Today is one of the great Baptismal days in the Episcopal Church. Since Baptism joins us to the community of faith, the Book of Common Prayer recommends that Baptism should be administered within that community, as a public event, either when the Bishop comes, or on one of four major feasts. And today, the feast of the Baptism of Christ, is one of them. So throughout our denomination, people are being baptized today. What are the other three days?
The main time for Baptisms, of course, is the Easter Vigil, the climactic centerpiece of the whole liturgical year. What better time than the principal Easter service to celebrate the sacrament that gets us included in Christ's death and resurrection? Our alienation from God dies in his death, and we come to life with a new kind of life from God in his resurrection, and the Vigil is the central place we experience that truth together. So that's the first and the most central Baptismal day.
The second one is Pentecost. On the first Pentecost, the Spirit of God came within the apostles and the Virgin Mary and took up residence in their lives. And as they told people about this, 3000 people were converted in one day, received the sacrament of Baptism, and themselves were filled with the Holy Spirit. And that is what happens to us at our Baptism too; the Spirit of God comes to dwell within us, really and truly. So again, very appropriate.
Another great Baptismal day is All Saints. And that, if you think about it, fits in another way. When we are Baptized, we are adopted into God's global family. His life takes up residence within us such that we become his children and suddenly have sisters and brothers from every race and social class and language and era, and All Saints is the day we honor representative members of that family. So that makes sense as a Baptismal day too.
So those three days which the Episcopal church recommends for Baptism each highlight a particular part of what Baptism does for us. The Easter Vigil reminds us that we are Baptized into Christ's death and resurrection. Pentecost reminds us that in Baptism we receive the Holy Spirit. All Saints reminds us that Baptism is always a communal event that gives us a new family in Christ. But what about today? Well, this is the Sunday on which we hear the story of Christ's Baptism, so the theme fits well enough. But what part of our own Baptisms does this day point to?
To answer that, we need to look at what was going on as Jesus came to John at the River Jordan. John, had been asked by God to serve as an advance man for Jesus. His mission was to spread the news that the Kingdom of God was about to be inaugurated, that God was sending someone who would offer a new way for people to relate to God. You just heard John explain the distinction: "I baptize you with water, but one who is more powerful than I is coming. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire."
So John's was the last Old Covenant baptism, the final step before the New Covenant between God and people. Jesus was about to inaugurate the new way of relating to God, about to begin the kind of Baptism we receive, and however little John knew about that in advance, he knew it was going to be something amazing. And finally the day arrives. Jesus approaches. Does John turn and watch him, over on the shore? Does a hush fall over the crowd? ...But then Jesus steps out into the river, and looks John in the eye. He has come to be baptized! John, apparently, had never foreseen this. The Messiah asking for his Baptism? Why? The Gospel of Matthew tells us John protested, "I ought to be baptized by you." But Jesus knows it has to be like this. Not because Jesus is a sinner, for he isn't. Not so that he can be grafted into God's family, for he is the very root and source of that family. Not so that he can receive the Holy Spirit, for he himself is the one who will give the Holy Spirit.
He had to be baptized to show us the part of our Baptisms without which our faith will never really come alive. Jesus is baptized in order to inaugurate his ministry. He witnesses publicly here that his life belongs to God, and is God’s to use in any way he wants for his mission – and then God witnesses publicly to him. "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased." This moment signals the transition from preparation to action. From now on, Jesus goes outward to minister to the world. He gets to work on the calling which has been waiting for him since everything went wrong way back in the Garden of Eden.
To be baptized is to be forgiven through the Cross and Resurrection, yes. It's to become a child of God and a member of God's large and sometimes unlikely family. It's to know that the Holy Spirit has come to live inside you. But this day, this fourth Baptismal occasion in the Episcopal Church, teaches us that it’s more than that. To be baptized is to be given a ministry -- and the mission, along with the power, to carry it out.
What does that ministry look like? Well, it ought to look like Jesus' ministry, of course. In fact, since the Church is the Body of Christ, it literally is Jesus' ministry in the contemporary world. We who are baptized into him get to experience him working through us, each in our own way. Ordinary Christians like you and me are the main tool on earth Jesus has to do his work; and if we don't do it, each of us, all of us, some of it won't get done. The part of his agenda God intends you to cover won’t get done if you don’t do it, or better, let him do it through you. God has already accomplished, in Christ, everything we need to be united with him, to live for him, and to carry out all that he wants from us. Baptism is the door to all of that. God is giving the candidates being baptized today in Episcopal churches all over this country, just as he has you if you have been baptized, all kinds of gifts. Forgiveness, the Holy Spirit, adoption into his family. And in addition, as this particular day points out, a vocation, a sacred calling, a ministry. A chance to experience him working through you.
For some of us, one or more of those gifts may still be sitting around, unopened, wrapped, unused. We may not understand the full forgiveness that is ours. We may not know how to walk in the power of the Spirit who lives in us. We may have so weak an identification with our Christian family that we define ourselves more by other relationships or groups. We may not be acting in the world as representatives of Christ and ministers in his name. Some of those gifts may still be sitting there wrapped, under the tree, all this time later. If they are, it's never too late to unwrap them and put them to use. I’m really hoping that our adult formation work this semester will help some of you to do that – to recognize what God has done for you in Baptism and to experience its benefits such that all of our ministries can be more vibrant. You’ve probably seen the flyer in the Messenger or elsewhere by now, but we have so many ways planned for us all to go deeper into the Episcopal way of being Christian over the next few months before the Bishop comes to hear us renew our vows of Baptism in April.
Two courses that meet either Sunday morning or Wednesday evening after Mass, one on how Episcopalians use Creeds and one on how we use Scripture. Both of these are directly rooted in the Prayer Book and have some wonderful brief video presentations by Episcopal scholars. There’s an instructed Eucharist coming up on Feb 7th. People have been requesting this, and I hope it will guide you in participating more consciously in both what God is doing and what we can be doing during the Mass – where God feeds us week by week with more of the very same life he gave us access to in Baptism. Later in February, our Sunday evening Lenten program will look at what four well known Anglicans can teach us about discipleship. There will also be a sermon series in Lent that fits with this whole focus, as well.
In brief, it’ll be pretty hard to miss what’s going on! Almost everything we do together at Emmanuel over the next few months will be working together to offer you tools for deeper formation, for more intentional service, for fuller appreciation of what God has done and is doing for you and for us. And even that’s barely getting our toes wet, if you’ll pardon the metaphor. Sometimes I think we could spend our whole lives, and longer, just trying to understand what actually happened to us in Baptism.
There was a very good man, a bishop of our church, who died tragically early of cancer. His name was Bob Denig, and he was consecrated Bishop in a marvelous ceremony. If you’ve never seen a bishop get consecrated, it’s a very big deal. People come from all over the world, and the new Bishop gets to put on a spectacular hat, and everyone says how important he or she is.
When Bishop Denig was consecrated, all that stuff happened, and he was very happy. But at the Offertory, he said: "Today is a wonderful and important occasion. But being consecrated Bishop is not the most wonderful and important thing that ever happened to me. The most wonderful and important thing that ever happened to me was my Baptism forty-five years ago." Me too; nothing more wonderful and important has ever happened to me. Or you. May God by his grace lead us all into the fulness of what he has already done for us through Christ in this great sacrament. Amen.