Sunday, January 11, 2009

Baptism: The Real Beginning

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
January 11, 2009

Year B: The Baptism of Our Lord
Genesis 1:1-5
Psalm 29
Mark 1:4-11

Baptism: The Real Beginning

Today is the day we remember the baptism of our Lord. But, if you stop and think about it, isn’t it kind of strange that Jesus, our Lord, the Messiah, the Son of God, was baptized? I mean, if ever there was a person who didn’t need to be baptized it would be Jesus, wouldn’t it?

Yet, although it seems a little strange, Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell the story of Jesus’ baptism in their gospels. The evangelist John, writing the fourth gospel a little while later, was – like us - maybe a little uncomfortable with the idea of Jesus being baptized by John. So in his gospel John doesn’t include the actual baptism of Jesus. But, he does include the testimony of John the Baptist: “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him.”

Today, though, we heard Mark’s version – probably the earliest, and certainly the most barebones. Mark places Jesus’ baptism right at the start of his gospel. In a few quick sentences he introduces John the Baptist as an Elijah-type figure. And then here’s how Mark introduces Jesus:

“In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.”

That’s it. Mark either doesn’t know about or isn’t interested in Jesus’ back story. There’s no genealogy, no angels, no shepherds, no wise men, no manger. If all we had was the Gospel of Mark, there’d be no Christmas pageant!

For Mark, Jesus’ life really begins with his baptism.

So we’re left to imagine Jesus’ life before his baptism. Most scholars believe that Jesus probably started out as a disciple of John the Baptist. And we can imagine him listening to John’s preaching and teaching. We can imagine Jesus watching John, day after day, baptize people in the Jordan. And we can imagine Jesus asking the same questions we all ask. We can imagine Jesus wondering and praying – who am I? What am I called to be? What is my mission in life?

And we can imagine that the answer Jesus was getting back seemed outlandish, absurd, and terrifying. We can imagine him shaking his head in disbelief. I’m just a carpenter from Nazareth. What I’m feeling and hearing can’t be right.

And then the day came when Jesus finally came forward to take the plunge. Jesus comes up out of the water and he hears the voice of God, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Jesus realizes who he really is in his baptism. Jesus’ life really begins with his baptism.

And what’s true for Jesus is also true for us. In our baptism we realize who we really are. In our baptism our life really begins.

I am sure throughout his earthly life and ministry – especially during the most painful and frightening moments - Jesus remembered that day in the Jordan. Jesus remembered that it was in his baptism that he realized who he really was. Jesus remembered that it was at his baptism that his life really began.

And, you know, the same is true for us. In our baptism we realize who we really are. Our lives really begin at our baptism.

There’s just one problem. Most of us don’t remember our baptism.

When my wife Sue and I were dating she mentioned a couple of times that she actually remembered her baptism. I was skeptical. Now, Sue doesn’t have the best memory and I was sure she was mistaken. Could she be remembering something else – like Confirmation? I mean I know they say that we store in our brains every experience we ever have, but how could you possibly remember your baptism?

“I remember my baptism,” Sue insisted.

Well, when we were getting married we had to get a copy of our baptismal certificates. And sure enough Sue had been about six years old when she was baptized. We think it was time for her to start school and so her parents realized they needed to get their youngest child of six baptized.

But since most of us were baptized as infants we don’t remember our baptism. We need to be reminded of our baptism. We need to remind one another about our baptism.

One of the ways the Church reminds us of our baptism is in Confirmation. And it just so happens that eleven of our young people will begin Confirmation class tonight. A few months from now at the Confirmation service they’ll have the chance to stand on their own and say they want to be part of the Christian Church.

Confirmation is great, but the best way that the Church reminds us of our own baptism is by letting us witness other baptisms. Personally, I believe that one of the best customs in the Episcopal Church is that we almost always baptize right in the middle of a Sunday service. I love how we invite the children to gather around the font and watch the baptism take place. Most of you can’t see their faces, but usually the children look on with wonder and joy. And that seems about right!

