Is 43: 1-7; Ps 29 1-11; Acts 8:14-17; LUKE 3: 15-17, 21-22
Gracious G*d, grant that those baptized into your Name may keep the covenant they have made. AMEN.
This morning we celebrate three distinct occasions, all connected through the presence and revelation of Jesus Christ, and also each connected to us in the here and now. First it’s the season of Epiphany, the season of light, when each week someone or some group understands that this baby, this particular person, is, in some way, in such close relationship with G*d that he made and makes real, an experience of G*d, with G*d, to those who are in these weekly stories. Second, the Sunday after the Epiphany is always the baptism of Jesus, and so we’ve heard that account. Since it’s Epiphany Season and the Baptism of Jesus, the Church has selected this as one of the liturgical dates appropriate for baptisms in the church. We are honored and blessed to be baptizing two children Theo Gray and Arthur Patrick Watson to welcome them into the church, this congregation of St. John the Evangelist, this parish of the Episcopal Church, the larger Anglican communion, and the whole Christian community—and with the human family reaching towards a connection with the eternal and Holy.
The church encourages baptisms at the Easter Vigil, Pentecost, the name day of a parish, All Saints’ Day, and this day. Each occasion is apt in its own way, but there is something particularly right about this one, because of the light shining throughout both the season and its liturgies. “Star of wonder, star of night…” leads, guides, and brightens the season’s stories, occasions, and this particular morning together. Somehow in the repeated identification of Jesus being manifest to someone or some group, we hear that excitement and participate in these recognition scenes. Last week’s story told of the arrival of the Magi, following the star. Arriving at the manger, they recognized in the baby the presence of G*d. This reality was made manifest to them by the shining light of the star and in seeing the baby. They saw him and knew. Then Luke describes the baptism of Jesus in a quite condensed account. It’s not the baptism that is the recognition point. John the Baptizer, Jesus’s cousin, had been doing proselyte baptisms, that is, baptizing people so that they could become Jews. It was more an entrance rite, than one of repentance. He acknowledged publicly that he was not the one, long expected as Messiah, born to set his people free. He was instead a forerunner. In that role, though, it was his job to baptize Jesus, not for repentance of sin, but for him to receive this additional entrance.
When Jesus had been baptized and was praying, the heavens opened up, and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Here the voice was making manifest to Jesus that he was the Beloved, the child of G*d.” The Magi were strangers, educated and traveling people of importance, but from afar, they’d seen Jesus as a baby and known him to be the One, but that was years earlier than Jesus’s baptism. Whatever he’d heard about that strange visit, Jesus might well not have believed whatever he’d been told by his parents the Magi said about their baby. Here, though, Jesus was in a crowd, all of whom were being baptized. Both the physical marking him as G*d’s own, and his hearing the voice, drummed into him, made it clear to Jesus that he’d been marked by the Holy Spirit as G*’d’s own forever. As is often the case, it’s not obvious what really happened. Was it like a dove, or a dove? Was it that he felt touched physically and told his friends there what he felt, or did they see something? Who heard the voice? Jesus? John? All the people there? Jesus was already an itinerant preacher, already doing his work of telling whoever would listen about the nearby coming of the reign of G*d. Here it is Jesus to whom this stunning event was made manifest, more than the other people present, not named.
Each Epiphany narrative causes someone or some group to acknowledge, “I get it!” The persistent light throughout Epiphany helps make those times of new understanding a double “I get it!” It’s, “I see, I understand, by this illuminating sign, symbol, occurrence.” When the apostles heard later, that those in Samaria had accepted the word of God, and had been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus, they sent Peter and John to baptize them additionally with the Holy Spirit. Therefore they went there and laid hands on these people and they received the Holy Spirit. Note: there are few occasions when we hear readings from Luke’s Acts, usually only in Eastertide. Here it makes sense to understand what full baptism is; it’s both a rite with water that John had done, adding calling the Spirit and laying on hands.
We believe that that’s just what we are to do at someone’s baptism. (For a while one summer, people at a liberal Catholic Church were baptizing people in the name of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier, and the Cardinal here then told them to repeat the baptism with water, the laying on of hands, in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We do this always in the same, traditional, or plainly instructed way—and then no matter what, it is never repeated, ever. We believe that if a person has ever been baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, with the laying on of hands, not only should they never be baptized again, but also they cannot be. It’s a once only, event. Whether one is baptized as an Anglican, Catholic, Baptist, or other line of Christianity, it is a once in a lifetime occurrence. If a baptized person wants to move from one branch of Christian understanding to another, people are received into that new to them community, but another baptism isn’t possible, and should never occur. This shows a deep understanding, which requires and accepts acknowledgement and hospitality towards all baptisms, each as real and valid, as any other.
Since we’re about to baptize Arthur and Theo, it’s clear why this is a particularly good day for baptisms, but it may not be quite as clear what we think baptism is for, why we do it. We are told at the end of Matthew’s Gospel: “Go therefore and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” We are told to do this, and that’s a reason. When we say this, we baptize “into the name,” not a mere naming, or branding. Rather in the Orthodox understanding we baptize into a reality. As an ikon opens into the reality it pictures, like a passageway into a whole otherness of place, time, spirit, and more, like seeing a wardrobe and going through it into Narnia, or other place. We don’t name a child in the name of the Trinity, rather than some other named product, we are opening for the baptisand a life path, entrance, eternity, and making it a way of living for that person forever.
Additionally we say baptism washes away sin and opens the way to eternal life. We do not believe, we do not believe, however, that babies are born with sin; we know that G*d made everything in all Creation and found it each and all to be good. For most of us, even for all of us, at various times in our lives we find sin or it finds us, and we want to repent. Baptism achieves that, but since people are born good, that aspect of baptism doesn’t need to happen, unless it does. Whatever it does about washing clean, it puts a path to eternity under the feet of, into the feet of the one receiving it, until it opens the way there.
Jews believe that after the Lord created the heavens and the earth, at some point, the world was shattered, and it is the goal, task, mission, point of life to heal the world, making it again the “abode for the Divine.” When a boy, then, becomes a Bar Mitzvah, he is being freed from the constraints of being a child and is permitted to take up the work of healing the world. A child is both freed to and then is responsible for engaging in that healing work, both in deeds of action, but also in taking his place in the daily prayer, a minyan, in a community. Only a Bar/Bat Mitzvah can be part of a minyan.
When we baptize someone, we ask them to do several things: “To seek and serve Christ in all others, loving neighbors as oneself, continue in the prayers,” and more. We describe the way to live as a Christian in a community. We ask people to be together and eat here together, to pray together, and to develop and do mission together. We understand that people are baptized into an entrance to new life, and then when they are sealed with oil, they are marked as Christ’s own for ever. These understandings are shaded differently, while the work of healing the world going towards eternal life is not. The Lord also gives all his people the blessing of peace, whichever pattern they live in or by, and however they name their work of bringing about God’s reign. For those baptized, they are sealed and marked as Christ’s own for ever: Good News.
© Katharine C. Black St. John’s, Boston 13 Jan 2013