January 12, 2014 - The First Sunday after Epiphany: The Baptism of our Lord

The First Sunday After Epiphany: The Baptism of our Lord
Sharon L. Rodgers
Matthew 3: 13-17

“We do not remember days,” wrote Cesare Pavese, “we remember moments.” One such moment for me occurred here at St. Mary’s at the 9:30 service on June 1, 2003, when Father Nick Parker looked down at six year old Zack in the front pew and asked, “Zachary, do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?” “I renounce them,” came the reply. At that moment, when people realized that Zack was going to answer the questions for himself, this church became so quiet it was as if people stopped breathing. I don’t think there’s ever been a time when I have been more conscious of the presence of the Holy Spirit. “Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?” Father Nick continued. “I renounce them.” Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?” “I renounce them.” “Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior?” I could see the wheels turning…. “I do.” (Exhale.) “Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love?” “I do.” “Do you promise to follow and obey him as your Lord?” “I do.” And so it was that Zachary Hurricane Rodgers was baptized a few minutes later, decently and in order, as is our Anglican way. 

As I began preparing to preach this sermon I couldn’t help contrasting my memories of that morning with the way I have always imagined the scene on the banks of the Jordan River described in this morning’s Gospel. John the Baptizer, the older cousin of Jesus, had been creating quite a stir, calling for those who came to hear him, to repent, and then as a sign of their repentance, to be baptized. Crowds had been coming out of the cities into the wilderness for some time to see this rather eccentric prophet who wore camel’s hair and ate only locusts and wild honey, an odd but ritualistically pure diet. I can imagine the scene may have been a bit chaotic, some people listening to John, others discussing among themselves what they had heard, still others pushing their way to the front in order to be the next to make it into the river for this cleansing ritual of baptism. 

The beginning of Jewish baptism is unclear. We know that bathing for ritual purity was a long standing practice of the Jews. There is also some sense that passing through the Red Sea and then through the waters of the Jordan were central to the Jewish mystery of deliverance. It seems reasonable that Jewish baptism could have combined these two meanings. By the time of Jesus, it seems that baptism was mostly reserved for Gentiles who wished to convert to Judaism. Males had to be circumcised but everyone had to be baptized. It appears the significance of this was both to wash away the defilement of the Gentile world as well as to make up for not having inherited, by virtual of one’s ancestry, the deliverance through the Red Sea. It was a special case of washing to achieve ritual purity. 

John’s baptism was both similar and different from this sort of baptism. On the one hand, he baptized for the remission of sins. Ethical wrongdoing would be washed away by being baptized. This was akin to the Jewish understanding of the baptism offered to Gentiles. However, John was not baptizing Gentile converts or Jews returning home from exile, but Jews living in Jerusalem and Judea, telling them they needed to be cleansed of their unrighteousness. Furthermore, he assured them, time was short. The messiah was coming. The kingdom of God was at hand. 

Suddenly into the mix one day comes Jesus, John’s younger cousin. Tradition has it that John had jumped in the womb when Mary, carrying Jesus in her womb, entered the home of Elizabeth, John’s mother. Whether or not that really happened, the two men certainly knew of each other by now. Some believed John was Elijah come back from the dead, others that he was the messiah. Yet when Jesus approached, asking to be baptized, John deferred to his younger cousin, saying, no, it is you who should baptize me. Jesus held firm, however, saying that at least for the moment, it was best that John baptize him. And so it was that Jesus, son of a carpenter, was baptized by John, a prophet of priestly descent, in the river Jordan. 

We don’t know much about Jesus prior to his baptism. We know he was a rather precocious twelve year old, who when taken to Jerusalem for the Passover, stayed behind to talk with the rabbis in the temple. Beyond that, the assumption is that he grew up as the son of a carpenter who we can imagine most people thought was destined to become a carpenter himself. However, something called Jesus to go out to the Jordan to be baptized, and from that moment of baptism he was never the same again. Whatever he had known about himself beforehand, he went down into the water as Jesus, the son of Joseph, and came up to a voice proclaiming him the Son of God. Leaving behind his life as a carpenter, he wandered into the wilderness for a time of reflection, and came back as a preacher, a teacher, a healer, the Messiah. 

