Grace and Peace from Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,
“I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and Fire”- Matthew 3:11.
These words from our Gospel lesson for today which reflects upon the ministry of John the Baptist, how John the Baptist preached in the wilderness encouraging people to be baptized for the forgiveness of their sins. Our Gospel shows how John’s Baptism in being similar set the stage for our own Baptisms. But what exactly do John’s words mean “I have baptized you with water, but he who is to come will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
To reflect upon these words’ meaning, I want to reflect upon the wisdom of one of America’s greatest religious thinkers in Archie Bunker.
For those of you who don’t know Archie Bunker. Archie was the lead character on a very popular TV show “All in the Family” in the 1970’s. Archie Bunker was anything, but polished or politically correct in his thoughts. Some might call him TV’s most lovable bigot as most of the show’s humor revolved around Archie making derogatory comments to those who were of different races, nationalities, sexualities, or held different political views from his own. Archie was the definition of a hothead, who would just say whatever thought popped into his head without regard for the consequences.
When it came to Religion, Archie Bunker was complicated. Archie would frequently assert during the course of the show, how important his Christianity was to him. Yet Archie rarely went to church and when he would go he’d storm off because he wouldn’t like the Minister’s Sermon.
When Archie does finally commit to start attending church, he does everything he can to get out of it, when it starts to conflict with his wishes to attend a Football game. So, why do we reflect on the wisdom of Archie Bunker this morning?
Because in 1976, there was an episode of “All in the Family” that dealt with the Christian understanding of Baptism like no American TV show before or since.
In this episode, Archie gets into a huge argument with his Daughter Gloria and Son-In-Law Michael or Meathead over whether they should have their Baby (Archie's Grandson) Joey baptized. Archie's Son-In-Law Meathead didn't want Joey baptized, “Because Meathead considered himself to be an Atheist”.
When Archie tried reasoning with Meathead, he reminded him that Meathead had been baptized. At which point an angry Meathead cried out “How he renounces his publically renounces his Baptism and it means nothing to him”.
At which point, Archie points out with his normal sense of tactfulness, how this is the stupidest thing he had ever heard. This would be the same thing as Meathead renouncing his belly button, it's impossible to do; just because you say renounce your Baptism doesn't make it so.
This scene brings up all sorts of questions that people have about Baptism. Meathead thinks of Baptism like most people do (Atheists and Christians) alike. It's just a ceremony were water is poured over the head. Sort of a family rite of passage with religious meaning for Michael and many others, Baptism doesn't actually do anything.
For example, when I worked down in Lamberton, I was at the Funeral Home for a Visitation when a guy comes up to me because he heard that I was a Minister. This guy wanted to quiz me or interrogate me.
This guy asks me, “If I actually believe Baptism saves anyone?”
This guy proceeds to tell me it’s more important that someone asks “Jesus into their Heart” as a true measure of their salvation.
Before giving me a chance to respond, perhaps because this guy knew he wasn’t going to like what I had to say.
He then starts quoting from the 3rd Chapter of John of how one needs to be “born-again” of BOTH Water and the Spirit so Baptism isn't enough. How we can't trust in our Baptism to save us.
At this time I pointed out how we I agreed with him that if everyone who is saved must be born-again.
Yet where we differed is when I pointed out how we participate about as much in our Rebirth and as we do in our Natural Birth. Where we disagreed on what it means to be “born-again”. Where as he associated being born-again with a dramatic life-transformation where you overcome your doubt and sin, instead being born-again is the very act of God to create faith and eternal life in the midst of sin and death in the waters of Baptism.
We are not born-again because we are effective Christians; we are born-again when we're rescued from drowning in sin by work of God's own Spirit.
Water by itself means nothing. Yet when water is connected to the promises of the Word of God then new life can come into being.
For the main issue involved in studying Baptism comes down to one fundamental question. This doesn't matter if Lutherans and Baptists are debating whether to Baptize Infants or Meathead is claiming to renounce his Baptism, “Is Baptism the work of God or the work of Man?”
If Baptism is the work of God then it's proper to associate Baptism with salvation. If Baptism is the work of God then one's age or intellectual ability is meaningless. If Baptism is the work of God then the Mark of the Cross upon our forehead given in Baptism is as difficult to take away for who you are as a permanent scare across your own leg. Whereas if Baptism is the work of Man then your Baptism can be declared worthless if you claim to lose your faith like in the case of Meathead.
But what do the scriptures say on these issues.
