The Baptism of our Lord (The first Sunday after the Epiphany)
The temptation laid before almost every preacher and worship planner is to make today a time when we reflect on our own baptism, and – as has been our custom over the past few years – to use this day as an opportunity to renew our own Baptismal promises. And, while that may provide a point of comparison for us, the meaning of these Baptisms – Jesus’ and our own – could not be more different.
But, the latter – our own – is a good place to begin.
Think about your own baptism for a moment.
When did it happen? Do you have any memory of it? I can remember mine, but that is because I was nine years old at the time and being in another tradition at that point in my spiritual journey, the meaning attached to the event was also far different from the way Episcopal theology has evolved its understanding of baptism.
Of course, I will never forget my daughter Molly’s baptism on the feast of All Saints - of all feast days - at Epiphany Church, Timonium, my home parish. She sobbed and screamed form the moment we moved to the font until she was safely back in the pew. Both Flo Ledyard, the rector of Epiphany at the time, and I agree that something was going on there, but that is between the Holy Spirit and my daughter. We still talk about it.
But what have people – parents, godparents, other family members – told you about your own? Did you have godparents? Who were they? How were they connected to your parents? Have you remained in touch with them?
In my case, it has been easy to do that. Dianne and I are godparents to our niece Aliceanna, and our nephew, Ben. And, as a crazy old uncle, it has been my joy to lure them into conversations from time to time about the promises that we made on their behalf and the trouble that they can cause those who dare to take them seriously.
And – speaking again about those promises - have you thought about your baptism, and what it means to and for you, and for the other – any other – that stands in need of love and peace and some ray of hope?
For Episcopalians, our baptism in an initiation into a community that is committed to bringing forth that kingdom of love and peace and hope. It is a community that anticipates God’s new age and seeks the work it can do to hasten its arrival. A vital calling. And, not for the squeamish. Which is why we do it together, so that even the squeamish can be brought along.
Now, let’s think about the real significance of this day – theologically – which focuses on the baptism that Jesus receives at the hands of John.
The baptism of Jesus is unique in its significance and meaning, because – first and foremost – Jesus is not being initiated into a movement or a community – he is the pivotal figure around which the new age will be built; he is the starting point of the movement, reason for and object of. (Some scholars do think that he may have originally been a disciple of John the Baptist and in John’s gospel, the two do seem to be together a lot in the early going. Jesus even recruits some of John’s disciples before he sets off on his own. You can look it up.)
What identifies Jesus as this figure are the other details of the story. In short, after he has been baptized, he is off alone praying – Luke’s version – and while he is doing this the heaven’s open and the Spirit descends in the form of a dove and he hears the voice of God saying, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."
Now, none of this is to prove that Jesus is the son of God, but it has everything to do with establishing his authority.
The voice of God that Luke employs is from Psalm 2, and it was spoken about the king as he was established on his throne in Jerusalem.
The heaven’s opened, which means that the barrier between heaven and earth was removed. That did not happen at my baptism, but it identified Jesus as the one who would provide that bridge between the two, making them one. The kingdom of God is now near, as Mark’s Jesus would announce. That would take some authority.
And, he is given the Holy Spirit, which is not given to everyone. The disciples do not receive it until the Day of Pentecost. And, if you follow Luke’s theology, Jesus is given the Spirit as he begins his mission; he returns it at his death – ‘into your hands I commend my spirit;’ and, then it is given back to everyone as the movement heats up in earnest.
(Yeahm and there is also the Messiah controversy lingering in the background with this story, as in, who was the Messiah, John or Jesus? But we do not need to go there today…)
In closing, however, I do want to say that even though Jesus’ baptism carries a much different meaning than our won, there is one similarity.
And, that is the courage required to take this step.
For Jesus – the one that the disciples really knew, this itinerant teacher/prophet from the backwaters of Galilee – it took a lot of courage to step into that river. (John is portrayed as an intimidating figure, after all) And, then even more courage to submit to the baptism of fire and heat in the wilderness as he prepared himself for what came next. I am not sure that he knew fully, though I am sure that he understood the danger that accompanied the good news he was bringing. And, he fully understood the power of his enemies.
For us – our baptism can be a painless thing, one more box we check off in our religion column. But, if we are not careful, the spirit finds a way in, and when we least expect it, the pain of the world becomes our pain. The call to risk safety and comfort for the sake of the gospel grows louder, and before we know it, we are acting like saints.
We could do worse.