The Baptism of the Lord: A Sermon (C)

A sermon preached on Sunday January 10, 2016 at St. Paul’s (Southampton) and St. John’s (Port Elgin).

Texts: Isaiah 41:1-7; Acts 8:14-17; Luke 3:15-17; 21-22.

I.

Remember your baptism.

Remember your baptism.

For those of us baptized as infants, this is a strange statement: how can we possibly remember our baptism? My parents have pictures of my baptism at one-month old and the congregation in which I was baptized has a record of my baptism, but this hardly constitutes a direct memory of my baptism.

Perhaps some of you were baptized as teenagers and adults, so the memory of your baptism is not relegated to time immemorial.

Either way, because baptisms, unlike the Eucharist, are not celebrated every week, it is easy for us to forget our baptism and overlook the centrality of baptism to the life of Christian discipleship. In other words, we have a tendency to take baptism for granted. We assume it is a ritual with little practical relevance once the water is sprinkled, and so we put the obtrusive font away until it is needed again. The event lives on in family photos, quietly tucked away in an album.

And yet, despite our ritual and pragmatic neglect, baptism remains central to the life of the Church. Indeed, we are to remember our baptism every time we enter and exit the church and every time we approach the altar.

So, why is baptism central to the Church? The answer to this question lies in Jesus’ baptism.

II.

St. Luke’s Gospel is full of historical references and he frequently names eyewitnesses to the events he describes in order to lend credibility to his account. However, the details Luke offers about Jesus’ baptism are sparse. Until this point in his narrative, Luke offers significant detail, but when he arrives at what is arguably the most significant event that underlines Jesus’ identity as the Son of God, he remains surprisingly reserved.

Luke’s focus in the first three chapters is on Jesus’ humanity: he is born as a human baby into the chaos of human history. Upon his baptism where God’s voice is heard and God’s presence is manifest in “bodily form”[1] as a dove, the same presence that will be manifest as tongues of fire at Pentecost, Luke seems relatively uninterested, immediately following this divine encounter by offering us a genealogical account of Jesus’ ancestry through his father Joseph’s lineage all the way back to Adam.

However, Luke’s intent is not simply to emphasize Jesus’ humanity over and against his divinity, but rather to emphasize the way in which Jesus embodies and represents the entirety of humanity as both God’s Son and as the Second Adam. Luke is patiently building a narrative in these first three chapters to show us that Jesus is the promised Messiah, God’s own Son, who stands on behalf of all humanity.

You will recall that John the Baptizer proclaimed “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins”. That Jesus, the one who “knew no sin”, would be baptized for the forgiveness of sins seems rather odd, until we realize that Jesus’ baptism is a symbol that “he did not disdain to bear the sins of others”.[2] Simply put, Jesus’ baptism is on behalf of all humanity and anticipates his atoning sacrifice on the cross and glorious resurrection. Jesus’ baptism is our baptism. Therefore, to remember Jesus’ baptism is to remember our baptism.

There is only one baptism, and that is Jesus’ baptism; our baptisms are an extension of Christ’s baptism; when we are baptized, we are baptized into Christ, into his life, death, and resurrection. Through baptism, we put on Christ and begin a journey of growing into “the fullness and stature”[3] of Christ, a journey that is only possible through the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

As baptized disciples, we participate in all that is Christ’s because Christ participates in all that is ours. Through his Incarnation, his taking on human flesh, Christ opens the way for the redemption of humanity and restores communion between God and humanity. We participate in this redemption and renewed humanity through the sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist.

Baptism, like the Eucharist, is not about what we do; it is about what “God has done for us in Jesus Christ, in whom he has bound himself to us and bound us to himself, before ever we could respond to him. But [baptism] is also the sacrament of what God now does in us by his Spirit, uniting us with Christ in his faithfulness and obedience to the Father and making that the ground of our faith”.[4] Christ’s baptism reminds us that our faith is built upon Christ’s faithfulness and that God makes himself “present to us and binds us creatively to himself in such marvelous ways that not only is faith called forth from us as our own spontaneous response to the grace of God in Christ, but it is undergirded and supported by Christ and enclosed with his own faithfulness”.[5]

The presence of the Holy Spirit at Jesus’ baptism is a reminder of the centrality of baptism for the life of discipleship and, as one fourth-century theologian (St. Gregory of Nazianzus) put it, through his baptism, Jesus buries “the old Adam in water”. When we remember our baptism, we remember the new humanity that the Holy Spirit makes possible: the way of life lived in communion with God and neighbor, a way of life that participates in Christ’s own life.

“The voice of the Lord is over the water; the God of glory thunders, the Lord, over mighty waters” (Psalm 29.3). This is the same voice that spoke over the water at Jesus’ baptism, the voice of God the Father. This is the same voice that also speaks without words, the voice of the Holy Spirit who hovered over the waters in the beginning, the same Holy Spirit poured out on the Church at Pentecost, the same Holy Spirit who prompts us toward Christ, transforming us into his likeness.

III.

We are baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and, as our Anglican liturgy puts it, we are “called to new life through the waters of baptism” and we are brought “to new birth in the family of [God’s] church”.[6] Baptism is an initiation into the life and mission of the church. We are not baptized into membership in a country club or a charitable organization; we are baptized into the very life of Christ, made one with him. As Christians, our very identity is a baptismal identity; we are marked by water and born of the fire of the Holy Spirit to be Christ’s earthly body, chosen and set apart to be his ambassadors. To remember our baptism is to remember the purpose to which God calls us.

Maybe this is why baptism is so often overlooked and forgotten in the church: baptism is a stark reminder that we do not exist for ourselves and that our attempts at religiosity, piety, and morality do nothing to curry favor with God. Baptism is a stark reminder that we, the Church are a re-created humanity, that we must be willing to allow the Holy Spirit to burn away the chaff in our lives so that we are a people impassioned and enflamed by the gospel of God’s self-giving love. Baptism is a stark reminder that God extends his grace to all humanity through Jesus Christ and calls his church to proclaim this message of salvation to all people, inviting them to participate in the new life Christ offers through baptism.

Therefore, let us return our baptismal fonts to the central place they once occupied, reminding us our baptisms; reminding us of Christ’s baptism for us. Let us fill them with water, reminding us that we are born of water and Spirit. Let us celebrate our baptisms and regularly recommit ourselves to a baptismal life.

Finally, as we approach this year’s vestry meetings, let us remember our baptisms so that we can remember the life and purpose to which God calls us. As a priest friend of mine remarked, “the Church should have no greater desire than to welcome members into the Body of Christ through the waters of baptism”.[7] As those who are baptized, Christ himself commissions us to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them…and teaching them” everything Jesus taught.[8] This is our baptismal vocation.

Remember your baptism.

Remember your baptism.

Amen.

[1] Luke 3.23.
[2] St. Cyprian of Carthage as quoted in David Lyle Jeffrey, Luke, 63.
[3] Eph. 4.13.
[4] T.F. Torrance, Theology in Reconciliation.
[5] Ibid.
[6] The Book of Alternative Services, 157.
[7] The Rev. Keith Voets.
[8] Matt. 28.19, 20a.

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