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.