What Does Baptism Mean for Us – a sermon

You can listen to my sermon at the Saint Paul’s website, or just read on.

Two weeks ago, I was scheduled to preach on what I think is the hardest lesson in the Church year: The Prologue to John’s Gospel.  When The Episcopal Church decided to let go of its three-hundred-fifty year-old Book of Common Prayer Lectionary and join with Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Methodists, and others in the Revised Common Lectionary, General Convention decided that in The Episcopal Church, Christmas 1 should still include John 1:1-14, no matter what anybody else said.  That means that every preaching resource based on the RCL is focused on a passage that isn’t what Episcopal Priests get to preach on.  It really is a crummy situation, and thankfully, I got sick on Sunday morning so you didn’t have to put up with the C-minus sermon that you would have heard preached.

Not so luckily, the next day on the preaching schedule for me was today, The Feast of the Baptism of our Lord, another one of those Feast Days that came into being in the middle of the 20th century.  All four gospels include a story featuring Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist in the River Jordan, it really was an important inaugural moment in his life and ministry, but for two-thousand-ish years, the Church has struggled with how to handle this event.  Up until about 1955, the lesson was lumped in with the Magi and the miracle of water and wine at the Wedding in Cana of Galilee in a three-for-one special on Epiphany.  Nobody has ever really wanted to have to deal with the Baptism of Jesus because it raises all sorts of doctrinal issues.  The big concern is what baptism means for the perfect nature of Jesus.  If Jesus is the sinless Son of God, then why did he have to be baptized for the forgiveness of sins?  In Matthew’s account, which we hear in Year A, the question is more about who is in control.  If John the Baptist’s job was to point people to the Messiah, a person so great that not even John was worthy to tie the thong of his sandals, then why does Jesus come to him to be baptized?  Couldn’t Jesus just baptize himself?  Shouldn’t Jesus be the one baptizing John?  Matthew is so uncomfortable with the whole situation that he adds in a little back and forth exchange between Jesus and John.

As any good, unassuming Messiah would do, Jesus stands in line with everybody else, waiting his turn to get dunked by John.  When it finally is his turn, John looks up from the River, sees his cousin at the front of the line and “quietly pulls Jesus aside. ‘What gives?’ [he says,] ‘What are you doing in this line? Now’s your moment, Jesus! You take [the reigns]. You do the sermon. You do the baptismal dunking, and then I’ll get in line [and get] baptized by you.’ But Jesus responds, ‘Shhhh. Don’t make a big fuss [about this]. Let’s just do [it this way] for the sake of righteousness. I know this feels like the wrong thing to do, but it’s right. It’s righteous.’  Confused but obedient, John goes through with it, baptizing the one man he knows for sure has no sins of which to repent. John gives a bath to the only truly clean person who ever lived.”[1]  Of course, we all know what happens next: the sky is torn in two and the Spirit descends like a dove and a voice speaks from the heavens saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased,” and then, almost instantaneously Jesus is thrust out into the wilderness for forty days of fasting and temptation.

It is no wonder that the Church doesn’t really know what to do with Jesus’ baptism.  The sinless one is washed clean by his very uncomfortable cousin and then declared God’s beloved Son in an amazing theophanic event.  Think back to your baptism, if you can even remember it, do you remember doves and voices?  I didn’t think so.  It is impossible to match our baptismal stories with Jesus’s baptism: his is just too spectacular, but at the same time, if the Feast of the Baptism of our Lord, doesn’t lead us to ponder what Christian baptism means, then we have probably missed the point of it all.  This Feast, once lumped in with Epiphany, now a part of the larger Season of Epiphany, invites us to ponder what our baptisms mean for us.  “Holy Baptism,” The Book of Common Prayer tells us, “is full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ’s Body the Church.”[2]  It is, for all intents and purposes, the beginning of our Christian journey, whether you were baptized in extremis at three hours old, in a pretty white heirloom gown at six months, or waited until you could make the decision on your own at eight, eighteen, or fifty-eight.  For the thirty year-old Jesus, his baptism marks the beginning of his three years of active ministry, it is, in effect, a commissioning for the difficult work he is about to begin.

Though the odds are pretty good that we won’t find ourselves hanging on a tree for our faith, it is our baptism and especially the gift of the Spirit that comes along with it, that readies us for a lifetime of following Jesus.  This morning’s Collect encourages us to reflect on our own baptisms as it names a deep truth: the life of faith isn’t for the faint of heart.  After a brief reminder of the story of Jesus baptism, we pray that God might “grant that all who are baptized into [Jesus’] Name may keep the covenant they have made, and boldly confess him as Lord and Savior…”  Not unlike a graduation ceremony, baptism is a beginning rather than an end.  In baptism, whether as infants, older children, or adults, we are incorporated as members of the community of faith and welcomed into the household of God.  While some would argue that baptism permanently punches our ticket to heaven, making it a convenient end to the whole “being saved” process, I’d like to suggest that baptism is our Genesis moment: the journey begins at the font.  Baptism is where the hard work of living in the Kingdom starts, which is why we went through the extra effort to move the font from tucked neatly out of the way over there to right at the front door.  You can’t come to worship here without being reminded that as the baptized children of God, you’ve got work to do.

The Collect this morning asks for God’s grace to help us, the baptized, to keep the covenant and confess Jesus as Lord.  That covenant, subscribed to at every baptism after 1979 and reaffirmed over and over again, requires us to do things like: put our faith in God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; take part in the community of faith; work toward sanctification, and when we falter, to seek true repentance; proclaim by word and example, the good news of Jesus; love our neighbor; and respect the dignity of everyone.

Even the easiest parts of this list are impossible to do alone.  And so, in baptism, not only does our work begin, but so too does our relationship with God who will assist us by grace, and through the Holy Spirit, will guide us in the life of faith.  Nobody promised it would be easy, if it is, you’re probably doing it wrong, but the true end of the life of faith is the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven, and that’s worth every bit of struggle along the way.  Grant us, O Lord, the grace that we who have been baptized into the Name of Jesus Christ, may keep the covenant we have made, and boldly confess him as Lord and Savior from this day forth and for ever more.  Amen.

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