February 26, 2012

 

ON THE BAPTISM OF JESUS AND OF THE FOLLOWER OF JESUS

     Sermon delivered by the Reverend Father Bill Smith
   at Holy Faith Episcopal Church, Port St Lucie, on 26 February 2012
 
                                                      Reading from the Hebrew Scriptures: Genesis 9: 8-17
                                                      Reading for the Epistle:                       I Peter 3: 18-22
                                                      Reading from the Gospels:                      Mark 1: 9-15

 

I once served a parish in which one of the more regular members, in terms of attendance, was a former Roman Catholic.  He told me on one occasion that what he appreciated most about the Anglican Communion and its worship is that one does not have to leave ones brain at the door when one comes to worship.  Anglicans and Episcopalians are assumed to have brains and to be able to think and make decisions about what we hear during the course of worship, be it in the prayers, the hymns, the readings from Holy Scripture, and in the sermon.  I must say that I agree with that point of view, but I recognize that it presents a challenge to the preacher since it means that true Anglicans and Episcopalians do listen to the sermon and they feel free to ask questions of the preacher.  Usually this is done after the service, but I once served in a parish, a different one, in which the custom was to challenge the preacher immediately after the sermon as part of the service! 

On this particular Sunday I am glad that we do not have this custom here at Holy Faith, although I am always pleased when one of you comes to see me to discuss what you have heard, or thought you have heard, in the course of the sermon.  

The theme of our Biblical readings today is the baptism of Jesus and what ensued.  On the surface that sounds simple enough, but do not be fooled by the apparent simplicity.  For, despite what you may or may not have been taught in Sunday School, this subject demands that we put on our thinking caps.

For a start, although most of you would claim that Jesus was baptized by his cousin, John the Baptist – after all, that is what it tells us in the Gospel – let us be frank that only one Gospel describes John and Jesus as cousins, and that Gospel does not have John baptize Jesus, simply because John was already in prison at the time of the baptism of Jesus.  Indeed, only two of the Gospels have John certainly baptize Jesus.  The other two, Luke and John, while acknowledging that Jesus was baptized, tell the story in a different way, and probably differently from each other. 

As the evangelists and other New Testament writers make clear, the baptism of John was understood as a token, a sign of repentance on the part of the person seeking baptism.  Those who came to John to be baptized underwent the rite while confessing their sins.  It was, then, for the ritual washing away of sins.  Yet it is a clear understanding of our Faith, based on the writings of the New Testament, that Christ Jesus was without sin.  The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews affirms that loud and clear, as we read in Hebrews 4: 15.  

So, if Jesus was not baptized for the remission of some sin, then why was he baptized?  We must go with the New Testament writers and agree that he did not receive baptism for the remission of any sin that he might have committed, for he was without sin.  But we must also go along with the writers of the New Testament and agree that he died for the remission of sin, indeed, as Saint John argues in I John 2: 2, for the sins of the whole world.  He is the one whose death effects the atonement of the whole creation with the Creator. 

Now how can this come about?  How does this come about?  Let us think for a moment.  If those who went down into the muddy, dirty waters of the Jordan had their sins ritually washed away, and then Jesus, who is absolutely pure and innocent, chooses freely to go down into those same contaminated waters, might we not say that in so doing he allowed himself to be immersed, ritually, in the sins of sinners?  By his baptism in the Jordan, whether at the hands of John the Baptist or not – it does not really matter either way – Jesus took on the sins of those who sin, and that means everyone other than himself.  That is what he came into the World to do, and ritually, symbolically, that is what he did on that day in the waters of the River Jordan.  No wonder, then, that a voice, the Voice of God, was heard to declare that God was well pleased with what Jesus had just done.  

By that action Jesus took upon himself the sins of all and bore them to Calvary, where he was put to death, even though of himself he was innocent, but in himself he was guilty of all the sins of all humanity for all time.  We affirm this when we declare in the Creed that we believe in one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.  We mean his baptism, but we mean our sins.

If that is the significance of the baptism of Jesus – and as Anglicans and Episcopalians we are allowed to think about that – then what does the rite of baptism that we undergo really mean?  Clearly it cannot mean the same as the baptism that Jesus underwent.  And equally, if not so clearly, it cannot mean the same thing as the rite that those who went to John to be baptized in the River Jordan underwent.  So what happens when we submit ourselves and those whom we sponsor to baptism?

Those who claim to be followers of Jesus have debated – nay, they have argued over – this point almost from the beginning.  Some argue that only those who are able to express their belief in Jesus as the Christ should be baptized.  Others say that there is no need to be baptized at all, at least not a water baptism.  Others say that we can undergo baptism by proxy on behalf of the dead, and there have been those who have enquired whether we can be baptized by proxy on behalf of those who are physically alive but cannot be present.  This is not the time or place to discuss the merits and demerits of these viewpoints.  Let us just look at the rite of baptism in our own tradition. 

It cannot be for the washing away of our sins, as that has been done by Christ in his action at Calvary.  Nor can it be, although many would like it to be, so that we may receive the Holy Spirit as it is sometimes thought that Jesus did at his baptism.  The New Testament makes it very clear that the Holy Spirit may be received by those who have not yet received the waters of baptism.  The story of Cornelius and his household may be unique, but they did receive the gift of the Holy Spirit before being baptized. 

Perhaps that very Jewish and very Christian writer, Saint Paul, put it best when he tells the Romans that our baptism is into the death of Jesus (Romans 6: 3).  In a sense, our baptism in water is a token to us, a sign to us, that we are one with Christ Jesus, and not only in his death, but, as Paul goes on to say in the very next verse, into his risen life. 

The writers of the New Testament and the Early Church fathers liked to look back into the story of old Israel.  We see a hint of this in the reading from I Peter today.  Noah and his family were kept safe in the ark during the Great Flood in which all that was evil was overcome and destroyed.  And when he and his family were allowed to leave the ark the Saviour God made a solemn promise with them, and sealed it with the rainbow, that he would never again allow humanity to be wiped out.  Peter sees baptism in that light.  Other New Testament writers liken baptism to the safe passage through the Red Sea by the children of Israel at the time of the Exodus.  Both images are helpful to our understanding of what happens at baptism. 

It is our belief that in baptism, but not through it, that we are declared members of the Body of Christ.  Baptism is a sacrament, which is an outward visible sign of an inward spiritual grace.  There are three parties to a sacrament.  First, and most importantly, there is God, who is the real minister of the sacrament.  He it is who declares that we are indeed his, his son or his daughter, and as such heirs destined to share in all his goodness.  Secondly, there is the candidate, the one who receives the sacrament.  Baptism is the pledge made by God that we have received eternal life.  And thirdly, there is the Church, the visible Body of Christ on Earth, which acknowledges that indeed the newly baptized is a child of God and a member of Christ.   

The sons of Noah could not deny their paternity.  The children of Israel could not deny their common ancestry.  We who call ourselves Christian and who have been the recipient of the sacrament of baptism have been placed in a similar situation.  Washed in the blood of the one who takes away the sins of the World, the redness of whose blood overcomes the redness of our sins, we can only but acknowledge who we are and affirm it as we declare, “We believe in one baptism for the remission of sins.”  We are the descendants of Noah, we are the children of the new Israel, but above all we are the children of God and joint heirs with Christ in the Kingdom of our Father in Heaven.