In Community, There is Peace – a sermon

My sermon for Epiphany 1A, the Baptism of our Lord.


I remember it like it was yesterday.  April 9, 2009.  Eliza, our first child, was born on the seventh.  It was Maundy Thursday (we have excellent timing, you know.  Our first child was born in Holy Week and now we’ve moved over Christmas), and we were getting ready to take her home.  The day started rather inauspiciously.  I had slept at home, in order to put the finishing touches on the nursery.  On the way to Thomas Hospital, I was stopped at a seatbelt check point.  My insurance card was expired, but the officer was kind enough to let the shaking in fear new father continue on his way.  As evening drew close, the final tests were complete, and I brought the car seat up to strap in the tiny newborn for her first car ride.  We had absolutely no clue what we were doing.  Did her legs go here?  No, that didn’t seem right.  What about this way?  Nope, not that either.  It was in that moment that I realized that children really should come with an instruction manual.  I didn’t know the first thing about raising a child.  I couldn’t even manage to put her in her car seat properly.  I could feel the dark cloud of fear and doom creeping ever closer as one of the nurses helped us figure out where Eliza’s legs were supposed to go, when she looked up from the car seat, handed us a card, and said, “If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to call.  We are here to help.”  And just like that, I felt at peace.  I realized that there was a whole community of people ready, willing, and most importantly, able, to help us navigate this new world.

I may be reading a bit of myself into this Gospel story, but I can’t help but think that maybe Jesus was feeling the same way as he made his was down from Nazereth to the shores of the Jordan River.  He knew that he was going to be baptized by John – he even knew that it was the right thing to do in order to “fulfill all righteousness,” but I suspect he wasn’t quite prepared for what was going to happen next.  Somewhere along the way, maybe he muttered to his Father in heaven, it’d sure be nice if there was a manual for this Messiah thing.

See, a lot has happened since we last left Jesus.  Two weeks ago was Christmas, if you can believe that.  We heard the great stories that we have all come to know and love.  Luke’s account gives us Mary, Joseph and their donkey, the Inn Keeper, angels, and shepherds.  It makes for delightful pageants, and I’m sure that glad tidings of great joy rang out here at Christ Church just as they did at Saint Paul’s in Foley.  In John’s great prologue, we heard flowing and cosmic language about the Word who was with God and was God and came to dwell among us.  It is a story of God’s unending love of creation that God would send his only son to be born for us and live among us as the light of the world.

Last Sunday, we celebrated the Feast of the Holy Name.  The baby, then eight days old, was circumcised and formally given the name that the angel had given to both Mary and Joseph.  Jesus, God saves, was nothing more than a newborn in that moment, and yet today, only a week later, we find him as a fully grown man of 30.  We’ve skipped over the Wise Men who followed the star in order to pay homage to Jesus and offer gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  We missed the flight to Egypt when Jesus, only a toddler, was taken by his family to exile in Egypt in order save his life from the slaughter of the innocents by Herod.  Much to my chagrin, we didn’t even hear from snarky tween Jesus who at age 12 stayed behind in the Temple after his parents had left to return to Nazareth after the Passover Festival.  Not that there is much of it in the Gospels, but we have skipped over all of Jesus’ character development.

Had we heard those stories, we might realize that from very early on, Jesus knew that he was different.  He was hungry for instruction in the faith.  He was eager to pray.  He was content to sit in silence.  For years upon years, he waited to find the fulfillment of his ministry.  For decades, he worked in the carpenter shop, waiting for a word that would call him to service.  Finally, that day had arrived, and as he made his way to the place where his cousin, John, had been baptizing anyone and everyone for the forgiveness of sins, Jesus readied himself for the task at hand.  What would this Messiah thing be like?  How would he know how to act?  What to do?  What to say?  Even as he approached John, there was this moment of awkwardness and trepidation.  John, clearly uncomfortable with what was about to happen, balked at the idea.  “Who am I to baptize you?” He asked.  “Let it be so for now,” Jesus replied, barely sure of what he was saying.  Even as he went under the water, I’m not sure Jesus really knew what he was doing.  There was no sin that needed to be washed away; no repentance that needed to happen; and yet, there was something that needed to happen.  The time had come; it was his moment to make a definitive commitment to the life for which his Father had sent him.  And so, down he went, into the muddy waters of the Jordan River.

