Sunday, January 10, 2010

You Are My Beloved Child, With You I Am Well Pleased

First Sunday After Epiphany: Baptism of Our Lord – Year C (RCL)
Isaiah 43:1-7; Psalm 29; Acts 8:14-17; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
Sunday, January 10, 2010 –
Trinity, Redlands

Just a few days ago, we celebrated the Feast of the Epiphany – the manifestation of Jesus Christ to all humanity. But the epiphanies do not stop there. During the entire period between Epiphany and the beginning of Lent, our Gospel lessons continue to present epiphanies regarding Jesus. He has been revealed to us as our Savior, but as this season we call Epiphanytide unfolds, Jesus as Messiah is disclosed to us in a number of different ways, revealing a number of attributes of this Messiah, giving us a more complete picture of what this means. The first of these epiphanies, which we explore today, is the Baptism of Our Lord.

Now, the whole subject of Jesus’ baptism seems to present a theological conundrum. All three Synoptic Gospels tell us that Jesus was baptized in the River Jordan by John the Baptizer. Mark’s Gospel specifically tell us that John’s was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Well, if Jesus was the Son of God and was without sin, what could he possibly have had to repent? Why did he need to be baptized to have non-existent sins forgiven? The short answer is that he didn’t need to be baptized. But like so much of what Jesus did, he did not need to do it for himself, but rather needed to do it for us. And of all the accounts in the Synoptics of Jesus’ baptism, I think none provides for a better explanation of this than Luke’s portrayal, which we just read.

The irony is that while Luke says less about Jesus’ actual baptism than do Matthew and Mark, Luke actually provides the best answer to our theological conundrum. Matthew and Mark specifically tell us that Jesus came to John to be baptized and provide some detail about the baptism proper. But all Luke says, almost as an aside in the midst of John’s preaching about the coming Messiah, is “when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized . . .” What Luke is really saying is that a whole bunch of people were baptized by John, and, oh yeah, one of them happened to be Jesus. Despite seeming to be an afterthought, this statement speaks volumes.

No, Jesus did not need to be baptized. However, he was born into a system, into a world, that was tainted, fallen, broken, even though he himself was without sin. Though fully divine, he was also fully human. Being born into such a broken world tainted with and by the affects of human sinfulness, he could not have helped but be affected by it – by its presence around him – not and still continue to be human, experiencing life as we ourselves do. So while baptism would not have removed sinfulness from his person and soul, the way it does for the rest of us, Jesus’ baptism would have made a point about the very need for a salvific act to remedy the affects of a sinful world on our lives. Not that his baptism was just for show. If anything, Jesus’ baptism is not so much symbolic as it is an acknowledgement of the affect the world has on all of us, himself included, and the need for reconciliation as a result. It calls attention to the fact that there is a better way, and that that way is provided through the coming of the Messiah, sent by and of God, to provide us with new life.

Rather than just calling attention to a broken system, and pointing to a way that will ultimately redeem and heal such a system, the seemingly passing reference to Jesus being baptized along with “all the people” also conveys a sense of solidarity. The term solidarity carries two related definitions. One is being united around a common goal or against a common enemy, and the other is having a willingness to give psychological and/or material support when another person is in a difficult position or in need of affection.

Jesus’ baptism, in the context of “all the people,” conveys an act of solidarity with a world of sinners. He identified himself with the many broken and weary people who were turning to God for new life. In this act, he was uniting with them in the common goal of seeking reconciliation with God and against the common enemies of sin and evil. And he was, because of his unique situation of being both human and divine, in a position to provide support, spiritually and emotionally, to the myriad of people who feel they are in a difficult position – those struggling with sin and its affects in their lives and upon their spirits and psyches. And providing support to those who are in need of affection – need of the assurance that despite being sinful creatures, they are loved by their God nonetheless. In short, it’s all about belonging. Jesus is saying “you belong to me now.”

The tragic thing is that we in the church sometimes get the whole solidarity thing mixed up. We tend to think that the church is filled with a bunch of nice, respectable people, which it is. But because that becomes the ingrained notion, the prevailing assumption under which we operate, we sometimes come to think that when we feel particularly wracked with guilt over something we have done, when we do what all humans do at one time or another, sin, that we are not worthy of being called Christian. We are not worthy to be in the company of all those nice, respectable folks in the church. When such feelings set in, many people slip away. They don’t come to church until they get things worked out, until they can once again feel they are worthy of being with those nice, respectable people. And only when they think they have gotten their act together, do they return.

