Sunday, January 12, 2014

Sermon; 1 Epiphany (Baptism of our Lord); Matthew 3:13-17

Today we celebrate the Feast of the Baptism of our Lord. This is one of five days marked as “especially appropriate” for baptisms. The other four are the Easter Vigil, Pentecost, All Saints (or the Sunday following), and the bishop's visitation. In other words, this is an “Important Day” in the Church.

Today we celebrate the baptism of Jesus. What naturally follows is, “What is baptism?” Baptism is one of the two great sacraments of the Gospel given to us by Christ, the other one being Holy Communion. And since we are all good Episcopalians here . . . we know that a sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. Or, in other words, a sacrament is a sign of God's favor.

Baptism is also full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into the Body of Christ, the Church. One of the beautiful things about being an Episcopalian is that our theology is under-girded with a sense of universality. Baptism is FULL initiation into the Church (“we acknowledge one baptism”). Once you are baptized you are eligible to receive Communion. We no longer make you wait in a state of limbo as a half-citizen until you are old enough to understand what Communion is before receiving it. We don't make people wait to confess “Jesus as my own personal Lord and Savior” before allowing them to be baptized. And we don't make people get re-baptized because they were baptized in the wrong church at the wrong age or with the wrong amount of water.

Baptism is also public. According to the BCP, Holy Baptism is “appropriately administered within the Eucharist as the chief service on a Sunday or other Feast.” We stand before the congregation, or we stand on behalf of others, in a public worship ceremony and make several promises before God and everybody about how we will live our lives from this time forth forevermore. We may think our faith is private, but it begins in a very public format.

Today we celebrate the baptism of Jesus. Following the question, “What is baptism,” most people generally ask, “Why did Jesus get baptized?” This has been asked among Christians probably ever since the first gospel story was read. We are baptized to cleanse us from sin, to bring us fully into the household of God and as a public statement about how we intend to order our lives. Jesus was free from sin, is an eternal part of the household of God and ordered his life accordingly. Why did he need to get baptized?

First, this was his first example to his followers, just as the Last Supper was his last example. At a bare minimum, for us to live a life like Christ requires us to participate in these two events that bookend his adult life. Baptism becomes the mode of how we are initially joined to Christ. Christ, then, was baptized as a way of saying, “This is where you start.”

A second reason is more of a two-parter. In Part A, Jesus is baptized in order to show his superiority to John. John is out in the wilderness preaching repentance, baptizing people and collecting many disciples, Jesus possibly being one of them. Jesus' baptism moves him onto center stage while also being the vehicle for John's departure.

How can Jesus be superior if he submits to John?” you may ask. In all four gospels John declares that “one who is greater than I is coming.” And in Matthew we get a dialogue between the two. John tries to prevent this from happening, but Jesus insists. It is not Jesus who submits to John's baptism; it is John who submits to the will of Jesus.

Part B is that this baptism was the vehicle to show Jesus as the beloved Son. So far in Matthew we learn of Jesus' royal lineage and miraculous conception, that he is the light to the Gentiles and shepherd to Israel, and that his life is the story of Israel in microcosm. And now, with his baptism, all of these individual parts come together and are unified as God's beloved Son.

And third, this was a public act. There were very few things that Jesus did in private – personal prayer time, the episode of the Transfiguration and the Last Supper come immediately to mind. Most of his time was spent in very public forums. John is in the Jordan calling people to repentance and baptizing them. Then Jesus shows up asking to be baptized. He doesn't ask for a private audience. He doesn't say, “Come away to a deserted place.” He does it right there in front of God and everybody. His public baptism is the basis for our public baptisms.

What is baptism? It is a one-time event to cleanse us from our sins that gives us an opportunity to proclaim before God and everybody what we believe and how we intend to live, and it welcomes us into the household of God as full members.

These four or five times a year are constant reminders of what we agreed to get ourselves into. Will you align your life with the examples of Jesus and the will of God? Will you respect the dignity of every human being, recognizing that everyone is created in God's own image? Will you publicly proclaim the Good News of God in Christ? These are things you commit to as a baptized Christian.

The Season of Epiphany is all about the manifestation of Christ to the world. May I suggest an “Epiphany discipline” for you this year: this Epiphany season take some time each day and read through the Baptismal Covenant as found on pages 304-305 of the BCP and ask yourself, “How will I/did I live into that today?”

Because if we are going to make such a big deal out of baptism, both ours and Jesus', then maybe we should get better at living into the vows and promises we made.



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