January 7, 2018 The First Sunday after the Epiphany: The Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ

 

Genesis 1:1–5, Psalm 29, Acts 8:14–17, Mark 1:4–11

The Rev’d Dr. Jeffrey S. F. Nelson+

In the name of Jesus, the Light of the world. Amen.

A couple of months ago, a young man came to see me requesting baptism. In our discussion about baptism, it was clear he had developed in his mind a binary understanding of baptism that was not very compatible with the Christian tradition. He thought that once baptized, certain behaviors troublesome to him would somehow magically go away and he would act and feel like a changed man. He also believed that baptism was a private affair—a transaction between he and God that really didn’t involve or affect others. As he told me during our conversations when I suggested that he come to church and become immersed in the community of faith, “I’m not really a church person.” In our ongoing conversations, using the Book of Common Prayer, I have slowly been instructing him in a more faithful understanding of baptism, showing him how baptism cannot happen outside the community of faith and that the baptized can only grow into the covenant they make in the context of the community of faith. In other words, he would have to come to church. I also am working to help him see that the baptismal life is a journey into which one moves through a lifetime and that changes in behavior or attitude will likely not happen overnight, but only with much prayer and support from the community; and further that one does not always feel the presence of God when one is baptized, rather such a feeling may come only rarely and may in fact be fleeting. It remains to be seen whether he will seek baptism, or I will baptize him, but I hope our conversation is food for thought for him.

The understanding of baptism espoused by this young man is not unlike the understanding of baptism held by the twelve disciples of John in our second reading from Acts. In the early church, it appeared that there were rival communities, some centered on the ministry of John the Baptist, and some centered on the ministry of Jesus. The Gospel writers go to great lengths to hold up the primacy of Jesus as the Messiah, God’s anointed, and to understand John’s ministry as that of the forerunner to Jesus who makes very clear that he is “not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of [Jesus’] sandals” and who believed, in any case, that “[Jesus] must increase, but I must decrease.” (John 3:30) In this reading, Paul inquires as to whether the twelve disciples of John had received the Holy Spirit when they were baptized, to which they replied they had never even heard of the Holy Spirit. This was a red flag for Paul. “Into what then were you baptized?” asks Paul. “Into the baptism of John,” they reply. And so, John instructs them, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, in Jesus.” Paul, like John the Baptist before him, points beyond John’s ministry to Jesus. The baptism of John was a preliminary step, meant to turn one’s life around in preparation for the inbreaking of God’s reign on earth in Jesus; baptism in Jesus’ Name thrusts the baptized into this reign of God and makes them active participants in bringing about this reign here and now. Once the disciples of John were baptized, they received the gift of the Holy Spirit—the active agent in baptism in the Name of Jesus—and immediately began working to bring about the reign of God by speaking in tongues, a sign of the Spirit’s presence, and prophesying, a sign of active engagement in the Name of Jesus. Baptism isn’t primarily about a change in one’s own life and behavior for one’s own sake, but a change for the sake of the world.

The young man whom I have been mentoring concerning baptism is, I would argue, at the “baptism of John stage” in his journey. While he has not actually been baptized in any real way, he senses his life needs to go in a different direction—he is, in other words, at the repentance stage, longing for something different. What he doesn’t yet understand is that baptism in the Name of Jesus will not merely change him for his own sake, but will thrust him into the world to change the world for Jesus’ sake because he will be filled with the Holy spirit for this purpose: to be nurtured in the fellowship of the community of faith gathered around Word, Sacrament, and prayer; in the context of community to resist evil and to repent and return to the way of Jesus when evil overcomes him; to proclaim in his own life the Good News of God in Christ in the world; to enter into loving service to all people, indeed to the whole creation in the Name of Jesus; and to be an agent of justice and peace in the world, respecting all people—all people—as beloved creatures of a loving God. This work cannot be done in a vacuum apart from the rest of the community of faith; this work can only be done in the context of the community of faith. So again, he must come to church; he must engage the community of faith to grow into the vows he wishes to make and be strengthened with them for service in the world. Otherwise, all he will be about is the baptism of John—inward focus that does nothing to bring in the reign of God in the world; inward focus devoid of the Spirit’s creativity, power, and zeal for mission in the world.

As it is for this young man, so it is for us. In the coming year, I am going to call each of you back to your baptismal vows—to be people centered in God’s Word, the Eucharist, and prayer for mission in the world, particularly to the poor and those on the margins. We are going to realign the ministry of this congregation toward these priorities, letting go those things that do not serve this baptismal mission, and engaging new things that do. This will not be easy for some who like things the way they always have been; but rest assured, the direction we take will not be merely for the sake of doing something new, but for the sake of mission in the world which, in truth, is a very old concept indeed—the oldest, actually, for it originated with the call of Jesus himself to his disciples. We need to ask a hard question of everything we do in this place, from the committee structure of the congregation to the types of ministry in which we currently engage; and the question is simply this: “Does this help us fulfill our baptismal vows to be driven by the Spirit into the world to be active agents of God’s reign in the world?” Or do we do what we do simply because it is comfortable and familiar and serves our needs, our wants, our sensibilities alone? Will we be about the baptism of John or the baptism of Jesus? Amen.

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