That’s not what being a Christian is about. It’s not about always being nice and respectable, about being perfect. That may be the goal, but we are not always going to be that way. But we are still Christians nonetheless. After all, Jesus did not get in line to be baptized with a bunch of respectable church folk. He got in line to be baptized with a bunch of broken sinners. Jesus’ baptism did not set him apart, but rather incorporated him into the larger group of repentant sinners, incorporating us into God’s unfailing grace. We are called to follow his lead. We are called to fall in with a bunch of repentant sinners and to support one another, just as Jesus did by stepping into that river to receive a sacrament he had no need of. But he did it anyway because we needed him to.

The act of Jesus’ baptism as portrayed in the Gospels also has a lot to tell us about what this sacrament really means from God’s perspective. None of the Synoptic Gospels say a whole lot about the details of Jesus’ baptism, but Luke says even less. For Luke, it is not so much the baptism that is important as God’s declaration of what this act of going into the waters a sinner and coming out a redeemed child of God means. This is manifested in two ways: in sign and in word.

Luke is the only Gospel to make it clear that the dove was seen by all, a certain sign of the anointing of the Holy Spirit. Both Matthew and Mark tell us that only Jesus saw the Spirit descending like a dove. But in Luke, everyone present saw the sign of Holy Spirit descending in the form of a dove. In all the Synoptic Gospels, this receiving of the Holy Spirit is an important aspect of the sacrament of baptism. And we specifically incorporate this aspect into our present-day sacrament. In the consignation, following the act of baptism, the newly baptized is anointed with oil blessed by the bishop, and the priest says “you are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever.”

According to Luke, this receiving of the Spirit is not a private matter, but is very public, for all to see. This is significant. John the Baptizer describes Jesus as the one who will “baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” Jesus would eventually pass on his Spirit to his disciples to enable and equip them to do the ministry God had called them to do in the world, in the absence of their Master. And in our baptisms, we too are given the gift of the Spirit. This lets us know that we are not on our own, but have the strength of the Holy Spirit to enable us, to aid us, to equip us for the work that God has called us to do in the world. And by being given in a public act, all those witnessing this act know that this newly baptized person is indeed a child of God, and are thereby charged to support this person in his or her ministry as a member of the Body of Christ. For this ministry is most effective when done in community with our fellow Christians.

The other aspect of God’s declaration received at the time of baptism is in word. All the Synoptics tell us that upon emerging from the waters of baptism, God declared “you are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” This affirmation helped sustain Jesus during his 40 days of temptation in the wilderness and on into and throughout his public ministry. So too, in our baptisms, God says, “you are my child, my beloved, with you I am well pleased.” As with Jesus, this is an affirmation that sustains us in the day-to-day trials and temptations we face. It is God’s assurance that He is with us; that the Holy Spirit is ever-present, ready to guide us; and that Christ is our constant companion.

Because we are called by name, because at baptism we are marked with the name of Jesus, we are in return free to call upon Jesus’ name, God’s name, with the assurance and confidence in God’s faithfulness toward us. And we are free to call upon the Body of Christ, the community of fellow baptized. Here again, it is the community of faith, those witnessing the act of baptism, that have a part to play in the support and further development of the newly baptized.

This is why we don’t do private baptisms any more. We now understand, as demonstrated in Luke’s portrayal of Jesus’ baptism, that baptism is a communal affair, because we as the Body of Christ have our ongoing part to play. And today, we will once again share in that communal affair as, in a few minutes, we witness and share in the baptisms of Eleni Christopherson and Marin Cummings. As we baptize these newest members into the Body of Christ, of which we are all a part, they are the ones receiving the sacrament, but we are the ones charged with helping them live into the fullness of what that sacrament means. We are charged through our renewal of our own Baptismal Vows; we are charged though our witness of them going into and rising from the waters of baptism; we are charged through our witness of them receiving the Holy Spirit, to be fellow travelers with them on their faith journeys. And that charge is first and foremost to continually echo the voice of God – to say to them, “Eleni, you are God’s beloved, and with you He is well pleased. Marin, you are God’s beloved, and with you He is well pleased.” Just as God says to all of us, over and over again, “you are my beloved daughter, you are my beloved son, with you I am always well pleased.”

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

1 comment:

Happy Hermit ( said...

Oh , this is wonderful , it really answers something that has been floating on my minde a LOT latley. Thank you much for sharing and being HIS light.