Sermon for Baptism Of Christ – High Mass Sunday 12 January 2014
Sermon preached by The Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses
Readings: Isaiah 42.1-9; Acts 10.34-43; Matthew 3.13-17
Today the Church continues its celebration of the Epiphany – the manifestation of Christ to the world. In western Christianity, the primary emphasis has been on the coming of the Magi, those exotic characters from the mysterious East with the richly symbolic gifts of gold frankincense and myrrh.
But, as Bishop Christopher Wordsworth’s hymn “Songs of thankfulness and praise” (New English Hymnal 56), which we sang at the beginning of mass, reminds us, there are traditionally three epiphanies: the others are the Baptism of Christ which in the reformed Calendar we celebrate today, and the Wedding at Cana when Jesus turns water into wine, the first of his “signs” in John’s Gospel.
The Lord did not entrust to his Church and its ministers the power to turn water into wine – which is probably just as well. Although it is said that some seem able to turn wine into water.
But the Church does, as the Lord commands, baptise.
Baptism has been in the news in recent days- well in the Daily Mail at least – which some of you may consider less a real newspaper and more a vehicle of over-heated comment dedicated to frightening Middle England into a chronic state of anxiety. According to that publication, the Church of England was planning to abolish sin: well, if only it could. On closer examination this seemed to suggest removing it from a draft alternative version of the baptism service. In fact it seems to consist of asking parents and godparents to reject “evil” instead of the “devil”– the impersonal instead of the personal. This was produced by the Liturgical Commission after the General Synod was asked by the Diocese of Liverpool to provide a form of service for use with non-church going families asking for baptism; one in more accessible language than that of the Common Worship rite with its rich symbolism.
There are serious issues about language and symbol, and even what the clergy wear in church and mission. They should be taken seriously, but this is neither the time nor the place.
If we turn to the gospel accounts of the baptism of Jesus, we see that there was some theological disquiet even there. John’s baptism was for repentance – a turning away from sin. So why did Jesus, the sinless one need to be baptised? Why should Jesus, the greater one heralded by John, submit to baptism by him? Matthew shows us John asking this very question and suggesting that things should be the other way round; “I need to be baptised by you, and do you come to me?”
In Matthew this is the first appearance of the adult Jesus and his response is the first thing we hear him say. We might expect his first words to have a special weight, so it is puzzling that they do not give a clear cut, black and white, what we might call immediately “accessible” answer:
“Let it be so now; for this it is fitting for us to fulfil all righteousness.”
If you think this a bit puzzling, then you are not alone. It got the Fathers of the Church scratching their heads too.
What does fulfilling all righteousness mean? There have been two ways of looking at this.
Righteousness in Matthew’s gospel means doing the will of God. So here it can mean either, from the divine side, Jesus fulfilling God’s will toward humankind and all creation; his will to save and restore.
From the human side, it can mean that Jesus is the one who comes to fulfil that obedience to God’s will which humankind in general and even Israel in particular had failed in.
From the divine side, Jesus comes to baptism as the sign of his total identification with people.
He comes not as one who tells us the way back to God from outside. He comes to share in our humanity; to join it with his divinity, to remake it from within, to make righteousness possible through our union with him.
The two ways are of course not incompatible, although biblical scholars like to warn preachers and others that Matthew was not sitting there with the Nicene Creed and the definition of the Council of Chalcedon on the relation between the divinity and humanity of Christ open on his desk. That is true but it does not mean that his gospel – in which we read of Jesus as “Emmanuel – God with us” is not a vital part in the trajectory which brings the Church to that understanding.
Regular listeners may recall me saying on the Sunday before Christmas, when we had heard Matthew’s story of the birth of Jesus, that when we seek to understand Jesus, the child born to be the Saviour of his people, “God with Us”, we need to do what we shouldn’t normally do: sneak a look at the final page of a novel we are reading, or fast forward a video, to see how it ends. If we do this, we find Jesus’s parting words to his disciples. There the crucified and risen Emmanuel continues to be just that: “I am with you always, even to the end of the ages.”
