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Most of the key civilizations in human history formed around rivers. The Middle Eastern nations formed between the Tigris and Euphrates – two rivers that supplied the Garden of Eden. The ancient and modern Egyptian culture is centered on the Nile River. The city of London is formed around the Thames. Midwestern civilization in our own country formed along the banks of the mighty Mississippi.

Living waters, rivers, are critical to forming a people. The river supplies many needs: it gives life, it nourishes the land, it is needed for cleansing and health, and it connects people all along the river.

The people of God are a civilization of sorts who gather around a river. There is a common river, an artery of life, which flows through our community. Did you notice it in the songs we have been singing? These are songs we often sing around baptisms, yes? Did you notice our common river flowing through the stories of the men we have recognized this morning as possible shepherds? It stretches from Encardio, California, all the way out to Carrolton, Kentucky. Along the way it winds through Fayetteville and Judsonia, Arkansas. Here are four men with different stories and from different places but united with each other and all of us through a common river – the waters of baptism.

There were all sorts of people gathered around the banks of the River Jordan that special day long ago. Sinful people were there trying to find hope and forgiveness. The poor were there because they heard that God was doing something wonderful. Tax collectors and soldiers who made their living by extorting others had gathered there – perhaps to find a way out of the life that made them victims as much as the people they victimized. Wealthy and respected religious leaders had gathered after hearing the news about a prophet claiming to announce the arrival of the kingdom of God. Of course there were probably ordinary people there just going about their business scrubbing out pots and jars and doing the laundry. Then Jesus came and submitted himself to baptism. The lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world submitted himself to the washing away of sins – and yet he was without sin. Even the baptizer, John, protested and declared that he needed to be baptized by Jesus. But Jesus insisted. Why?

Jesus knew that God’s work to save all humanity was culminating in that river. He knew that God was working in him so that all people everywhere and in all ages might gather at the river of baptism and be baptized into Christ. But how could any of us unite with Christ in baptism if he himself didn’t gather at the river with us?

When Christ is lifted out of the water, heaven breaks open. The voice of God affirms that Jesus is his son. The spirit of God descends upon Jesus. The unity of Father, Son, and Spirit is visible to all the earth at the baptism of Christ. There’s the source of the mighty river that forms our church civilization. The ancients said that when one is baptized, Christ meets them in the water. Perhaps they were building on an idea that Paul expressed in Romans 6:5 - If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection.

We believe that those who are baptized are baptized into Christ. We participate in his death, burial, and resurrection. We believe that sins are washed away and the rule of death and sin in our lives is broken. We believe that Christ gives his spirit and a new humanity is formed in the believer.

We do not believe that those who are baptized are baptized into the church, but we believe that God adds them to his church. It makes sense because if we are all united with Christ in baptism then we are also united with one another, right? “One Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” (Ephesians 4:5-6)

Consider what this means for us. Some of us are very much alike. We have a lot in common. We share cultural values, we know the same people, we have the same interests, we have similar experiences and we have the same needs. Some of us are very different. We come from very different backgrounds. We have different opinions. We have been through experiences that we may not even understand. But all of this similarity and difference is submerged and engulfed in the great river that flows over us and makes us one – the Baptism of Jesus Christ.

Our Lord graciously allows us to extend the invitation to all to gather at this river of life. We believe that those who are baptized into Christ are his disciples. This claim is exclusive insofar as we believe this is the way to be united with Christ. But it isn’t exclusive in the sense that we forbid any from being immersed into the baptism of Jesus. All are invited to gather at the river.

The river of baptism is branch of the river of life that flows from the throne of God. As we follow the flow of our baptismal river, we will one day find ourselves on the shores of the river of life.
Shall we gather at the river? Yes, let’s gather with all who’ve come to be cleansed of their sins
Shall we gather at the river? Yes, let’s gather with those who’ve heard what God is doing
Shall we gather at the river? Yes, let’s gather with all who are anxious for justice and hope
Shall we gather at the river? Yes, let’s gather with all who are burden by the oppression of false gods and corrupt rulers.
Shall we gather at the river? Yes, let’s gather with all who are changing their ways and have come to share what they have with those who have nothing.
Shall we gather at the river? Yes, let’s gather with all the other saints who have met followed Christ into the river and found peace by the throne of God.
Shall we gather at the river? Yes, let’s gather with Christ.

Chris Benjamin

West-Ark Church of Christ, Fort Smith, AR
Morning Sermon, 18 February 2007

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