Public baptism is important because it symbolizes that we are baptized into a community.

Public baptism is important because it gives us all an opportunity to promise our support of those who are being baptized into the Christian life.

And public baptism is important because it reminds us of our own baptism – it reminds us of who we really are – it reminds us of when our lives really began.

And public baptism also reminds us of the promises we made – or were made for us – in our baptism.

In the words of today’s collect “Grant that all who are baptized into his Name may keep the covenant they have made, and boldly confess him as Lord and Savior.”

That covenant – those promises – reminds us that baptism is the beginning of our life - but it’s not the end. With God’s help, we are expected to live out those promises each day of our lives.

Our baptismal promises aren’t easy – they are the challenge, the work, of our lives.

Today is a particularly good day to be reminded of those promises.

In our baptism we promise to continue in the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread and the prayers.

In our baptism we promise to persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever we fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord.

In our baptism we promise to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.

In our baptism we promise to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as our self.

And in our baptism we promise to strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being.

These are serious promises. In the busyness of life it’s easy to forget them. Or, to be honest, because they are such serious promises maybe we might prefer to forget them.

And so the Church offers us reminders.

In Mark’s gospel right after Jesus’ baptism Jesus spends forty days in the wilderness being tempted and tested. I am sure throughout those days and all the later tests and temptations of life Jesus continued to draw upon the experience of his baptism.

I am sure during the difficult days ahead Jesus continued to draw upon his baptism - when he realized who he really was - that he was God’s beloved child.

I am sure that during the difficult days ahead Jesus continued to draw upon the experience of his baptism – when his life really began.

And so you and I, even if we don’t remember our own baptism, we too can draw upon our baptism. We can draw upon our baptism and remember that we are loved by God. We can remember that it is in baptism that we realize who we really are. And it is in baptism that our life really begins.


Thursday, January 01, 2009

The Feast of the Holy Name: Christmas, Continued

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
January 1, 2009

The Holy Name of Our Lord
Exodus 34:1-8
Psalm 8
Romans 1:1-7
Luke 2:15-21

The Feast of the Holy Name: Christmas, Continued

Well, happy New Year! As the rest of society sleeps off last night’s partying, or happily turns the page on what was a pretty bleak year, or maybe starts getting used to writing ’09 on their checks, here we are… in church.

While the rest of society focuses a little blearily on the start of a new year, the Church, maybe also a little bleary-eyed, celebrates the Feast of the Holy Name of Our Lord.

It’s the Feast of the Holy Name… but it’s also still Christmas. And what we celebrate on this feast day is very much a continuation of what we celebrated on Christmas. We celebrate the revelation of God in Jesus. God comes into the world in a new and decisive way in that helpless child whose birth we celebrated a little more than a week ago.

Today is Christmas, continued.

According to the Law of Moses on the eighth day all Jewish male newborns are to be circumcised and officially be given their names. And so we just heard the brief account in Luke’s Gospel that tells us that the Messiah was circumcised and was given his name: what was then the relatively common name of Yeshua – Joshua – Jesus in Greek. The Messiah is given a name which means savior or deliverer.
And so the revelation of Christmas continues. God comes into the world in this helpless child – a helpless child who will grow up and be our savior; who will grow up and deliver us from sin and death.

It turns out that, by Christian standards, this not a particularly ancient feast. The Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus “only” goes back to the late middle ages. Long-time Episcopalians may remember that today used to be called the Feast of the Circumcision. But although this feast, by Christian standards, is not very ancient, the fact is that right from the start of Christianity the name of Jesus was seen as very important. The name of Jesus was essentially synonymous with the person of Jesus.

