Several years ago, while living in another house, I decided it would be nice to install ceramic tiles in the backsplash area of the kitchen sink. I prepared the walls, developed the pattern,cut the tiles and arranged them and attached them to the walls. The last major step was applying the grout in the spaces between the tiles.
I purchased a 25 lb. bag of grout, not knowing how much I would need. The directions, as well as a do-it-yourself website, instructed me to prepared all the grout at one time. I diligently added the powder to the right amount of water. I mixed the two by hand for the required amount of time. I let it rest correctly and then put it all in a bucket with a lid, thinking whatever extra I had, or if I needed to take a break, I could simply put the lid on the bucket and keep the grout moist so it would not dry.
I learned shortly afterward that grout does not dry, it hardens. As I worked, as I followed the directions the grout was slowly hardening. When I took a break, I put the lid on only to return to it a few hours later to find not 25 pounds of grout, but a 25-pound solid rock helplessly stuck inside a bucket.
I learned that grout does not dry, it hardens. When you are not looking, in ways I cannot explain, it turns into a boulder.
This reminded me of Baptism. I can almost hear each of you say, “What?” Yes, it occurred to me that my 25 lb grout boulder was a lot like Baptism.
Let me explain. In Baptism, we take ordinary water, we say a few prayers and we use ordinary water to baptize a person. It would seem as if we are simply pouring water upon a person. But there is much more happening than we can imagine.
There are those who would describe Baptism as a rite of passage, as a way of joining the Body of Christ. Others would say the Baptism brings us the gift of eternal life. Still others would tell you that Baptism is our spiritual adoption as children of God. Or some would explain Baptism as a sort of branding, that we are marked as Christ’s own forever. Of course, there is always the classic explanation that Baptism is a washing of our sins. There is also the teaching that in Baptism we are buried with Christ, and we are raised to new life.
Which one of these six explanations of Baptism is correct? Which one describes what takes places in Baptism? Each of them, because in Baptism there is more happening than we can imagine.
That should not surprise us. That is generally the way God works. That is the nature of sacraments. Sacraments are when God uses ordinary items to accomplish extraordinary things. Sacraments are when the natural and the supernatural meet.
Baptism is one of the core sacraments of the Church. It has been since the days of Jesus, and even before. It apparently was so central to the mind of Christ and the community of the Early Church that in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke we are told that Jesus himself was baptized.
This has led many theologians to wonder just why this would be. If Jesus were the Son of God why would he need to join the Body of Christ, or be given eternal life, or adopted as a child of God? If he was who we confess him to be, then why would he need to be marked as Christ’s own forever, or buried and raised sacramentally, or have his sins washed away? Why was Jesus baptized?
There are various ways to answer this. But there is one in particular that I want to highlight. Today we celebrate the feast of the Baptism of Christ. The first Sunday after the Epiphany, January 6, is marked as the Baptism of Christ. It serves as a sort of bridge between the season of Christmas and the rest of the Church year. It is a fitting bridge because it is the culmination of the Incarnation.
Incarnation means literally “to becomes flesh.” It is the idea that Jesus was the Word made flesh. He was God in human form. This was God’s way of taking on our humanity so that it could be redeemed. God became one of us, to live, die and rise again, so that we each could live, die and rise again. The first step of that was being made man from the flesh of the Virgin Mary. The culmination of that was being baptized.
In his birth, Jesus trod the same path each of us has. He arrived just as each of us has arrived. In his Baptism, Jesus also trod the same path as each of us. He arrived before God just as each of us has arrived. Jesus did not need to be baptized any more than he needed to be born. He chose to be baptized just as he chose to be born. He made that decision for the same reasons.
Jesus took upon him our flesh, our lives, our estrangement and our longings from God. He sought his return to God so that we could be returned to God. It was not that Jesus tried to be like one of us. He was one of us. He breathed our air, walked this earth, shared our joys, suffered our pains, embraced our deaths. He was even baptized as one of us.
Baptism is not easily explained. Its meaning becomes most clear as we seek to live into the grace God offers us, rather than trying to explain it. The grace of Baptism is not something we can capture or that we experience in a single moment. The power of being given eternal life, of being adopted as God’s children, of being marked as Christ’s own forever, of having our sins washed away, of being buried with Christ and being raised to new life in him, cannot be taught. It can only be discovered.
I have no idea how that grout turned into a boulder. I suspect it had something to do with chemistry and can be explained rather readily. But instead, I prefer to look at it as a metaphor for God's deep and mysterious grace. Things happen and I don't always understand them. God happens and I also don't always understand him. But such is grace.
Years ago I stood in my kitchen with a boulder in a bucket. I learned a good lesson that day about grout. But I discovered more about the grace of God.