Moreover, just as Jesus was transformed by his baptism, baptism was transformed by Jesus. Rather than simply a cleansing ritual, meant to undo the past, baptism became a welcoming ritual, through which believers became members of the body of Christ. More than simply being washed clean of their sins, the newly baptized received the gift of the Holy Spirit. Jesus’ baptism is mentioned in all four of the Gospels, and the practice of baptizing Christians is mentioned, directly or indirectly, in most of the other New Testament books. The form of baptism has varied over time. In the great commission found in two of the Gospels, Jesus tells his follows to make believers of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. In the Acts of the Apostles, Peter baptizes in the name of Jesus Christ. In the early days converts were baptized by immersion in rivers. Over time baptisms began to be done in churches, sometimes still by immersion, sometimes simply by pouring water over the candidate’s head. In the earliest days of the church, Jews required very little instruction before baptism, while Gentiles required a great deal. By the middle ages, infant baptism became the rule because infant mortality rates were so high, and people feared having their children die without being baptized. 

Regardless of the format or the timing though, baptism has been understood from the beginning to be the means by which a believer is related to Christ, and through Christ to God. To be baptized is to be “in Christ,” to be a member of his body, the church, and thus to share in a common way of life. Our baptism signifies our union by faith with the mission and faith of Jesus. 

Some people today question the Episcopal practice of requiring baptism before people receive holy communion. They feel it is inhospitable to tell people they can’t come to communion if they aren’t baptized. Personally, I am not speaking for the Church here, I don’t believe anyone is going to drop into hell if they receive communion without being baptized. Indeed, I am aware of individuals who, as a result of receiving communion, have been moved to be baptized. Legalist that I am, I can live with that. What I can’t accept is the notion of just forgetting about baptism altogether. To me, receiving communion without being baptized is like going to someone’s home for dinner. It may very well be a lovely experience, but no matter how honored a guest we might be, no matter how welcome we may feel, we’re not a member of the family. No matter how many times we might go back, we’re still not a member of the family. Holy Baptism, our catechism tells us, is the sacrament by which we are adopted as God’s children and made members of Christ’s Body, the Church, and inheritors of the kingdom of God. The inward and spiritual grace of Baptism is union with Christ in his death and resurrection, birth into God’s family the Church, forgiveness of sins, and new life in the Holy Spirit.

New life in the Holy Spirit; that’s the heart of the matter. Baptism isn’t simply an insurance policy for salvation, it’s a commitment to a whole new life-style, radically different from that of the world. Baptism involves dying to a self-centered understanding of reality and being reborn to a life of self-giving grounded in Christ. Does that transformation, that rebirth happen in the instant of baptism? Not usually. More often it’s a process, of which baptism is just the first step. There’s a reason we reaffirm our baptismal vows every time we witness another person being baptized, as well as at every Easter vigil. We humans can be forgetful. We mean well, but we slip up. The point is to keep striving to become the people God calls us to be.

After I got home from church a little before 1:00 on Christmas morning, I realized as I started counting them in my head, that eleven of my former acolytes had been in church during the course of the three Christmas Eve services, and seventeen young people who had passed through our Journey to Adulthood program were there that night. Most of them are college students at this point, though one is a realtor, one a firefighter, one a medical student. There was a college student just back from a semester in South Africa. They had returned here, to their church home, from all over the country, and from just the other side of town. They are all so alive, so busy discerning who and whose they are. That process of becoming, of discerning who God calls us to be, doesn’t end at twenty-one, or sixty-seven, or ninety-six. Life in Christ, after all, never ends. There are stages, levels of understanding that grow deeper with time, but there is always something new to discover, about ourselves and about God, always some new way that we can share life in Christ with someone else. 

Epiphany, the season of light, is when we remember the sharing of the Good News with the Gentiles two thousand years ago, as we look for new ways to share the life in Christ that means so much to us with our world today. It is a time to remember the promises we made, or that were made on our behalf, at our baptism. It is a time to remember that all important question, “Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior?” and then to find new and different ways to let our actions resoundingly proclaim our answer, I do!

NB: Some of the information on the history of baptism was taken from Liturgy for Living by Charles P. Price and Louise Weil.