As the waters broke open above him, so too did the heavens.  The water, still trickling past his eyes, obscured, if only for a moment, the vision of the Spirit descending upon him with power and might.  The whooshing of the river was still ringing in his ears as Jesus heard the voice of his Father saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”  And just like that, Jesus was at peace once again.  There was a community ready, willing, and most importantly, able to help him navigate the ministry that was ahead of him.  Let’s not sugar coat this, however; the very next thing that happens is the Spirit, one of those helping hands, will fling Jesus into the wilderness for forty days of temptation and soul searching.  Three years from now, as Jesus prays in a Garden just outside of Jerusalem, his Father won’t take the cup from him.  But together, they will accomplish the work of salvation, the plan that had been in place from the very beginning.  Through the person of Jesus: his life, death, resurrection, and ascension, God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, will bring about the salvation of the world.

Maybe you can relate to all this talk of dis-ease.  Today is a day not unlike April 9, 2009 or that fateful morning when Jesus made his way to the banks of the Jordan River.  Something new is happening here.  There is no instruction manual for the adventure we are about to embark upon.  It is quite possible that none of us have any idea what we’ve signed up for, but there is good news: we are going to walk this path together.  And just like that, there is peace.  Together, as the people of Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, we who are ready, willing, and to varying degrees able, will support one another in the ministry that lay ahead.  Together with God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit we will take our place in God’s mission to bring into right relationship every man, woman, and child with one another and with the God who created them, loves them, and wants only the best for them.  Together, we will work to bring the kingdom of God to earth as it is in heaven.

On April 9, 2009, the symbol of togetherness was a business card and a nursing staff willing to answer our questions.  In the middle of the Jordan River, it was the Spirit descending as a dove and the voice of the Father claiming his only Son.  Today, the symbol of our togetherness is the renewal of our baptismal vows; promises made and renewed every time a new member joins the ranks of God’s family.  In these promises we make a commitment to God and to one another to join in the work at hand.  So, without further ado, let us stand together and renew the promises of our ministry together.

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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.

It’s Hard Work

I love the Collects of the Church Year.  Sure, some are better than others, and some seem to match the readings for one lectionary year and not the others, but generally speaking, I think the Collects, many of which have been handed down from Cranmer’s first Prayer Book, are edifying for the life of Church.  In the same way, I’m not sure that the Daily Office gets much use outside of seminary and monastic communities, I’m kind of doubtful that many of the faithful pray the Collects themselves, but I do think that there is great power in praying and reflecting upon them daily.

Take, for example, the Collect for The Baptism of our Lord, as it names a deep reality for the life of faith.  “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 adult, we are incorporated as members of the community of faith and welcomed into the household of God.  Some, myself not included, would argue that baptism permanently punches our ticket to heaven, which makes it a convenient end to the whole “being saved” process.  In reality, baptism isn’t the telos of faith, but rather the genesis.  Baptism is where the hard work of living in the Kingdom begins.

Hence, the prayer for Sunday asks for God’s grace to help we, the baptized, to keep the covenant and confess Jesus as Lord.  The covenant, at least for Episcopalians, includes things like: putting our faith in God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; taking part in the community of faith; working toward sanctification, and when we falter, seeking true repentance; proclaiming by word and example, the good news of Jesus [see the confess piece above]; loving our neighbor; and respecting 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, and by 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 (telos) of the life of faith is glory everlasting, and that’s worth every bit of struggle along the way.

What Our Baptism Means

On Monday, I noted that Matthew’s account of Jesus’ baptism is probably my favorite of the four Gospels, and that is true, but as the week has worn on, I’ve come to realize more and more just how little I actually like preaching the Baptism of our Lord.  Don’t get me wrong, it is a powerful inaugural moment in the ministry of Jesus, but the discomfort of the early Church has spilled across the millennia and is pooling upon my desk.  My problem is this, as a preacher, I see my main task as finding ways to apply Scripture as a living, breathing text to the lives of the faithful.  If my sermon is nothing more than a doctrinal statement on the nature of the Incarnation or Resurrection of, as the case may be, Christ’s baptism, then I have failed to adequately do my job, and the fact of the matter is that Jesus’ baptism is so peculiar, a never-to-be repeated event, that it is hard for me to tie it into the larger story of the life of faith.

