First Sunday after the Epiphany: Baptism of Christ

Springfield CathedralMark 1:7-11, Isaiah 42:1-9, Acts 10:34-38


“Diversity” is a politically loaded word these days. But behind all the turmoil is the simple reality that people are different. Among those who gather for worship at St Paul’s today, there is diversity. We come from different ethnic and family backgrounds. We are of different ages and have had different life experiences. Some have multiple college degrees; others haven’t even started school yet. Some live on the edge of, or in, poverty; others are financially quite well-off. Some are sick and dying; others are in the peak of health. Some tend to vote Democratic, some tend to vote Republican; others don’t know or don’t care. Some are very secure in their commitment to Jesus Christ and his Church; others are spiritually uncertain, and in a searching and inquiring frame of mind.

But in spite of all this diversity, there is one experience that binds the great majority of us together. Most of us have been baptized. Not all—it can’t be presumed the way it used to be—but most. Baptism is one’s essential Christian “ID” card. But it can be a confusing form of identification, and, the same way it is with our driver’s licenses, we’re not sure we like the way our picture looks on it. Many, if not most, of us, were baptized in infancy, and we have no memory of the event, and so it’s difficult to feel it as very much of a defining moment in our lives. I was baptized when I was ten, and while I do remember it, it didn’t make a huge impression on me at the time, and my recollection of it is pretty dim.

Then there’s the fact that the timing and atmosphere of baptisms, at least in the Episcopal Church, has changed considerably in the last forty or so years. Baptism—whether of an infant or the occasional older child or adult— used to be an intimate and genteel family affair on a Saturday afternoon. Now it’s normally quite public and with all the solemnity of the main liturgy on Sunday morning or the mysterious grandeur of the Easter Vigil. Some parishes, including the one where two of my three children were baptized, and the one where I served before coming here to Springfield, have installed fonts in which an adult can be fully immersed. Plus, we talk about baptism a lot more now, but seem to understand it less. It doesn’t have quite as clear and simple a meaning as it once seemed to have. All this contributes to a certain level of confusion and uneasiness about the subject. Sometimes it seems like just too much effort, so we’d rather talk about something else that makes more sense.

And this confusion and uneasiness about baptism in general is certainly not helped by the New Testament accounts of one baptism in particular—namely, the baptism of our Lord Jesus, an event which we observe every year as a feast day on the First Sunday after the Epiphany. If Christian baptism is about new birth into the life and Body of Christ, then what is the point in the Christ himself being baptized? If baptism is about being united with Jesus in his death and resurrection, then, again, what’s the point in Jesus being baptized? If the baptizing ministry of John the Baptizer was about repentance and the forgiveness of sins, then why did the Sinless One, who, of all people, had no need to repent of anything, submit to that baptism?

Confusion compounds confusion. Until, that is, we reframe the question from, Why did Jesus need to be baptized? to, What did Jesus accomplish in his baptism? When we see Jesus’s baptism as laying a foundation, establishing a pattern, offering a template—by which we can interpret the meaning of our own baptism, it all begins to make sense. Jesus did not need to be baptized; he chose to be baptized, and his baptism gives meaning to our baptism.

Look at Jesus before his baptism. He was an obscure carpenter from an obscure small town. He had no public reputation whatsoever, no distinctive direction for his life. After his baptism, Jesus’s life is focused and public, with a definite sense of direction. As St Peter tells us in a speech reported by Luke in the Acts of the Apostles, Jesus, from that point, “went about doing good,” healing the sick, raising the dead, and proclaiming the Good News             that God reigns and that His kingdom of love and righteousness and justice is signified by Jesus’s very presence in the world.

After his baptism, Jesus pursued an effective and highly faithful public ministry. In the Christian tradition, this ministry is seen as the fulfillment of that which was foreshadowed in the Servant Song of the Old Testament    prophet Isaiah:

I have put my Spirit upon him, he will bring forth justice to the nations. … a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench … He will not fail or be discouraged till he has established justice on the earth…

Jesus’s baptism was the inauguration of his ministry.

