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January 11, First Sunday after Epiphany, The Baptism of Our Lord:
Genesis 1:1-5; Acts 19:1-7; Mark 1:4-11
To listen to earlier homilies click here
Draft text of the homily, please do not cite without permission.
If someone asked you: what does baptism mean?
What does it do?
How would you respond?
Of course the response depends on who you ask.
If you ask a Primitive Baptist in Appalachia they might tell you that Baptism
(by which they would mean full immersion—preferably backward, not face-first) was necessary in order to join the church.
It’s simply how one becomes a member of the church.
And some of us might agree with that.
But then they might go on to say that it doesn’t have anything to do with your salvation…
it’s an outward expression of your faith—of your having been saved by Jesus.
But it doesn’t do anything to ensure your salvation.
How many of us would agree with that?
For other Christians, Baptism is the means of salvation.
When I was a kid we had Baptist neighbors (not Primitive Baptists—just regular ones) who were always concerned about our immortal souls because we had only been “sprinkled” as children.
And in their minds, if you weren’t properly Baptized—if you didn’t undergo full immersion—you couldn’t go to heaven.
Baptism (whether sprinkled or dunked) as a marker of salvation is something many Christians would list as the meaning or function of baptism.
The 1662 version of the English Book of Common prayer admonishes clergy not to “delay the baptism of an infant (save for the purposes of preparing or instructing the parents).”
The previous version of our own Prayer Book (the 1928) is even more directive: “The minister of every parish shall often admonish the People, that they defer not the baptism of their children,” (I’m sure there’s an implied “or else” in there somewhere).
Why the rush?
It has to do with a particular theology of salvation.
In earlier baptismal rites the priest would say, “forasmuch as all men are conceived and born in sin…and that none can enter into the kingdom except that he be regenerate [a word you don’t hear much these days] and born anew by water and the Spirit: I beseech you to call upon God…that he will grant to this child that thing which by nature he cannot have…”
That thing which by nature the child cannot have—
In some circles this was known as the “germ theory” of baptism.
Where the soul is implanted at baptism like a seed in the ground to germinate over time.
And (with proper tending) it will spring into full flower as a mature Christian.
That’s not so much in vogue any longer, but the connection of Baptism with salvation is why so many people rushed to church to have their children “done.”
But this also led to misunderstandings.
In Acts today—when Paul goes to talk to the Ephesians—they had received the water baptism—John’s baptism—and thought they were done.
For them baptism was a mark of belonging and nothing more.
We’ve been baptized…
The first century equivalent of “Christians are perfect, just forgiven.”
As if there were nothing more to Christianity than just signing up.
The other side of the salvation question is the idea that Baptism cleanses us from all sin.
If it’s not about implanting a soul (and I haven’t heard anyone recently expounding that theory)…but I do still hear people say: Baptism cleanses us from sin.
Which can also be a little confusing.
And is why, in part, so many people in antiquity (most notable emperors like Constantine) waited until their death beds to get baptized.
What if you’re clean and then do something wrong?
Better wait until just the right moment…
Our own Book of Common Prayer expresses many of these meanings as the function of baptism.
It tells us that baptism is a sacrament: “an outward and visible sign of inward and spiritual grace.”
It is union with Christ in his death and resurrection, birth into God’s family the Church, forgiveness of sins, and new life in the Holy Spirit.
Baptism doesn’t mean just one thing.
Like all sacraments it is saturated with meaning.
It can be a statement of believing.
It can be a marker of belonging.
It can also be catalyst to behaving.
You can hear a variety of meanings in the readings today.
What the Ephesians are missing, Paul deduces, is the necessary energy to actually be followers of Jesus—disciples.
Once Paul lays hands on them and they receive power from the Holy Spirit they are equipped for ministry.
Then they are able to do the work…to live and work and behave differently in the world.
Baptism also means this, that we are changed and empowered and week by week renewed to do the work of Christ—carry out the mission of God—in our world today.
Baptism is a call and catalyst to actually being transformed and living a new life.
Those who followed John out to the Jordan to be baptized were making very clear public statements that they were going to live their lives differently.
Not according to the ways of the world, but following the way of righteousness.
The baptism of Jesus affirms this.
You can hear this life-changing commitment in our own baptismal vows we will soon stand and renew.
Where we renounce evil, and vow to live in a new way.
For me, and for many Episcopalians, baptism is both a comfort and a responsibility.
It’s comforting because it’s a public recognition of God’s claim on us…
A visceral reminder that we are beloved.
It’s challenging because our acknowledgement of that claim demands that we take up our responsibilities to become evermore authentic and evermore right-living Christians.
Baptism cleanses, and restores, and adopts, and regenerates us…and like the baptism Jesus undergoes today, it also catapults us into mission.
Mission is another word that has many meanings.
In the coming weeks and months, I hope we will be having numerous conversations about the connection between baptism and mission.
About how our worship—the weekly celebration of the Eucharist—the repeatable part of our baptism—is integrally related to mission…to living as Christians in the wold.
Starting next week we’ll begin moving week by week through a series of instructed Eucharists that I hope will help highlight some of the connections between what we do in here and how we live the other 165 hours of our week.
Toward the end of January Becky Taylor and I will host a session on Exploring the Sacraments focusing on Baptism, where we can deepen this conversation.
At the end of February, the Mission Committee is hosting a retreat and a mission fair that you are all invited to, where we’ll continue the conversation about how to live out our Baptismal covenant in the context of mission.
And Sam McDonald, the Episcopal Church’s Director of Mission will be joining us for those conversations and preaching at both services.
Baptism, like all sacraments, is saturated with meaning.
I hope that we can all begin to hear the harmony of those meanings.
And begin to proclaim and enact the reality that baptism isn’t just something that happens once; it’s a challenging and sustaining—a life-giving and life-changing—an ongoing and ever-deepening journey into the heart and reality of God…for all of God’s beloved creation.