it look like, five, ten, fifteen, twenty-five, fifty years from now?
What is my role, what is our role, in shaping that church so that the church is ready when that future comes?

It was the occasion of a baptism that drove Bonhoeffer back to the beginning of his understanding—because that’s what baptism does.  Whether we share in it or witness a baptism or remember our own, baptism drives us back to the beginning and send us back to the waters, and plunges us down into the depths, so that we can rise—again and again and again—with answers to these questions, answers that are needed if we are to be God’s people in the world.  It all begins at the font.

Today, we are driven by the cataclysm of wars and a world of violence, embroiled in cultural wars and political wars, emerging from a global pandemic, which was cataclysmic, the climate is convulsing all around us, and people are struggling and searching for meaning and connection, searching for a place to belong. These are challenging times, and the news is exhausting. But these time are also inviting us to wake up, and calling they’re us for deeper self-reflection. What do we value most? What grants life meaning and purpose? What do I want to give my life to? To whom will I entrust the deepest core of myself and my being? To what, to whom will I entrust my heart? Who are the people I wish to travel with and live with as we wrestle with these questions together? Where is that community? Where do I belong?

The waters of baptism ask us, again and again: Who is Christ to you?  What does it mean for you to be his disciple? As Bonhoeffer knew, our baptism into Christ leads us to consider anew—or maybe experience for the first time— the heart of the Christian life, which is, as Bonhoeffer said, “reconciliation and redemption, regeneration and the Holy Spirit, love of our enemies, cross and resurrection, life in Christ and Christian discipleship.”[2] It’s a life shaped by love that “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Cor. 13:7). The entire scope and reach and height, and depth of the Christian life find their origins in the waters of our baptism.  And in these waters—and every time we plunge into them or even if we’re just sprinkled a little—we get to affirm (and reaffirm) who we are and, more importantly, whose we are.

And, when we rise from their depths, like Jesus, we will discover (or rediscover) what we’re called to be and become, by God’s grace, we hear what is being asked of us. What do the waters say to us?


[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Thoughts on the Baptism of Dietrich Wilhelm Rüdiger Bethge, Letters and Papers from Prison (Touchstone, 1997), 299.

[2] The quotation continues, “—all these are so difficult and so remote that we hardly venture any more to speak of them.” For more on Bonhoeffer, see Charles Marsh, Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014).