Sermon for High Mass – The Baptism of Christ Sunday 10 January 2016
Readings: Isaiah 43:1-7; Psalm 29; Acts 8:14-17; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
‘You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well-pleased.’
In the space of a few days, the Church’s calendar transports us, like time-travellers, from the infancy of Christ and the visit of the Wise Men, which we celebrated on Wednesday, to his baptism in the Jordan which inaugurates his public ministry. But liturgy is a form of time-travel: it holds past, present and future together. The gospels themselves pass over the years of hidden life and preparation at Nazareth for this moment in almost total silence.
Epiphany means a ‘manifestation’ or ‘revelation’. To the Wise Men, Jesus is manifested as the king of all peoples. Now, in this second ‘epiphany’, he is revealed as the Son of God.
If you were listening carefully as Fr. Julian was singing the Gospel, as I’m sure you were, then you may have noticed that Luke doesn’t actually describe the baptism of Jesus. He simply records that it has happened in half a verse: ‘Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized.’ It is what happens next that occupies his attention and which he wishes us to concentrate on.
Before we get to that point he shows us the transition from the end of John’s ministry of preaching and baptizing to the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. In this handover, the baptism of Jesus is the hinge point. John’s ministry will be ended, his prophetic voice silenced, when he is arrested by Herod. Jesus’ ministry begins with his baptism.
Luke tells us that the dramatic effect which the preaching of John had made led people to wonder if he was the hoped for Messiah. Was he the anointed one, through whom God would save his people, rescue them as he had through Moses from slavery in Egypt and again from exile in Babylon, as heard in that passage from Isaiah? But John tells them that someone more powerful than he is coming; one empowered by the Holy Spirit.
Luke’s account of the baptism may be brief, but that does not mean that it is short on significance and meaning. There is a telling detail in his record. He says that Jesus was baptized after ‘all the people’. Jesus presents himself for baptism as an act of solidarity, of identification with a people and with a world of sinners. He identifies with the damaged and broken people who are in need of God. This is all of a piece with the coming on one born in a stable and to die on the cross. The incarnation, the entering of God into our human state, is not a one-off but the pattern of a whole life.
So, he does not march to the head of the queue, push John the Baptist aside, and announce that he is the Messiah. There is no grand self-proclamation, no self-promotion as if he was a politician standing for election. He simply joins on the end of the queue of people hoping for a new beginning through a return to God; for something better from God to remedy the world’s sinfulness and their own, have been baptized.
We are not told anything that he said at his baptism. But afterwards Luke tells us, he prays. Jesus is not only coming to us as sinners; he is coming in his humanity to God in prayer. He will not embark on his public ministry of teaching and healing in his own power and abilities. The source of his strength lies beyond himself. We are told that, as he prayed, ‘heaven was opened’. This moment of profound humility is one linked to the ultimate and greatest reality. The Spirit of God descends upon him and the voice of the Father speaks of the relationship between them: ‘You are my Son, the Beloved with whom I am well pleased’.
There are things here vitally important for the Church’s life and mission. All this has profound things to say to us as the community of the baptized; about our own baptism as disciples of Jesus Christ, as the collect for today reminds us.
The baptismal font stands at the entrance of this church because baptism is the sacrament of entry into the life of the Church; the community of God’s people, the brothers and sisters with whom Christ has identified himself; those whom God has also identified as he beloved children; who are called not to privilege but to humble service, to a share in the ministry of Jesus.
Christ joins with sinful humanity because he has come, not to affirm the respectable but to save the lost. The Church then must not appear, as it all too often has, to be simply a place of approval for those who have kept the rules, but a community of welcome and mercy, of forgiveness and hope, for those who haven’t – a category in which we are all included. The Church is a hospital for sinners, a refuge for the lost, not a club for the righteous or self-righteous.
The sacrament of baptism reminds us of this when the candidates are called upon to repent of their sins and to turn to Christ. We are reminded of it too when we gather to celebrate the Eucharist: we are called on to prepare by confessing our sins: not to load guilt upon us but to free us from it for service. Self-examination, repentance and confession are to be part of the life of all Christians. The Church makes such a renewal of this element of baptism available in the sacrament of Confession which is a means of both mercy and of grace and strength for the Christian life..
The Spirit descends upon Jesus at his baptism. He will not undertake his ministry of healing and teaching in his own power. The source of his strength lies in his relationship with the Father and with the Spirit who encourages and guides him all the way; even in the face of temptation and opposition. The doctrine of the Trinity is not spelled out explicitly in the New Testament, but it is there and Christians are baptized in the name of the Holy Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In baptism, we are adopted, incorporated, into that relationship. It is our source of life and strength too.
In the life of Jesus that relationship, that communion, is expressed especially in his prayer. Luke shows him at prayer at significant moments: here at his baptism, in the wilderness, before choosing his disciples, at the Mount of Transfiguration, before his passion. This life of prayer so impresses his disciples that they ask him to teach them to pray.
After his resurrection, he instructs the disciples to wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit who will empower their mission. Luke tells us in Acts how the apostles, Mary and the other women, and the brothers of Jesus wait in prayer. Prayer – both communal – the Common Prayer which we share in the life of the Church – and private, personal – in meditation, intercession, thanksgiving, self-offering – is the life-blood of our relationship with God. Without it, our Christian life fails to grow. If we abandon it, that life withers. With it, the life of community and persons flourishes.
It would be easy to pass over that brief passage from Acts. Its background is the persecution which began with the martyrdom of Stephen. Some of the Christian community in Jerusalem sought safety elsewhere. Among them was Philip, one of Stephen’s fellow-deacons, but also an evangelist, who began preaching among the Samaritans.
When the apostles in Jerusalem heard that some had been converted and baptized, they sent Peter and John to see what was going on. This probably came as a shock to devout Jews who took a dim view of Samaritans as people of mixed race and heretical theology. When they recognized that what had happened was genuine, they ‘prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit (for as yet the Holy Spirit had not come upon any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus). Then Peter and John laid their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit’.
Luke is not writing a systematic theology. He gives us a variety of ways in which the coming of the Spirit relates to Baptism: before, during and after. This is irritating for the tidy-minded. What it should remind us of is that ‘the Spirit blows where it wills.’ It is not like electricity which the Church can turn on or off. There is no single pattern to which the Spirit conforms in bringing people into relationship with God.
In this gathering here today, there will be people like me who were baptized as infants. The Spirit worked in our lives to develop our faith, our relationship with God, through the influence of parents, godparents, priests and teachers, family and friends, prayer and worship. For some, the faith may have lain dormant for long years before being fanned to life by some event or encounter. Others will have come to baptism as adults; perhaps from another faith or from none. There is no single pattern or road-map to which the Holy Spirit must conform in bringing us to faith.
But in the development of that faith, our growth in the Christian life, there is the pattern of the life and teaching of Jesus whose name, whose identity and life, whose humble dependence on God in prayer and humble identification with the world, whose humble service, we are able to share through the work of the Spirit.