Remembering the meaning of Baptism: A Homily for the First Sunday after the Epiphany, 2021

The Baptism of our Lord

January 10, 2021

These are difficult, frightening, shocking days. After two months of baseless claims of election fraud, the insurrection or attempted coup on January 6 has shaken our nation to its foundations. In spite of all that we’ve seen over the past years, police violence, the overt racism and white supremacy on display, the treatment of immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers. I could go on and on—in spite of all of that, politicians and pundits have continued to mouth mantras like “This is not who we are” and “America is better than this.” Even now, many refuse to see how deeply flawed, even failed, our political, cultural, and religious institutions are. Religious, for among the banners flying on Wednesday were “Jesus saves” and “Jesus 2020.” We don’t know yet whether our nation will survive this onslaught, whether we have the strength of will, the moral power, to hold back the tide. We don’t know if Christianity as we have known itwill survive either; while the Word of God is eternal, the false prophets and idolatry of many American Christians threaten it. 

And in our own congregation, this has been a difficult week. They say deaths come in three, but I added it up last night, I have learned of the deaths of no less than seven people who are in some way connected to Grace over the last week or so, loved ones, members, former members. And there are others who are suffering. With the pandemic, the normal ways in which we care for each other, by gathering together for worship on Sundays, pastoral visits to the hospital or to grieving families—none of that is possible. Instead, we are limited to phone calls that rarely provide the necessary comfort and support, let alone the bodily presence and reassurance of a smile or hug.

In fraught moments like this one, we want to turn to each other, to discuss and share our concerns, to offer consolation; we turn to our faith and our religious community. Worship reassures and strengthens us; a sermon or homily should help to orient us, help us to think about these difficult times, put them in perspective, and connect them with the traditions of our faith. We want to know how the example of Jesus, his life and ministry, his teachings might inform our response and shape our witness.

This year in the Eucharistic lectionary, we are reading the Gospel of Mark, even though our focus over the last few weeks, the season of Christmas and the feast of the Epiphany this past Wednesday has drawn our attention to the infancy stories of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Mark tells a different story; he has a different agenda. His gospel begins not with Jesus’ birth, but with the ministry of John the Baptist and with the story we just heard, Jesus’ baptism by John.

The story of Jesus’ baptism, which is the focus of our attention each year on the Sunday after the feast of the Epiphany, is an opportunity to re-examine the meaning of baptism. Mark’s version of this story is especially rich in detail and invites us to explore what he thinks the significance of Jesus’ baptism was and to connect that meaning with our own lives. 

Mark’s depiction of Jesus’ baptism is dramatic and puzzling. The drama, though, surrounds Jesus, who seems to be a passive player as the action swirls around him. He doesn’t speak or in any way assent to his baptism. Instead we see him receiving John’s baptism and coming out of the water, when Mark writes, “The heavens were torn open and a voice came saying, “you are my son, the beloved. With you I am well-pleased.” 

Both of these are of great significance. The word translated as “torn” appears only one other time in the Gospel of Mark, at the moment of Jesus’ death, when the curtain of the temple is torn in two. There’s more symmetry in these two scenes as well, for it is the centurion who says, upon seeing Jesus die, that “Truly this man was the Son of God.” This confession is foreshadowed by the voice from heaven here in chapter 1, who speaks not to the crowd, nor to John the baptizer, but to Jesus. Think about that framework for the Gospel—from beginning to end, we the reader know that Jesus is the Son of God, but within that framework as well as the sense that something new has broken in on the old order—the heavens have been torn apart and the curtain of the temple torn from top to bottom. The old world is being remade into something new by the coming of Jesus Christ. 

Jesus comes out of the water and immediately, a voice from heaven comes to tell him, “You are my Son, the Beloved.” Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed that little detail. It’s incredibly important and raises all kinds of questions, but let’s just stick with the most obvious one. We don’t know, Mark doesn’t tell us what Jesus was thinking before this event, what he knew about himself. All we know is what Mark tells us, that he hears while coming out of the water, that he is God’s son, the beloved. We might wonder what it would be like to hear such words, what an affirmation, a blessing.

We don’t know what Jesus thought when he heard those words from heaven. In Mark’s gospel, this is the moment when he learns who he is, but it’s an identity that will remain hidden from most everyone else, including Jesus’ disciples until the very end of the gospel.

You are my Son, the Beloved. Or, let’s put it another way, “You are my Child, my Beloved.” Those words of affirmation, of love, of identity, are words meant not only for Jesus, but for each of us. It is an identity that is affirmed and strengthened in our baptism, but as human beings, created in God’s image, it is an identity that precedes our baptism, an identity that unites all humankind in shared relationship with God.