We hear the importance and power of Jesus’ name in the opening of Paul’s letter to the Romans where he writes, “…Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name…”

This idea that Jesus’ name was seen as essentially synonymous with Jesus himself seems a little odd to us, doesn’t it? We may not make a big fuss about names today, but in the ancient world it was a big deal to tell someone your name. By telling someone your name you revealed something very personal about yourself. Nowadays, I guess we feel that way about our Social Security number, but not our name. I’m happy to tell you my name. My name is no big deal.
I suppose most parents give a lot of thought to the name they choose for their children. And we either like the names we are given or we don’t. A very few of us dislike our names so much that we change them – but I guess after a while most of us don’t really give our names much thought.

In my case, I was named for three Thomases – my father and both of my grandfathers. I like that, but never really given much thought to it. Sometimes, though, I’ve wished I had a more distinctive name. Believe me, there are many Tom Murphys out there! I’ve actually met people who didn’t like some other Tom Murphy and had to try not to transfer those negative feelings toward me. Believe it or not, there was another Tom Murphy ordained in another diocese right around the same time I was. We even accidentally received each other’s General Ordination Exam scores! A few weeks ago in Shop Rite the cashier saw my name and asked if I had grown up in Springfield. I said, no, I wasn’t that Tom Murphy. And he said, yeah, I guess not, that Tom Murphy had red hair!
However, I had an experience this summer that got me thinking about the importance of our name and the significance of revealing, or not revealing, our name with someone else.

For three days this past summer I attended a daily Eucharist at a prominent Episcopal church in California. Each day there were about five or six other people at the service. On the first day I was there, after the service on my way out I introduced myself to the priest. I said something like, “Hi, I’m Tom Murphy. I’m a priest visiting from the Diocese of Newark…” The priest welcomed me, asked how my trip was going, was very pleasant - but he didn’t tell me his name.
The next day I went back. There was a different priest. At the end of the service, same thing: I greeted the priest, and told him my name and where I was from. This priest did the same thing – once again very nice, cordial – but he didn’t tell me his name.

The third day I went back and it was the priest from the first day. As I was leaving, I reintroduced myself, telling him my name again. And once again he didn’t tell me his name!

Now, I don’t want to make too much of these incidents. But it really bugged me that I told these priests my name and they wouldn’t tell me theirs. The fact that this bothered me so much tells me that maybe our names are a big deal and maybe choosing to reveal our names is a bigger deal than I had thought.

And if our names are important, just how much more important must be the name of Jesus?

I never really gave much thought to the name of Jesus until I arrived at General Seminary four years ago. Remember, I grew up Roman Catholic in the 1970s and 1980s – the age of a simplified, folk music liturgy, the age of guitar-playing nuns leading us in song, the age of “Kumbaya”. Jesus was depicted as our groovy, bearded, sandal-wearing friend. It’s easy to make fun of now, but in a lot of ways it was a great time, and I think many of us felt close to Jesus, but we didn’t exactly show reverence to Jesus or his Name. And we certainly didn’t bow our heads whenever the Holy Name of Jesus was mentioned!

In fact it wasn’t until I went to General Seminary that I regularly saw people bowing their heads in the chapel whenever Jesus’ name was mentioned. At first, to be honest, I thought this was a kind of silly overly-pious affectation. But the more I thought about it, I came to see the bowing as a sign, as a physical reminder that, in the case of Jesus of Nazareth, the once relatively common name of “Jesus” is holy – it is other, it is higher than all other names because Jesus himself is holy, Jesus is the revelation of God, God made flesh.

And so today, the Feast of the Holy Name is Christmas, continued. In Christmas we celebrate the revelation of God in this child named Jesus who is our savior and deliverer.

And Christmas is really part of a long story stretching all the way back to Moses on Mt. Sinai. Christmas is part of a story of God reaching out to men and women, revealing God’s self to us, letting us know what God expects of us and how much God loves us.

God reveals God’s self to Moses and on Christmas God reveals God’s self once and for all in the savior named Jesus.

Our job today - no matter how bleary-eyed we are - is to take a moment and give thanks for the Holy Name of Jesus. And then we are to go out and live lives that reveal God’s presence and love to the world.

Now it’s our turn to be part of Christmas, continued.