And if you were here last Sunday, and your brains had not been numbed by the absence of heating, you may recall me speaking of how the Incarnation, understood in the light of scripture, creeds and councils, is not just about the divine taking on and entering into human life, but of that human life being taken into the divine. The incarnation is a two-way process: from God and to God. As George Timms’ hymn for this feast says:
“Uprising from the waters there,
the voice from heaven did witness bear
That he, the Son of God, had come
To lead his scattered people home.” (New English Hymnal 58)
The return to God, that taking of humanity in the divine, is of course, by way of the cross which is the consequence of Jesus’s fulfilment of the will of God, his perfect obedience to it; his refusal to be deflected from it and his willingness to pay the cost involved, the price exacted by a rebellious humankind; his willingness to be the suffering servant foreseen in the prophecy of Isaiah.
Today, on the feast of the Baptism of Christ, we need to turn to the end of the gospel again; to look at the very same closing passage, often called the Great Commission, the charter of Christian mission, in which Jesus sends his disciples “to make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you…”
Again, scholars warn us against seeking in the gospels that carefully spelled out doctrine of the Trinity which came with the Fathers and early Councils of the Church. And again, I would say that yes, that’s true as far as it goes, but that again it is not the whole truth. The baptismal formula which Matthew attributes to Jesus may be a reading back of the Church’s liturgical practice – but Matthew was writing before the end of the first century.
And when we look at the account of Jesus’s baptism, then we see that the Trinity of Father, Son and Spirit is there. The Father who addresses Jesus, acknowledging his beloved Son, the Spirit who had moved over the waters of creation now descends on the Son who will the agent of a new creation.
When Matthew tells us about the inauguration, the beginning of Jesus’s public ministry in his baptism: he is also speaking of baptism as the beginning of our ministry; of our sharing in his ministry. For Matthew Jesus and Church are one, bound together inextricably.
In baptism, we are acknowledged, claimed as God’s own beloved children, we are marked as Christ’s own. We are washed from the sins which enslave us to evil. We are anointed with the Spirit, not as some private celestial insurance plan, but to share in the life and work of Jesus Christ. Just as Jesus’ baptism signals his identity with all humankind, so too does our baptism. Jesus stands in the water of the Jordan with the crowd which represents all humanity as one with it – not separate from it. We come to the waters of baptism in the font, not so that we can made separate from other people, kept safe in a sort of antiseptic and sterile spiritual world. No, we come to baptism so that we can identify all the more deeply with that world which Christ came to save and transform and play our part in that work; anointed, as Peter says to Cornelius, he was with the Holy Spirit and with power so that, as he did, we might go about doing good and healing all who are oppressed by evil, preaching and testifying, called by God in righteousness and given by God, “as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring the prisoners out of the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness,” with all the challenge and risk involved. And so that, empowered by his Spirit, all righteousness, the will of God might be fulfilled in our lives and all the world.
And in the baptism of Cornelius and his household, we can see Peter being led to realise just what that means. We can see this as Peter’s conversion, his Damascus Road, when the Holy Spirit opens his eyes to what this all implies – that it does mean all nations, not just people like him, his fellow Jews. Nor does it mean just people like us.
Peter had received the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, along with the rest of the embryonic church, but this did not mean that he was granted instant omniscience, or indeed infallibility. He had to be led into all truth by the Spirit. The Spirit had to remind him of the things Jesus had said and help him and the Church to understand their consequences. The Spirit is still doing that work. When Peter returned to Jerusalem, after what had started as a funeral visit after the death of that devout and good woman Tabitha, and ended in something startlingly new, he had to explain himself to the guardians of orthodoxy at home – to help them see that new things were happening because of Christ and his Spirit. It was hard work then and it is hard work now, but we can have faith that the Spirit will lead us into all truth.