Sunday, January 09, 2011

Baptismal Beginnings

St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, Gainesville FL
The Chapel of the Incarnation, Gainesville FL
January 9, 2011

Year A: The First Sunday after Epiphany – the Baptism of Our Lord
Isaiah 42:1-9
Psalm 29
Acts 10:34-43
Matthew 3:13-17

Baptismal Beginnings

During these days of Epiphany we remember and celebrate the ways that the identity and power and meaning of Jesus is manifested to the whole world.

Traditionally there has been three parts of Epiphany. Of course, there’s the visit of the wise men in which Jesus’ identity as king is made manifest.

There’s also the wedding at Cana, where Jesus performs his first sign, turning water into wine. At that banquet Jesus’ power and abundance is made manifest.

And finally, there’s the event we remember and celebrate today - the greatest of the three manifestations - the Baptism of Jesus.

It’s here at the River Jordan that we are introduced to Jesus as an adult. There’s almost nothing in the gospels about Jesus as he grew up. Luke tells us about the boy Jesus causing his parents to panic by staying behind in Jerusalem and teaching in the Temple. But that’s about it.

So we’re left to imagine the formative years of Jesus of Nazareth – the years leading up to his Baptism. In my imagination I see the young Jesus looking and acting pretty much like everyone else – playing with friends, laughing at jokes, mourning those who died, studying his religious tradition and learning a trade in order to survive. I imagine the young Jesus trying to figure out who he was; trying to figure out his place in the world.

And in my imagination I also see people recognizing that there was something different about Jesus. Mary and Joseph and maybe a few others would have remembered the strange circumstances of his birth. But more than that, there would have been something intangible that set him apart from others.

And I imagine Jesus himself, with a mix of wonder and fear, recognizing that there was something that set him apart.

The gospels don’t say this exactly, but most scholars believe that Jesus like many others was drawn to John the Baptist, the wild prophet preaching repentance out in the wilderness. Most scholars accept that Jesus was a disciple of John the Baptist.

And, naturally, like most everyone else who came to John, Jesus was baptized by him.

This fact created some understandable awkwardness for early Christians. Matthew quotes John the Baptist as expressing this awkwardness when he asks Jesus, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”

John’s question is a really good one, especially considering his understanding of Baptism. In the wilderness of Judea, John cries out, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” John tells the people who come to be baptized in the Jordan, “I baptize you with water for repentance.”

And then John offers a frightening vision of the one who was to come, “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

So, for John, baptism was primarily, if not entirely, about repentance and forgiveness for sin. Since Jesus had no need of repentance and forgiveness, John naturally asks Jesus, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”

John’s question is a really good one. It’s a really good question if Baptism is only or mostly about repentance and forgiveness.

But, our understanding of Baptism – the Christian understanding of Baptism – is much broader, much deeper and much better news – than John’s understanding of Baptism.

It’s in baptism that Jesus discovers who he really is.

The Spirit of God descends upon Jesus, not in a fiery and scary way, but peacefully, like a dove. And then a voice from heaven tells Jesus and all those who had ears to hear, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

It’s in Baptism that Jesus discovers that he is God’s Son, the Beloved.

And it’s in Baptism that you and I discover who we really are.

For us, Baptism is partly about the washing away of sin – the original sin that infects all of us.

For us, Baptism is also partly about initiation. It’s in baptism that we become full members of the Church.

But, most important, for us it’s in Baptism – it’s in symbolically dying and rising again with Jesus – that God adopts us as children of God.

Let’s face it, God may not always be “well-pleased” with us. the way God was “well-pleased” with Jesus.

But, the very good news is that there is nothing that we can do to break the bond between God and us that is formed in Baptism. In the words of the prayer book, “The bond which God establishes in Baptism is indissoluble.”

In his Baptism, Jesus discovered that he is God’s Son – God’s Beloved.

And Mark, Matthew and Luke all agree that Baptism is not the end but the beginning of Jesus’ journey. After the discovery of his identity at his Baptism, Jesus begins his public ministry of teaching and healing. It’s after discovering who he really is that Jesus begins the journey of loving service that will take him to the Cross and beyond into resurrected life.

In our Baptism, our sins are washed away. In Baptism, we are initiated into the Church. But, most importantly, in Baptism, we discover who we really are. In Baptism we discover that we are the beloved adopted children of God.

And, no matter if we’re baptized as infants, or as children, or as adults, Baptism is not the end but the beginning of our journey loving service.

After the discovery of our identity, we are called to begin our journey of loving service to Jesus and to the world.

Baptism is my favorite Church service because each time a new Christian is baptized we’re all reminded of our own Baptism. We’re reminded that we’re beloved adopted children of God. We’re reminded that Baptism marks the beginning of our journey.

At every service of Baptism we are asked if we believe in the Christian faith as expressed in the Nicene Creed.

Then we are asked if we are willing to put that faith into action. We are asked if we are willing give away our lives in service to the Gospel. We are asked if we are willing to begin, or to continue, the journey that begins in the water of Baptism.

At every Baptism we are asked, Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and in the prayers?

Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?

Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?

Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?

Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?

How we answer these challenging questions will shape our journey that begins in the water of Baptism. Or better, how we live the answers to these questions will shape our journey that begins in the water of Baptism.

The first Christians felt some awkwardness about the baptism of Jesus by John in the River Jordan. After all, why did Jesus need to be baptized by John?

The people who wrote the gospels could have deleted the story of Jesus’ baptism. They didn’t because they recognized its importance for Jesus and for us.

It’s at his Baptism that in a new and profound way Jesus discovers who he really is – the Son of God, God’s Beloved. And it’s Jesus’ baptism that marks the beginning of his journey of loving service.

And for us, it’s at our Baptism that we discover who we really are – beloved adopted children of God. And it’s our Baptism that marks the beginning of our journey of loving service.

Thanks be to God.