What it does offer, however, is an entree into the Epiphanies that come through baptism.  For Jesus, it came in the form of the heavens being torn in two and the Spirit descending like a dove, but very few of us have had that experience.  Even if we did, how many Roman Catholics or [former] Mainliners remember their baptism at all?  For Jesus, his baptism was his commissioning as the beloved Son – so what does it mean for us?

I think that’s where the Acts lesson comes to play.  Peter’s encounter with Cornelius and his family is a prime example of the Spirit at work in the life of a faithful Christian, and, as the Church has taught since the beginning, the Spirit is the gift of Baptism.  What does our baptism mean?  It means that we are full members of the family of God, gifted with the Holy Spirit, and invited to follow the Spirit en route to the Kingdom of God.  It means that as we mature, our opinions will change, our eyes will be opened, our hearts will be filled.  It means that we’ll trip and fall over our traditions as the Spirit leads us beyond man made classifications into the fullness of God.

In sort, our baptism means that our work has begun.  Which, I suppose isn’t all that unlike Jesus’ baptism after all.

To Fulfill All Righteousness

As I noted yesterday, the baptismal back and forth between Jesus and JBap in Matthew is well worth studying.  Clearly, John has some issues about his doing the baptizing of his Lord and Savior, but Jesus is quick to allay his fears.  “Let is be so now,” Jesus says to John, “for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”  What a peculiar response.  If it has to be this way for “now,” then what will it look like later?  And how is it that John’s baptism, the one that is expressly for the washing away of sins, will “fulfill all righteousness”?

My handy-dandy HarperCollins Annotated Bible defines righteousness as “right conduce in accord with God’s will as revealed in scripture” (Note of Mt. 3.15, p. 1863).  It then references several verses:

  • Mt. 1.19 – [Mary’s] husband, Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.
  • 5.10 – Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
  • 5.17-20 – Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.  For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not on stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.  Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.  For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceed that of the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

Aside from taking solace in the fact that even sinners and teachers of sin will have a place in the Kingdom (a post for another day), I’m having a difficult time wrapping my mind around how the righteousness of Joseph, of those who are blessed, righteousness that exceeds that of the Pharisees has anything to do with why John had to baptize Jesus “now.”  My equally handy and equally dandy, HarperCollins Single Volume Bible Commentary, notes that this phrase, “to fulfill all righteousness” is “an adjective that not only applies to this baptismal scene, but will govern his ministry as a whole:” pointing the reader again to Mt 5.17 (p. 873).

So this scene sets the stage for all that is to come.  Jesus is following the rules in order to be able to speak from under the law.  He’s living into his full humanity, in order to restore every bit of our fallen nature.  He’s got a plan, to fulfill all righteousness, and that plan isn’t going to fail here on the first day of his public ministry.

The Awkwardness of John the Baptist

The story of Jesus’ baptism is one that captures the imagination.  Each of the three Synoptic Gospel writers deals with the story in their on particular way, but by far, my favorite is Matthew’s account.  Matthew isn’t afraid to delve into the humanity of this profound and powerful encounter between the Harbinger, John the Baptist, and the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth.  While the story begins in a very straightforward way, “Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him,” it quickly becomes clear that this isn’t your run of the mill baptism story.

You can almost feel the awkwardness of the situation as John stares through Jesus, pondering what sort of request this is.  “Jesus wants me to baptism him?!?” John thinks to himself, long and hard, before looking Jesus in the eye and saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and yet you come to me?”  John finds himself in a position that anyone doing ministry with any regularity will find themselves in often – the minister becomes the one being ministered too.

If you spend much time with people, it quickly becomes clear that the roles of minister and ministeree can quickly become reversed.  Whether it is sitting in someone’s room at the nursing home or in someone’s ramshackle dwelling next to a garbage dump in Jamaica, the lines are often blurred as to who exactly is being helped in any given situation, and the fact of the matter is, that it can often feel quite awkward.  For everyone.

It takes a depth of character to handle the constantly switching of roles that comes with full-time ministry.  There are moments when all I want to do is shout, “Don’t you know you are the one who knows the answer, and yet you’ve come to me!?!”  It takes humility, and a certain comfort with awkwardness, to allow that other person the space they need to find what they are looking for.  John allows that space in a clunky way and with much reluctance, but, as the story unfolds, we realize that this is precisely how it was supposed to work, awkwardness and all.