It’s an identity that is so often lost or erased by the divisions that separate—divisions of race, gender or sexuality, class, place of birth or ethnicity, national origin. We are taught by our culture, by media and marketing, by our political leaders that some people are better than others, that some marks of identity make us better than others. We are taught, or led to believe, that we don’t have value, that we aren’t worth being loved or respected unless we are certain kind of person. So many of the conflicts in our nation boil down to this one issue—whether we are all equal, no matter our race, religion, national or ethnic background, whatever our gender or sexual orientation. In our baptismal covenant that we recite at every baptism, we promise to respect the dignity of every human person. That vow is more important than ever.

Who knows what will happen over the next week or ten days? Who knows what our nation, our community will be like as we begin to emerge from the pandemic and try to rebuild our economy? Who knows whether we will have the courage and vision to imagine a city and nation that confronts our racism and white supremacy honestly and seriously in an attempt to create a more just and equitable society? As Christians, baptism reminds us of our common identity as God’s beloved children across all of our differences. It calls us into a future in which we respect the dignity of all humans, work for justice and peace, and love our neighbors. May we all, reminded of God’s transforming grace imparted through the waters of baptism, filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, claim our calling as God’s beloved children, and be witnesses in the world, of that same transforming grace.

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.

 

 

Living the Easter story: A Sermon for the Easter Vigil, 2019

A few minutes ago, we baptized Adrian and Roland. If my math is correct, Adrian celebrated his 30thbirthday yesterday; Roland was born on January 15, so he’s just over 3 months old. Adrian has a story he tells about himself, where he came from, who he is. Roland’s story is just beginning and he isn’t able to tell it yet.

But tonight, both of them entered into another story, the story of salvation. We heard some of those highlights in the series of readings from Old Testament, beginning with Creation, the Flood, and the deliverance at the Red Sea. We heard another version of that story in Paul’s description of baptism from the letter to the Romans: Continue reading

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

A Cloud of Witnesses: A Homily for All Saints’ Sunday, 2017

Today is All Saints’ Sunday. It’s a Sunday that is jam-packed liturgically as we will baptize an infant and an adult and commemorate those from our parish and our loved ones who have died, especially in the past year. We will also recognize new members today and we’ve set this day as our ingathering of pledges for our annual stewardship campaign. This evening we will gather again for Choral Evensong. Continue reading

Baptism: Being Called to Journey into the heart of God’s Love: A Sermon for Proper 17, Year B

Today we will be baptizing Serena. Baptisms are joyous events in the lives of individuals, their families, and the church. Serena’s baptism is especially joyous for me, because I was privileged to participate in her parents’ wedding, and even more so, because I first met Serena the day she was born. In the nearly eight months since that day, we’ve watched her grow, develop a personality. Though unbaptized, she has already attended at least two vestry meetings where she has delighted, and occasionally diverted, us all. Continue reading

Torn-Apart Heavens: A Sermon for the Baptism of Our Lord, 2015

Today is an exciting day in the one hundred and seventy five year history of Grace Church. It is also a day tinged with just a little bit of sadness and regret. We are celebrating the success of our Giving Light Giving Hope capital campaign that has raised nearly a million dollars and laid the foundation for renovations to our spaces that will equip us to engage in mission and ministry in the coming decades of our rapidly changing world. Continue reading

Who am I? A Sermon for Proper 16, Year A

It seems like every week this summer I come before you after a week of horrific violence and tragedy in the world and try to offer some consolation and hope from scripture. Then in the following week, even worse things happen. I won’t recite the litany of the past months to you, nor even the tragedies, violence, and injustices of the past week. The images are all too familiar to us now even if they were shocking when we first saw or heard about them. Once again, we have had laid bare to us the racism, injustice, and inequity that pervades every aspect of our society. As a human race, we see ourselves in all of our evil and inhumanity. Continue reading

Baptism is the beginning of a spiritual adventure: A Sermon for June 29, 2014

I had a series of conversations this week that had a common theme—the spiritual journeys we are on in our lives. My conversation partners differed in many respects. Some were members or friends of Grace, some were newcomers, seekers, one was a woman I met at a gathering at the university. Of all of them, the most interesting journey was that of Peter Reinhart, the bread baker, teacher and writer who visited UW this week. Peter was raised Jewish, encountered yoga and eastern religions in the sixties and early seventies, found his way into an intentional community that combined aspects of new thought, eastern religions, and Christianity and eventually with that community joined the tradition of Eastern Orthodoxy. Continue reading

Do not leave us comfortless: A Sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Easter

Today, the seventh Sunday of Easter, is one of the oddest of all of the Sundays in the liturgical calendar. We are in something like suspended animation, or stopped motion. On Thursday, the calendar, even if we at Grace Church didn’t, commemorated the feast of the Ascension, when Jesus Christ departed from earth and from his disciples forty days after the resurrection. Next Sunday is the Feast of Pentecost, when we celebrate the coming of the gift of the Holy Spirit on the assembled disciples, empowering them to spread the good news of Jesus Christ throughout the world. But today, today we’re waiting. Continue reading