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Sunday, January 8, 2012

Baptism of Christ

January 8, 2012

And a voice came from heaven, 'You are my own dear Son. I am pleased with you'.” Good morning and welcome to the Feast of the Baptism of Jesus.

This is the Epiphany season and you will recall the meaning of the word Epiphany. It is a sudden manifestation of the meaning of something, a showing forth, an ‘Aha” moment.

Our ‘aha’ moment today comes from the life of Jesus, and of course, His ‘Aha’ moment in discovering His public ministry. Recall the voice coming to Jesus. It was personal, the voice from the Heavenly Father declaring to Jesus His role. It is a clear moment of identity. “You are my own dear Son,” not “This is my own dear Son,” which could be interpreted as a voice that was heard by all.

Jesus’ own baptism comes at a time when many were being baptized ahead of him. Some scholars have suggested Jesus went into the water, to acknowledge the importance of baptism and to be one with the crowd. Earlier, we read how the crowd believed John might be the promised Messiah, as he had reached many people with his message of the need of a baptism of repentance.

Of course, John replies, “I baptize you with water, but someone is coming who is much greater than I am. I am not good enough even to untie his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”

In Matthew’s account of the baptism of Jesus, John tries to change Jesus’ mind about baptism. “I ought to be baptized by you,” John said, “and yet, you come to me!” Jesus says, “Let it be so for now. For in this way we shall do all that God requires.” Jesus was participating in John’s baptism of repentance. He pointed the way to Jesus, who was the Messiah, the One to come, the Anointed One, the One who would save all of humanity from sin. While John’s baptism was for repentance, the baptism into Jesus was one of remission.

In his book, God Hides in Plain Sight, author Dean Nelson equates baptism to initiation, similar to initiation rites he experienced in the camping movement. He talks of how he had to go out into the bush on his own prior to becoming one of the campers.

Turns out, he didn’t actually get it done right. He was rescued from the forest by the assistant scoutmaster.
“We never told anyone we had violated the rules. If the organization’s elders are reading this now, I will send back my sash,” he writes, adding Christian baptism is a means “by which God uses the symbol of water to show that our old self is washed away and we accept our new self as a member of a spiritual family. It is a means by which we recognize ourselves as new creatures. It’s a type of initiation.”
Our own baptisms are meant to give us meaning, identity, and connection with Jesus. Therefore, the symbol of the sacrament is water. Our baptism in water is a sign of identifying with Jesus. We die, if you will, to sin. We identify with Jesus, who died for us, and in so doing, brings new life. The outward sign, then, is water. The inward grace is the anointing of the Holy Spirit, the same Holy Spirit who came down upon Jesus in bodily form like a dove. We read of the baptism in Jesus in our second reading today.

It’s been said that the sacrament is a means by which God washes away the illusion of who we think we are. Thomas Merton called baptism “the sacrament of illumination” (Thomas Merton, The Living Bread (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1956), 102). It is a means by which we discover who we really are.

We are in the season of Epiphany. The season is one of illumination and personal growth. The word means “showing forth,” so the season is all about capturing the life of Christ within us. In the process, we achieve many moments of ‘aha’ or “Now I get it.” This occasion, this celebration of the baptism of Jesus can be an ‘aha’ moment for us as Christians. Since Christmas, we have learned of the significance of the three wise men, the Magi, who travelled from the east to bring their gifts. They were the first Gentiles who arrived, and it is the ‘aha’ moment when we recognize that Jesus’ birth and coming into the world was meant for all people.

In Epiphany, we often hear of the story of Jesus’ childhood moment when He abandoned His parents in favour of being among the spiritual leaders of the day. There is another ‘aha’ moment, as we, too, recognize we must be in relationship with our Father, His Son Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. Then, today, we hear of the baptism moment, when Jesus was about 30 years of age. Not long after, Luke records the temptation in the wilderness, which we will hear about in the Lenten season.

We are closely and personally connected with Jesus at our baptism. It is an individual event, and in our Anglican tradition, it is commonly children who are baptized. Likely then, you will have no memory of it unless you were baptized as an adult. Thankfully, since I have been here we have baptized adults, and I am sure if you ask them they will tell you of the significance of that moment.