And so it is with ours. Whether we were ten days old or ten months old or ten years old or a fully grown adult, whether it was done quietly on a Sunday afternoon or with processions and incense on a major feast day, our baptism was the inauguration of our ministry. When Jesus rose from the water, as St Mark tells the story, he saw the sky open and a dove descend toward him. This was a sign of the presence of the Holy Spirit, that God the Father was indeed blessing the occasion, that it was truly a commencement of something new and different for Jesus and for all who would come in contact with him.

It has been my joy to preside at several baptisms here in this cathedral church. I have never seen a flying dove on any of those occasions, but I’m entirely convinced that the Holy Spirit was just as present as he was at Jesus’ baptism. While anointing a newly-baptized Christian with holy oil, the celebrant says, “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.” Then we say a prayer in which we thank God for working through the Holy Spirit to bestow new life and forgiveness of sins, and we offer the petition, “Sustain them, O Lord, in your Holy Spirit…” The assumption throughout the baptismal service is that the Holy Spirit is present and active, coming to take up residence in the hearts of the ones being baptized, and bestowing various gifts for ministry, gifts which are meant to be employed to build up the church and to strengthen the mission of the church. Each of us who has been baptized with water, in the Name of the Trinity, and with the intention that it be Christian baptism, has received the Holy Spirit. We have been baptized with water and the Holy Spirit. We need only to claim that gift, to allow ourselves to be filled and driven by that same Spirit, the way the sails of great ships were once opened to and filled by the wind and propelled thereby to the four corners of the earth. We have the resources; they just need to be tapped.

In the parish in California that I served for 13 years, I once asked the Junior Warden to have certain signs made that could be placed on the various doors of our church facility. The intent of this request was very practical and pastoral—that is, so that visitors and newcomers would be able to find their way around with a minimum of difficulty. As far as I know, they served this purpose well. But one of them soon took on another layer of meaning in my        imagination—another layer of meaning, one might suggest, that testifies to the work of the Holy Spirit. It was placed on the outside rear door of the church, the one that led right into the acolyte vesting area, but it was the door people used for daily Morning and Evening Prayer, and for weekday and Saturday night Masses. It read simply, Enter Here for Service. The original intent, of course, was to signify that this is the entrance to use to attend scheduled liturgies, worship services. But one day it struck me differently. I read it as meaning, “Enter here in order to serve,” or, more to the point, “Servants’ Entrance.”

Every member of the church—that is, every baptized person—is a servant. We are not passengers on the cruise ship called the Holy Catholic Church; we are crew members! We don’t own the house; we’re staff! No baptized person is a mere client; we are all “providers.” Our clients, our passengers, the ones whom we serve—these are the unchurched, the ones who have not yet been brought into a saving relationship of faith with the One who voluntarily submitted to the baptism of John in order to inaugurate his career as a “minister,” and ours. One of the most significant changes in the vocabulary of the Episcopal Church in the last revision of the Prayer Book is that the title “minister” is no longer used only, or even principally, of the ordained. I am no more a “minister” than any of you. Baptism inaugurates ministry. All baptized persons are ministers. Some are less effective ministers than others, some are better than others at discerning and following the specific nature of their call to ministry, but if you’re baptized, you’re a minister.

When Jesus stepped out of the water and saw the heavens open and the Holy Spirit descending on him bodily in the form of a dove, he also heard a voice. It was the voice of his Father, saying, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” The Greek that is normally translated as “pleased” can also imply being “chosen.” God was saying to Jesus, as he said to the Suffering Servant in Isaiah, “I have chosen you. I have raised you up to be a blessing to others. You are my minister.” God says the same thing to each one of us in and through our baptism. God has chosen us and raised us up for ministry. There could be no greater honor a human being could wish for! My prayer, as we renew the vows of our baptism on this feast day, is that we all have the courage and the faith to exercise the ministry to which we have been called.


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