As I was preparing to preach on the Feast of the Baptism, I was also listening on my computer to professional bull riding. I commented on that on Facebook, and one of my friends wrote, “Could be an interesting sermon.” This or something like it was my sermon for the Feast of the Baptism, Year B.
My Best Beloved and I have been fans of bull riding for some time. It began some time ago, when she was studying veterinary technology. Just as she was working through her large animal rotation I discovered bull riding on television. We started liking the bulls – magnificent animals! And then I began watching the riders themselves. I’ve spent a career in hospital work. I’ve seen folks in the ER with all kinds of traumatic injuries. So, watching bull riders take falls and blows from bulls that ought to put them into intensive care; and then to see them get up and walk out of the arena, was just astounding.
One thing you see quickly when you watch bull riding (and let me be clear: I am not nor have I ever been a cowboy. I am a fan, but watching is all I’ve ever done) is that the bull rider is fully committed. He gives it everything trying to complete those eight seconds (and, yes, there are women bull riders, but they don’t get on television). They put their bodies, and literally their lives on the line. They are, as they say, all in.
Which brings me back to baptism. We believe that we are baptized, as we say, into the baptism of Christ – baptized into his death and resurrection. Our understanding is that, once baptized, we are all called to be fully committed, and to put it all on the line.
That is, of course, the model we have in Jesus. He was baptized by John, embracing a baptism for repentance, embracing in that sense all sin, including ours. He saw the heavens ripped apart, he saw the dove, and he heard voice of God: “You are my son. I’m happy about this.” From there, as we recall, he went on until he put his life on the line for us. From his baptism, Jesus was certainly all in.
And so we are also called to be fully committed, and to model our whole lives on Christ. That’s what we say at every baptism. Indeed, that’s why we baptize our children, so that they can grow into Christ from the very beginning. We, too, are called to be all in.
Now, one thing that bull riders say over and over is that bull riding is really a mental game. It doesn’t look that way. It looks like it’s a serious physical challenge. The fact is, though, that all those guys are strong and agile and fit. All of them have bodies that put most of ours to shame; and yet some ride, and ride for years, when others do not. All of them fall off of bulls – most of the time short of their eight seconds – and yet they get up again and again and again. That’s about mental determination, about heart.
Which is also part of what baptism is about. We believe that in baptism we receive the Holy Spirit and are strengthened for our lives in Christ. When Jesus was baptized, there was the Spirit, seen as a dove. When Paul reached Ephesus, he found a congregation that had heard of Christ. They had even been baptized, but only to repent of their sins. He baptized them himself, and laid his hands on them, and they did receive the Spirit; and immediately they found themselves empowered in ways they hadn’t imagined before.
So it is as we are baptized into Christ. We also receive the Spirit, there to empower and guide us in our lives in Christ. That’s especially important when we fall short. And we certainly will fall short. We will have our own times when we lose our grips and are thrown off. We will fail to meet the standards we set. None of us has the discipline, the strength – either physical or mental – to always live up to our model in Christ. When we fall, the strength to get up again comes from the Spirit. The voice that calls us and says, “yes it hurts. Yes, it’s hard; but you can get up and you can start again,” is the voice of Christ’s Spirit pleading with our spirits. And without that Spirit, we would surely be lost.
And so there are indeed parallels between bull riding and baptism. From our baptism, we are called, as Jesus was, to be fully committed, to be all in. From the time we come through the water, just as when Jesus came up from the water, our world is torn open and God says to us, “You are my child, and I’m happy about this.” We are empowered by his Spirit to model our lives on Christ. And when we fall short, it is Christ’s Spirit that gives us the strength and courage to pick ourselves up out of the dirt and try again. We have been baptized with the baptism of Christ. We have been baptized into his death and resurrection. We have been called and empowered to model our lives on Christ; and like our model, we have been called to be all in.