Titus 3:5-7 states “he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, 6whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.”
This passage clearly associates the act of Baptism with the work of the Holy Spirit to do wonderful, magical acts in Baptism of renewal and regeneration.
I Peter 3:21 states this truth more explicitly when it states “Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”
One of the most common misunderstandings I here about Baptism is in relation to Confirmation. When people seem to believe that “Confirmation makes Baptism valid” or “Confirmation completes Baptism,” while Confirmation is useful for religious instruction, the celebration of it is little more than a family ceremony or rite of passage.
This is in direct contrast to Baptism where
To quote my good friend Dr. Joe Burgess
“In infant baptism the Word of promise (Our Gospel) produces faith, and such faith is obviously not a decision. Nor is such but a fragment of faith, a kick start, as it were, for the infant receives the Holy Spirit, who cannot be divided into parts and is not merely potentially present. Just as the infant does not potentially receive forgiveness and eternal life, but actually and fully.”
Yet people get nervous if you associate Baptism too closely with Salvation. They say what about professing Atheists like Michael from “All in the Family” who refuses to get even his own kid Baptized? They say what about people who show up for Baptism then you never see them again? What about the nominal Christians like Archie Bunker of the world?
I think part of the problem with all this is we love to hear Grace for ourselves and judgment cast upon everyone else. We're continually wanting to associate God's salvation with our worthiness in some way, shape, or form. Yet the only hope any of us for the gift of eternal life whether we're active Church members or never in attendance is the Grace of God to save whom he wants to save.
God does not save any individual unfairly, God saves every individual he chooses unfairly. If God chooses to save more people through Baptism then we think he should, this is God's business not our own.
So, what do we say about Atheists who have been Baptized years ago like Michael?
It's important to point out that people's faith is often complex.
When people claim to be Atheists they may have been jaded by the church or people in it somewhere along the line. These people then consider themselves to be Atheists. When it's just anger they hold at other people.
Sometimes people claim to be Atheists when they're just plain angry at God. A famous example of this type of Atheist would be Larry Flynt who's the Publisher of Hustler Magazine had a very public conversion to Christianity in the 1970's only to become a very public Atheist after he was shot and permanently paralyzed. Flynt then began cursing God at every turn.
Some teenagers might claim to be Atheists just because they're looking for attention. And it's sometimes tough to differentiate between a person's reality and person's pose.
So, in cases of Atheists like Michael or Meathead, we would never say one's Baptism didn't work since faith was there at some point in time. God did not fail these people. Rather they fell away from the Christian faith due to their own sin, pride, and anger.
As far as a Baptized Atheists' final eternal destination I prefer not to attempt to answer this question. The scriptures clearly state in several places that those “Who do not believe, shall not be saved?”
Yet at the same time-plenty of people have been saved in spite of imperfect beliefs. None of us can ever believe rightly on the basis of our own sin.
So, we always want to stress caution when considering one's final destination, instead we just proclaim the promises of Baptism which are the promises of our Gospel. We might not see magical transformations right away. Yet the power of the Holy Spirit is such that he can breakdown the seemingly most impenetrable of walls. And reach people with the hope that God has claimed them as his own.
Back to the conclusion of this “All in the Family” Episode. Archie comes up with some scheme to get Baby Joey out of the house with him. Once Archie realizes the Minister is going to be of no help with his dilemma. Archie takes the radical next step of sneaking the Baby into the Church himself and bringing his Grandson to the Baptismal Font. Archie then dips his hand in the water and places it over his Grandson Joey's head at he mouths the words “I baptize thee in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit”.
Archie Bunker may have seemed or appeared to be one of the worst people possible to shed light into how Christians understand Baptism. But in reality, he was one of the best. Because Archie wouldn't have thought Baptism was important, if he didn't understand the darkness in his own soul. Archie wouldn't have thought, Baptism was important, if he didn't realize his own powerlessness to change himself. Archie wouldn't have thought, Baptism was important, if he didn't realize how we all fall short of the glory of God. How spiritually dead we all are inside yet within the waters of Baptism, a miracle takes place which washes away our sins and gives us new life.
Why this happens? This makes no sense, other than the love of God who gave his life to save our own and will stop at nothing to bring us into his presence by the power of his Holy Spirit in Water.
For as our Gospel lesson states just as John baptized with Water, the one that came after him in God's own Son, Jesus Christ our Lord has baptized us through water with the Holy Spirit. Amen
 Mark 1:8
 John 3:18, John 3:36
 Romans 3:23