Jesus’ Baptism and our own: A Sermon for the Baptism of our Lord, 2020

In our liturgical calendar, today is the First Sunday after the Epiphany. Saying that probably doesn’t help orient many of you to what is going on in our worship. The Feast of the Epiphany is celebrated on January 6. It brings the Season of Christmas to an end. It’s a feast that celebrates God making Godself manifest in the world and especially in Jesus Christ. Traditionally, the church has focused on three specific events in Jesus’ life on Epiphany: the coming of the wise men, Jesus’ baptism, and Christ’s first miracle in the Gospel of John—the transformation of water into wine at the Wedding at Cana.

The first Sunday after the Epiphany focuses on the second of these three events: Jesus’ Baptism. Each year, we hear one of the gospels’ versions of the story of his baptism by John. It is also one of the Sundays when it is especially appropriate to baptize and to bring into the body of Christ new members.

Reading the story of Jesus’ baptism on a day when we also celebrate the sacrament of baptism prompts us to think about what our baptisms might mean in light of Jesus’ own baptism. But Jesus’ baptism is not our only source for early Christian baptism. There is also Paul, for whom, as he writes in the Letter to the Romans: “all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death”—so baptism is a participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

If you were to set the three different versions of Jesus’ baptism that we are given by the synoptic gospels, it would be very easy to see the different ways the gospel writers shape the story to reflect their perspectives on the meaning of the event and its significance for the person and ministry of Jesus. They differ in many small but significant details.

Looking only at Matthew’s version, as we are today, we can still detect some important themes that we will note repeatedly as we work through the gospel this year.

One thing to note is the important role of John the Baptist for Jesus’ ministry. For Matthew, Jesus’ proclamation and ministry is a continuation of John’s. Both preach the coming of the kingdom of God. John the Baptist will make appearances later in the gospel. There are occasions when others think Jesus is himself John the Baptist.

Remember that this is the first time we’ve seen Jesus as an adult in the gospel of Matthew, the first time we’ve seen him since the family’s return from Egypt after fleeing Herod. So Matthew’s depiction of this story is very important. What first impressions does he want to give us of Jesus?

He tells us that Jesus came to John in the wilderness. Jesus wasn’t just wandering by. He had come a long distance. He had come to John for this, to be baptized by John. But John refuses to do it. He says Jesus should baptize him. But Jesus insists, and says something very interesting: “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Jesus seems to be bringing John into this event, sharing with him in its enactment, and together, Jesus seems to be saying, they are fulfilling all righteousness. We might even say that it takes both of them, willingly participating, to fulfill all righteousness.

Righteousness is a complex term with many meanings in scripture. For us, it’s one of those old “religious” words that we never use except when we’re in church or talking about church; if anything, when it is used in popular culture it’s a synonym for amazing or cool. So we don’t know quite what it means. Earlier, Matthew described Joseph as a “righteous” man when he plans on quietly ending his relationship with Mary—he’s acting in accordance with Jewish law. We might regard it as both inner disposition and a matter of outward practice. But perhaps the most important element in it is obedience to God. Jesus is signaling here that both he and John are obeying God, seeking to live according to God’s will.

In Matthew’s telling of the story, it is that shared obedience, the willing participation of both John and Jesus in the event that leads to the confirmation of Jesus’ identity. As he comes out of the waters of the baptism, the voice from speaks, “This is my Son, the Beloved, in whom I am well pleased.”

 

I’m not sure many of you know why we baptize people, especially infants. I doubt very many of you believe that unbaptized babies will burn in hell if they die—even the Roman Catholic Church has rejected the traditional doctrine of limbo. And we have so internalized American values of self-determination and freedom when it comes to religion that the idea parents might make a religious for their children has come to be regarded by many as parental tyranny.

Yet here we are. Out of some sense of obligation, or tradition, we will gather around the font again. Often, there’s a powerful bond of family that tugs us to bring our babies to the font, whether or not we quite believe in it all, we’re doing it for our parents or grandparents.

It’s tough to be a parent today. Young families are juggling jobs and daycare; struggling to make ends meet in a changing world and changing economy. We wonder and worry what sort of world our children and grandchildren will inherit from us—whether the planet we live on will even be inhabitable in 50 or 75 years. We can’t do it on our own. I’ve been fascinated to see how many people have come to Grace Church in the last couple of years, moving here to be closer to their children and grandchildren. That’s not just about being closer to family, it’s about helping out, providing childcare, helping raise the next generation. I’ve also seen the struggles of those parents, single moms especially, who don’t have other family members to turn to in difficult times.

