The Sunday after the Epiphany is always the Baptism of our Lord. On this Sunday, we hear the story of Jesus’ baptism according to one of the gospels. It’s also a day when we often celebrate baptisms. Unfortunately, due to a combination of circumstances, we aren’t baptizing anyone at Grace today. But the lessons still give us an opportunity to reflect on baptism—what it means, why we do it, and how we can claim it as central to our lives as Christians.
Luke’s account of Jesus’ baptism, brief though it is, invites us to explore the significance of Jesus’ baptism, for him, and for us. Unfortunately, the editors of the lectionary have omitted what may be the most interesting verses in this section. Let me go back. In his description of John’s ministry, Luke goes into greater detail than the other gospels. In a passage we read, during Advent, after hearing his warnings concerning the judgment to come upon the world, his listeners ask John, “what then should we do?” His ethical advice sounds much like that of Jesus: “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”
After hearing this and other responses to questions comes the crowd’s reaction, which we heard in this morning’s gospel: “the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah.” John turns their attention away from himself toward “the one who is to come.”
So far, so good. It’s the next two verses that’s omitted in today’s reading, a description of John’s arrest by Herod. In other words, a casual reader of Luke with no knowledge of the other gospels, might not conclude that Jesus was baptized by John. Now, there are a couple of reasons for this. It’s pretty clear when you read all of the gospel accounts of Jesus and John the Baptizer, that from Mark on, the gospel writers are increasingly uncomfortable with the idea that Jesus was baptized by John. A bit of reflection helps us to understand that discomfort. The gospels agree that John’s baptism was a baptism for the forgiveness of sins, and as Christians developed an understanding that Jesus was the Son of God, the idea that he was without sin emerged as well. Why, then, would he need to be baptized?
In addition, the book of Acts, and even some suggestions in the gospels, let us infer that followers of John the Baptizer persisted after his death. There may have been some competition between adherents of John and adherents of Jesus, and to acknowledge Jesus’ baptism by John could allow the conclusion that John should have had precedence over Jesus.
So Luke mentions John’s arrest before he mentions Jesus’ baptism. That’s not in any way to imply that Jesus wasn’t baptized by John. Instead, it’s intended to put the focus where Luke wants it—on Jesus. But even that’s somewhat misleading because in Luke’s brief description of the event, the baptism itself is de-emphasized, almost ignored. What matters is what happens next:
when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.
Now, each element in that sentence is important—That immediately after Jesus had been baptized, he began to pray, that the Holy Spirit came upon him, and that a voice from heaven came and said, “You are my Son, the Beloved…”
In this brief description, two important themes of Luke’s gospel are mentioned. Jesus was praying—throughout the gospel of Luke, and much more so in any of the other gospels, at crucial moments of Jesus’ life and ministry, Luke has him go off alone to pray. That he does so here as well confirms Luke’s emphasis that Jesus prayed.
Secondly, the Holy Spirit comes upon him in the bodily form of a dove. There’s no doubt that Luke understood the importance of baptism. But by itself, it wasn’t enough. The presence or indwelling of the Holy Spirit was even more important. That’s what the brief excerpt from the Book of Acts is meant to emphasize. We see it here as well. Again, it’s something the casual reader, the casual Christian might regard as obvious. But for Luke, it’s absolutely crucial and central. To go back to the stories we heard during Advent—both when Zechariah regained his voice after the birth of John, and when Mary herself prophesied, Luke attributes their words to the Holy Spirit.
There’s something even more important here. At his baptism, the Holy Spirit comes down upon Jesus. The Holy Spirit will remain with Jesus until his crucifixion. At the moment of his death, in Luke’s gospel, and only in Luke, Jesus will say, “Into your hands I commend my spirit.” In other words, the Holy Spirit, which dwelt with Jesus during his ministry, will depart upon Jesus’ death. And Luke will make clear that the Holy Spirit will descend again, this time on the disciples, at Pentecost.
All of this should help us understand the absolutely crucial importance of Jesus’ baptism in Luke’s schema of the gospel. While all of those elements I just mentioned point to its significance, perhaps the most important thing of all is that voice from heaven that says, “You are my son, the Beloved.”
Versions of this appear in all three synoptics, in Matthew and Mark, as well a Luke, suggesting it is important for the early Christian community as well as for the gospel writers. That shouldn’t surprise us. It’s a remarkable statement. For one thing, it is addressed to Jesus here (as well as in Mark). It’s a message from God to Jesus. We might wonder about its significance—is this new information for Jesus? Well, he goes from the baptism to the beginning of his public ministry, so it might be an important affirmation to him of his calling and his relationship with God.
The reading from Isaiah confirms and extends that idea of God’s beloved: You are precious in my sight, honored, and I love you.” We may assume that God loves us, we may believe it, but often it’s hard for us to accept that idea. One of the reasons we baptize infants in the Episcopal Church is because it is a way for us to express our understanding of God’s love and grace. Babies do not express a desire to be baptized; their parents and loved ones may, but when we baptize a baby, we are enacting our belief that God is doing all of the work, it’s all about God’s grace, powerful, amazing, immense grace that transforms us and makes us God’s own. When I baptize someone, after pouring water over them, I take a little consecrated oil on my thumb, make the sign of the cross on them, and say, “you are sealed with the Holy Spirit in baptism, and marked as Christ’s own forever.” Baptism is an acknowledgement, an admission, a confession, that we are beloved of God, God’s children. To name that, to accept that, is a remarkable gift and statement of faith. And we need to hear it and remember it.
To affirm that statement, that we are beloved children of God, I would like you right now to turn to your neighbors and tell each other just that, “You are God’s child, God’s beloved.”
But baptism is not just about us accepting God’s love of us, it’s also about us responding in love to that amazing gift. In our liturgy of baptism, one of the key elements, in addition to the baptism itself, is the opportunity it provides us, well, really the challenge it provides us, to renew our baptismal vows. These vows are not meant to be something we simply say or repeat from time to time. They are intended to help us orient ourselves and our lives as followers of Jesus Christ. They are intended to serve as marching orders, a job description, if you will, of what it means to be a disciple. They are meant to be our loving response to the radical love we receive from God when we hear those words, “You are my child, my beloved.”
If we accept those words, if we believe that we are beloved of God, it is not enough to accept that love. Our baptismal vows challenge us to share that love with the world, to tell others, in word and deed that they are also beloved of God. And so, please turn to page 292 of the Book of Common Prayer, and join me in the renewal of our baptismal vows…