Sunday, January 11, 2015

Sermon; Epiphany 1B, Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord; Gen. 1:1-5; Acts 19:1-7; Mark 1:4-11

Today is the first of five days set aside as appropriate for either baptisms or the renewal of baptismal vows.  The other four fall on Easter, Pentecost, All Saints and the bishop's visitation.  We may need to talk about that last one, since Bishop Michael is scheduled to visit April 19.  If you're quick at liturgical math, that's three renewals over the seven weeks from Easter to Pentecost.

All of that aside, today is the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord.  And today we heard three baptismal stories: the opening of the creation story, the baptism of disciples in Ephesus and Mark's version of Jesus' baptism by John.  I want to touch on each.

Before I do that, though, we need to ask ourselves a question, “What exactly is baptism?”  We know baptism is important.  It's seen as so important by some people that the only church service they attend is the baptism of their children.  But what exactly is baptism?

Baptism is the initial means through which we enter the household of God.  It is the means through which we are adopted as children of God.  And at its very core, baptism initiates a fundamental change.  Baptism changes the way we relate to the world, to others and to God.  Or it should.

In the first lesson, we heard the opening verses of Genesis: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void.”  This is how we are used to hearing this passage.  But it can also be read as, “In the beginning, when God began to create, the earth was a formless void.”

In this translation, the earth already existed.  God didn't create everything out of nothing, but began to create from what already was.  What already was was a formless body covered by water, over which the Holy Spirit hovered.

As we read through this story, we can see what Ephram the Syrian saw – a prefiguration of the baptism.  The God who called forth life from the primordial waters of the deep also calls us to life through the waters of baptism.  The world as it was was changed by God's Spirit.  At baptism, we are changed from what we were to a new creation by the Spirit of God.

In the Epistle we heard an early baptismal story.  Paul arrives in Ephesus, finds some believers, has a discussion about the type of baptism they received, baptized them again, whereupon they begin to speak in tongues.

I have to admit that I have some problems with this particular passage.  First, there is the issue of multiple baptisms, or of a correct baptism.  Christianity is filled with denominations that refuse to recognize other baptisms.  Whether it is the issue of receiving a “believer's baptism,” as most Baptist churches proclaim, or whether an exclusionary belief that only “our” baptisms are valid, such as the LCMS and others follow, multiple baptisms are problematic.  When I was in Columbus, I met a lady who told me she had been baptized six times.

As an Episcopalian, this should concern us.  Why?  Because we acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.  One baptism.  We don't check your id to determine if you were properly baptized.

Another problem is the whole issue of speaking in tongues.  There are some groups who view this as proof and validation that a person is a real, true Christian.  I don't think we can determine if a person is Spirit-filled based on whether or not they speak in tongues.

But again, what exactly is baptism?  Baptism is a fundamental change to our being.  Or it should be.  The problem in Ephesus was that the baptized didn't understand this.  They were only given partial information.  They were not fully instructed in the faith.  And maybe this is where the idea of a catechism came from.  That problem remains today – we need to do better at teaching the faith.

The other part of this, speaking in tongues, doesn't necessarily mean rolling on the floor, waving our hands in the air and spouting gibberish.  Speaking in tongues can simply mean speaking in a way people don't yet understand.

Looking at our baptismal covenant, when we truly speak about continuing in the fellowship of the apostles, repenting, loving our neighbors as ourselves, and respecting the dignity of every human being, we speak in terms many people don't fully understand.  As an example, the next time someone tries to make a lunch date with you, tell them you can't make it because you have a private confession scheduled with your priest that day.  Speaking in tongues can be gibberish spoken in plain English.

And in the gospel we hear of Jesus' baptism.  Jesus certainly didn't need a baptism of repentance, for he was without sin.  Nor did he receive a baptism of adoption, for he was always God's son.  His baptism was as an example for his followers.  Some theologians posit that by his baptism he sanctified the waters of all baptisms.

But again, baptism is a fundamental change.  On some level I can't explain, Jesus was changed at his baptism.  Up until this point he was simply Jesus, son of Mary and Joseph the carpenter.  Up until this point, he was simply Jesus, just one of many followers of John the Baptist.

But at his baptism there was a fundamental change.  The heavens opened.  The Spirit descended.  A voice said, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”  And, in the verse immediately following, he was driven out by the Spirit into the wilderness.

In the beginning, God began to create, changing a formless world into one teeming with life.

The Holy Spirit came upon them, and they began to speak in tongues and prophesy.

Jesus was baptized, and that change in him changed the world.

Do you reflect the life-giving power of God?
Do you speak God's language?
Has your baptism driven you?

Baptism initiates a fundamental change in us.  How have you been fundamentally changed by your baptism?


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