For parents to bring a child to the font, is a recognition and admission that they can’t do it on their own. These beautiful children, miracles of life and of God’s creative power, are at the very beginning of their life’s journey. None of us knows what lies in store for them, what challenges and possibilities they will face. Baptism brings them into the body of Christ, the fellowship of the faithful, where we all commit to helping them grow into their full stature as children of God.

For those of us who are observing this rite today, baptism is also a powerful reminder of who we are. There’s a sense in which we are like these babies, brought to God’s grace by power beyond ourselves, our salvation dependent not on what we might do or choose, but only through God’s love.

We can’t do it on our own. We can’t make it on our own. Baptism reminds us that we aren’t lone individuals making our way in the world. We are enmeshed in a network of relationships, and baptism grafts us into the body of Christ. Baptism is the means by which God reaches out to us, draws us into God’s loving embrace.

In a way, all of us here are like John and Jesus today, coming to the waters of baptism in obedience to God’s call, trusting in God’s grace. And like Jesus, of whom the voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved;” in baptism we are all marked as Christ’s own forever, embraced as God’s beloved children. Thanks be to God.

 

 

When all the people had been baptized: A Sermon for the Baptism of our Lord, 2018

Last month, I found myself following and to some extent participating in a twitter conversation or debate about the practice and theology of baptism. A number of people from various backgrounds took part as they discussed the relative merits of adult believer’s baptism or infant baptism, and explored the meaning of the rite—does it wash away original sin? Is it primarily a sign or symbol of membership in a community? Does it transmit grace, but only if the one being baptized makes a mature confession of faith or commitment? Continue reading

You are God’s beloved child: A Sermon for the Baptism of Our Lord, 2017

A friend of ours, our former Yoga teacher, was back in town over the holidays, and over lunch as we caught up on our lives, she recommended a book to me: Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion. It’s written by Fr. Greg Boyle, a Jesuit priest who has served in the LA projects for over 30 years. He works with gang members, helping them get off the street and leading productive lives. It’s a book full of powerful stories of redemption, forgiveness, resilience, and suffering. For most of the men and women in these neighborhoods, gangs provide the only family and community they have ever known. Continue reading

Beloved children of God: A Sermon for the Baptism of Our Lord, 2017

 

There’s a story behind my name—a story tied up with my family and roots, and it’s a story and a name with which I’ve always struggled. It’s not just that my surname is both awkward and uncommon—should it be pronounced Greezer or Greizer—or, heaven forbid, Greaser. BTW, I had a German prof in college who took great delight in addressing me as Herr Greaser…

It’s a German name, so it’s Grieser, of course. And while it may be rare in Wisconsin or worldwide, my hometown was full of Griesers. My grandfather, great-grandfather, and great great grandfather all had lots of sons who had lots of sons, and most of them stayed in the area. At least back home, they know how to pronounce it.

But there’s also the matter of my first and middle names. My parents wanted to call me Jon, but they wanted my initials to match the initials of my deceased grandfather—so DJ—but in my case the D stood for Dale—my father’s first name. So growing up, I was Jon, even though at least two other Jon Griesers in my elementary school, which led to infinite confusion. For example, I once wore a pair of prescription glasses for a week that was meant for one of the other Jons.

That particular confusion came to an end when my fifth-grade teacher, calling the roll on the first day of class, saw my first initial and promptly named me DJ. The name stuck and by DJ I was known until I graduated from college. That brought its own set of confusions and challenges—the inevitable question—are you a DJ?

So I’ve struggled with my first name and when I’m dealing with doctors or business or what have you, if I identify myself as Jonathan, they won’t be able to find my record. And then there’s the whole issue of my surname which is uncommon, unattractive, and confusing to pronounce.

Names are funny things, and we’ve just learned this week that our nation’s political polarization extends to preferences for naming babies. Apparently there are different lists of the most popular name in blue states and red states. Perhaps like me you’ve struggled with the name your parents chose for you, or you struggle with the surname that you carry with you.