At the moment of baptism, we are made members of a great Christian family the Apostle Paul calls “the body of Christ.” As such, we need each other as we move forward in the same mission of Jesus, to promote the unconditional love of God, of His forgiveness and mercy, of His desire to bless us. As such, though we are individuals, we are not complete until the body, the members, meet. I wonder how much of this concept has been lost in recent years. Not long ago, I read a blog by Professor Richard Leggett from the Vancouver School of Theology. He was walking from the Cathedral on his way somewhere else, and noticed a number of people congregated around a city park who were members of the Occupy movement…you recall them? I believe it started with the Occupy Wall Street movement and spread. Anyway, Dr. Leggett’s blog wondered what happened to the church in recent years, as many are struggling with finance and attendance.

Then, as he walked by this Occupy movement, it hit home. The church, as we know it, started out as a rag tag bunch of disciples following Jesus, who revealed Himself to be the Messiah. The whole of the purpose of this early group was founded in the teachings of the person we know as Jesus. The church as we know it started out as a group of people not unlike the occupiers, who were in relationship with Jesus and each other. They had a common cause. The Occupy movement may fizzle since it branched out into various causes to support and has no known leader. The early church is not like that. Early disciples, or “learners”, followed Jesus and grew in numbers after many came to Jesus following His death and resurrection. The Easter event brought transformation and new life. We celebrate that and recall that event each week in Eucharist. This was the gist of Leggett’s theory.

When the church turned into a religion, an institution, it lost credibility in many people’s eyes. The church as an institution was seen as looking inward and passing on its mandate to spread the Good News, that God so loved the world He sent His only Son to the end that all who believe would not perish in sin, but have eternal life. This is Good News for all. When churches focus on their buildings, their operating costs if you will, and forget the mission or worse: that we are in relationship, each one, with Jesus, that is when we suffer. We are blessed, on the other hand, when we participate with Jesus in His mission to the world.

Tradition was meaningful in the early Church, as only adults were baptized and only after an intense period of training. If a person wanted baptism, it started with the questioning of this faith and the desire to know more. A sponsor was appointed and guided the person through training. At its completion, the adults to be baptized would gather, often in a cave, as Christians were persecuted in those days. The candidates were led into deep water after shedding their old clothes. Upon baptism in the threefold formula—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit— the candidate was led to the other side and given a fresh set of new robes and a candle, a reminder of the light of Christ, presented to the person. The baptism itself included a complete immersion into the water and that immersion was the symbol of death—death to the old way of life and a rising to new life.

Baptism was and is a way of connecting to Jesus and His own life and death and an acceptance of the new life offered in Christ through the Holy Spirit. It was the new life taught by John when he said One was coming who would baptize with fire and the Holy Spirit.

Baptism, then, gives us our identity. No matter where we go, no matter what we do, we are one in Christ, we are united with each other. This family, the community of St. James, is the body of Christ known as St. James. When one of us is missing, we all feel it. When one is hurting we all hurt. Therefore, we are not volunteers as I sometimes hear. Technically, there are no such animals as volunteers in the church. Each of the baptized bring their gifts into whatever they do, and are Christians at work, at home, at play, at sleep. When I attend a family gathering, I am a Christian and a priest. When I attend a business meeting, I am a Christian and a priest. When I lead worship I am a Christian and a priest. I find it fascinating to hear people say, “I am of the Anglican faith” when asked what their faith is. Yes, we are Anglicans, because as Christians we find our identity rooted in the Anglican tradition. But, we are all Christians first. This is a message we try and deliver each year during the week of prayer for Christian unity. Christians of all denominations share the same Lord. Our baptisms unite us.

Think of it. When you are up to your tasks at home, at work, in the community, you are always a Christian. Christ is present in your life, at work nudging you, guiding you. We are intimately connected to our Lord through worship and prayer. Our coming together on Sundays is meant to unify us and give us the energy and renewed desire to serve as Christ Himself did.

Recall that at our baptisms, we promised to uphold and support each other. We promise to seek and to serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, when we do our work, we are serving, not as volunteers, but as ministers. Anyone who is baptized is a minister, serving as Christ Himself did. Let us remember the need to continue to meet together, to continue to worship, to continue to serve in the Church and in our neighborhood and world.

May we be found this Epiphany season growing in faith, serving the Lord and serving others and may the Lord bless us as we journey together in faith.

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