Matthew’s story of the baptism of Jesus has some unique quirks. For example it’s the only version that has John and Jesus having a conversation. Even though Matthew has said nothing about them being cousins – that’s Luke’s story – John clearly recognizes Jesus as someone sent from God, someone who is better equipped than he to forgive sins. I can’t help but notice the implication that the person doing the baptizing doesn’t necessarily have to be the holiest person in the room.
This baptism is a public act, as baptism should be, and everyone present experiences the public epiphany, or revelation, of God’s announcement: this is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased. But only Jesus sees the dove, hovering over the face of the water as the Spirit hovered in creation, and understands that he is receiving the Spirit, that he is commissioned to be the main actor in a new creation. This part of the experience is a private epiphany, for now at least.
Why does Jesus need to be baptized? John’s resistance echoes our own questioning about baptism. If baptism is for forgiveness of sins, why do we baptize infants who have not sinned? Why do we need baptism if we believe in a God who loves all, forgives all, and accepts all?
As Episcopalians we can appreciate the importance of ritual. Human beings use all kinds of rituals to mark significant moments. We pray at birth and at death; people who usually eat their meals without a thought often stop to say grace before Christmas dinner, and even the dinner itself is often a ritual, with specific food, the best china, and certain stories told year after year.
We use rituals to mark a new beginning like the inauguration of a president or a rite of passage like graduation. The baptism of Jesus by John marks a public beginning to Jesus’s public ministry. And, just as the ministry of Jesus is public, so is the ministry of those who are part of the Jesus movement. Being a Christian isn’t a private existence. We are to participate in public worship and public life. We are to do public acts of compassion and to witness in public to what is right and what is wrong: the baptismal promises make that pretty clear. Every time we witness a baptism or renew our promises, it’s a reboot, a jump-start to re-energize our ministry in the world.
Theologian Stanley Hauerwas says Christians are called to be “people with virtues sufficient to witness to God’s truth in the world.” One of the functions of the church is to form us into such people, and Baptism is the first step in that formation.
Each of the Scripture passages we heard today contributes to a picture of baptismal ministry.
Isaiah speaks God’s word to the people of God. “I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.”
This is our call: to bring light, to heal, to liberate. How do we live it out? Not by building walls, creating divisions, or disenfranchising the poor, but by freeing those who are held captive by sin, by insisting on justice for all, and by lighting up the world’s dark places.
The tempestuous drama of the Psalm reminds us of the tremendous power of God, a power that makes creation possible. We sing of the presence of God in each of the elements, elements also present in baptism: the earthiness of the human being, the water, the fire and wind of the Spirit. The wildness of the psalm’s language reminds us that baptism isn’t meant to be a polite sprinkling but a drowning, a dramatic and risky act that symbolizes a violent death and at the same time proclaims that death is not the end.
Ours is a dramatic faith: drowned and resurrected through baptism, singed and blown away by the Spirit, partaking of the dismembered and remembered body of our God in the Eucharist, this is not a call to live quiet, self-effacing lives. Our God, the God who shakes the wilderness and strips the forest bare; our God wants us to be dramatic, to be radical, to take risks and step out of our comfort zones, to shake up the world and turn the usual order upside down. We are to stick our noses into other people’s business, to demand the truth and agitate for accountability. We are to ask awkward questions of ourselves and others: whom does this action benefit? How are lives being transformed? What are we giving up so that our neighbor may live?
Today we embark on the season after Epiphany. Only two days ago we celebrated the arrival of the wise men at the manger, – maybe you missed it – and now it’s gone. The tree, the wreaths, the stable, all gone. The world has left Bethlehem far behind and the wise men have been banished along with all the other Christmas paraphernalia. But the last line in the Epiphany Gospel always lingers in my mind long after January 6: “They left for their own country by another road.” It carries a sense of traveling through unknown territory, even after you have encountered Christ, and that’s a feeling many of us in the church are all too familiar with these days. It sometimes feels like we are spending all our days trying to find our way home by another road, often through hostile territory. But we don’t travel without a guide.
Last week I visited with a friend who is in the last days of her life, and we talked a little about the Epiphany story and about that feeling. The journey through the end of this life is one that we travel only once. We are unusually blessed if we can reflect on it while we are in the midst of it and comment, as my friend did, that it’s “an interesting experience.” That comment speaks to deep faith in the divine shepherd who leads us home.
In our journey through the church year, we observe this season with a Eucharistic prayer that says we give thanks to God, because in the mystery of the word made flesh, God has caused a new light to shine in our hearts, to show our knowledge of God’s glory in the face of Jesus. The wise men saw the face of Jesus in the stable, and they carried the new light with them in their travels through strange lands. We now carry that light in our time.
Maybe the light has grown dim for you, given the fear and anxiety that is everywhere in our world. Like a fire that burns low, we need to nurture the light, to gently hold it and coax it to burn bright. It’s hard to go out into the world and serve others when we ourselves are tired and discouraged. So, our first task in this Epiphany season is to nurture the flame in ourselves and in one another, starting right here in our own cathedral community.
Last week you may have heard me speak of our formational theme for this year: to grow and develop as a community of reconciliation. At last week’s adult forum we touched on several dimensions of reconciliation, and they all came down to a common denominator: relationships. Relationships with each other, relationships with God, relationships with our own deepest selves. The general confession that we usually say on a Sunday morning, when we don’t have the baptismal covenant, gives us words to express our desire to be reconciled with God. It is followed immediately by the assurance of God’s forgiveness and then by the exchange of the Peace, which offers an opportunity for reconciliation with our neighbors, so that we can approach the altar for Communion with a clear conscience. But we often forget that the purpose of the Peace is reconciliation, and we use that moment to greet our friends and family rather than deepening relationship with others. So I want to offer you an opportunity, right now, to strengthen our community through relationship, to nudge that light in your heart to burn a little brighter.
Look around you: left and right, in front and behind, across the aisle. Do you see someone you don’t know, or barely know? Reach out a hand right now to that person. Introduce yourselves and take just one sentence each to say what brought you to St Paul’s this morning. Go ahead. It won’t hurt. I’ll wait.
As we walk this Epiphany journey in relationship, I hope you will grasp more opportunities to nurture the light in your heart, to own your identity as the Lord’s beloved, and to boldly witness to God’s dramatic and transforming love. Amen.
January 8, 2017 The Baptism of Christ
The Very Rev Penelope Bridges