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.