The story of Jesus’ baptism is puzzling and problematic on several levels. In the first place, while the synoptic gospels all tell some version of the story, there are significant differences. Remember that the gospel of Mark was probably the first of the gospels to be written, and that Matthew, which we are reading in this year of the lectionary, draws heavily on Mark as a source. But Matthew changes Mark in some important ways. Only in Matthew, for example, do we have the dialogue between John the Baptist and Jesus, in which John protests saying that Jesus should baptize him.

More significant is another slight change. In Mark, after the baptism, the voice from heaven says, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” In Matthew, the voice says, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” In other words, in Mark, the voice seems to be speaking directly to Jesus, naming him as God’s Son; in Matthew, the voice speaks to John, and or to the crowd, identifying for them who Jesus is.

In these different accounts of Jesus’ baptism, we can see early Christians struggling to make sense of this event. It’s a problem for them for a couple of reasons. First, of course, is the obvious one. The gospels tell us that John baptized people for forgiveness of sins—baptism was a symbol of repentance and amendment of life. But if that was the case, why would Jesus, who presumably being divine was without sin, need to be baptized?

The second problem is perhaps less obvious but equally troubling among the first followers of Jesus. That he was baptized by Jesus implies that John somehow had as much, or more, authority than Jesus. We know from other stories in the gospels, and from the book of Acts, that there was something of a competition between followers of Jesus and followers of John, and it didn’t strengthen the position of early Christians in this controversy that John baptized Jesus. We can also see that as time goes on, there’s an attempt to erase the act of Jesus’ baptism. Thus, in the gospel of John, while we read about John the Baptist and learn of encounters and conversations between Jesus and John, if you look carefully, you will note that no where is it stated explicitly that John baptized Jesus.

All of that is of historical interest, but the story of Jesus’ baptism is not important only for the problems it presents to the gospel writers and perhaps to us; it is also important for the meaning the gospel writers attach to it. Although the voice from heaven says slightly different things in Matthew and Mark and may seem to be addressing different audiences, the message in both instances is quite clear, that Jesus is God’s Beloved Son.

To state the obvious, Jesus’ baptism is about his identity, making clear who he is. It’s not coincidental that in both Matthew and Mark, the very next event recounted is Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, which was about Satan testing Jesus’ identity.

This is where Jesus’ baptism connects with our own baptisms. In our baptisms, we become children of God. As I remind you regularly, when I make the sign of the cross with the oil of chrism on the forehead of the baptized, I say, “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.”

In baptism, we become sons and daughters of God. In baptism, we claim our identity as Christians. That identity, that belonging to God, cannot be taken away by anyone or anything. I’m not even sure we are able to renounce that identity, even if we want to. Our identity as Christians, as beloved of God, is a reminder of who we are, a reminder of our value and worth, in the eyes of God and of the world.

It’s a message we need to hear regularly, in a world in which there are so many other claims on our identity, challenges to our identity. We need to be reminded that we are God’s, that we are beloved of God, especially now, when there are many who would deny the value and worth of so many of us—that because we are not white, or male, or heterosexual, that because we were not born in this country, our lives matter less, our hopes and dreams are worthless. We are all beloved of God.

But don’t take it only from me. Right now, I would like you to turn to your neighbor, introduce yourself if you don’t know each other’s names, take your thumb and make the sign of the cross on each other’s foreheads, and as you make that sign, say, “You are God’s beloved child.”

That, my friends, is the meaning of baptism. Let us claim it, and let us claim our shared identities as God’s beloved children.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One Faith, One Hope, One Baptism: A Sermon for the Baptism of Our Lord, 2016

 

Today is the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord. Each year on the Sunday after the Epiphany (which occurs on January 6), the church remembers Jesus’ baptism by John. It’s also one of the major feasts when we typically offer the sacrament of baptism. It’s an especially appropriate day for us to baptize newcomers to the faith, as it reminds us all of Jesus’ example.

With Epiphany, we have moved out of the Christmas season and into a period when we explore the ways in which we experience God’s becoming present among us and in the world. Our scripture readings, gospel, even hymns, during these weeks will emphasize God’s glorious presence in the world. There’s a sense in which the season of Epiphany is an extension of the season of Christmas, when we celebrate and experience God becoming one of us, God in the midst of us. But Epiphany is not limited to our experience of God in Christ, it encourages us to explore all of the ways God makes Godself present and real to us.

The synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke agree that Jesus’ baptism is the beginning of his public ministry. In none of those gospels do we hear Jesus speak before he is baptized by John. That should make attune us to the significance of this act, both for the gospel writers (and the communities for and to which they were writing) and for Jesus. In all three gospels, the description of Jesus’ baptism is accompanied by what we would regard as supernatural events—the heavens are opened, a voice speaks, and the Holy Spirit comes upon Jesus. The details of these events differ from gospel to gospel. Luke emphasizes, for example, that the Holy Spirit comes upon Jesus in the bodily form of a dove and that the voice speaks directly to Jesus, saying “You are my Son, the beloved.”

There are many questions we might ask of this brief account of Jesus’ baptism in Luke, especially if we were to compare it to the accounts in Mark and Matthew, but for today I want us to focus on the significance Luke places on the event. There are two things to note. First, the voice—“You are my Son, the beloved.” It’s significant that Luke has this statement addressed to Jesus (Matthew, for example, has the voice saying, “This is my son” in other words, the voice addresses the crowd, not Jesus.” In his baptism, Luke seems to be implying, Jesus becomes the one of whom John spoke; he is the one to fulfill the expectations of the people.

The second important thing is the coming down of the Holy Spirit. This points to one of the key themes in Luke’s over-arching narrative—the presence of the Holy Spirit. Luke organizes his two-volume work, the gospel and the book of Acts, by emphasizing the role and activity of the Holy Spirit. It comes down upon Jesus at his baptism. Jesus’ last words on the cross in Luke are “Into your hands I commend my Spirit” suggesting that the Holy Spirit departs from Jesus at his death. Then, on Pentecost, the Holy Spirit descends upon all of the disciples and goes with them throughout the world, as the brief reading from Acts reminds us. For Luke, baptism and Holy Spirit are linked, for Jesus and for everyone.

The two are linked in our practice as well. As I pour water into the font and pray over the water, I recall the Holy Spirit’s moving in creation and I invoke its presence in the water and in the lives of those being baptized. After I pour water over their heads, I will anoint them with the oil of chrism and tell each of them that they are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.

I may say the words but I doubt many of us expect or experience the sort of supernatural events described by Luke at Jesus’ baptism. In our church, baptism usually occurs with small children, typically infants as is the case with Ella and Noah today. And while we celebrate the baptisms of babies, rejoicing with their families as we welcome them into the body of Christ, our modern sensibilities shrink back from the idea that something supernatural is happening when I pour water and say the words, “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

But today we are also baptizing an adult. Actually, it’s a bit more complicated than that. Soon after Paula began attending services regularly, she and I had a conversation during which she told me she didn’t know whether she had been baptized. We could have left it at that. After all, if you were baptized as a baby, you couldn’t remember being baptized, and the chances that you would still have a baptismal certificate highly unlikely—we regularly receive requests from people for proof of baptism. There’s one sitting in my email inbox right now.

So today is a teaching moment for all of us. Paula wasn’t sure whether she had been baptized and wanted that certainty. So, I will be performing what’s called a conditional baptism, prefacing the usual formula with the phrase “If you are not already baptized…” The church has long taught that any baptism performed with water and in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is a valid baptism, no matter who performs it or wherever it takes place. In fact, rebaptism is considered heresy.

Paula’s desire to be certain of her baptism is a reminder to all of us of the importance and the power of baptism. It may only be water, and it may only be words. But the words and the water brought together have the power to save. Baptism cleanses us from our sins, brings us into the body of Christ and makes us Christ’s own forever. We bear the sign of the cross; the sign of Christ’s suffering and love, and we share that sign with the world. In baptism, we embark on the journey of becoming Christ’s own, of becoming Christ-like. Each time we witness a baptism, we are invited to recall and reclaim our own baptisms, to recall and reclaim our identity as Christ’s own and to recommit ourselves to becoming transformed into his image.

May the baptisms of each of these individuals be a powerful presence in their lives, as they share in Christ’s death and resurrection, and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. May these baptisms be a powerful presence in our lives, reminding us of Christ’s saving and life-giving power, inspiring us to repentance and newness of life, filling all of us with joy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

You are God’s Beloved Child: A Sermon for the Baptism of Our Lord, 2013

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. Continue reading