January 8, 2017
Here we are again--the baptism of Jesus. Every year we read this story. Every year I wrestle with the question of why Jesus needed to be baptized. Every year, I think back to the warm water I waded into at my own baptism when I was 9. Is there anything new I could possibly say to you? I went online and looked for pictures of baptisms...loving parents holding hands, watching as their newborn is cradled in the arms of a priest or pastor, water being sprinkled on their tiny heads, adults making a profession of faith as they bend over into a baptismal font to have a jug of water poured over their heads, people wading out into rivers to be reborn in the water. It’s a strange thing--baptism. For a non-Christian, it probably makes no sense at all...what in the world could water do to or for a person...is there some kind of “magic” happening?
The Anglican or Episcopal theology of baptism, according to the Articles of Religion (which by the way are found in your prayer books beginning on page 867, and specifically speak to the theology of baptism on page 873), is a, “sign of profession, and mark of difference (from non-Christians)...[it is] a sign of Regeneration or New-Birth, whereby, as by an instrument, they that receive Baptism rightly are grafted into the Church; the promises of the forgiveness of sin, and of our adoption to be the sons [and daughters] of God by the Holy Ghost, are visibly signed and sealed; Faith is confirmed, and Grace increased by virtue of prayer unto God.” In other words, it is an outward sign of inward grace. It means we are forgiven and marked as a follower of Christ. Baptism is a big deal, and not at all “magic”.
And while all of that is important (and really, it is), what this says to me, and what the lessons from today say to me is that God loves us. And we belong to God. So for me, part of my theology of baptism is that not only is it an outward sign of inward grace, but it means that we are re-membered. And what I mean here by “re-membered” is about being put back together, being made whole, and remembering who we are and to whom we belong.
So let’s look at the lessons for today.
In the reading from Isaiah (42:1-9), two things strike me. In verse 6, the prophet reports that God says, “I…have called you in righteousness; I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.” Then God goes on to say in verse 9, “See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare…” The prophet Isaiah is speaking to a people in captivity and exile. They have been removed from their homes, overcome by Babylonians, their sons and daughters taken away, and they feel abandoned. And yet, in the midst of all this chaos and upheaval, God speaks to them through the prophet and gives them a new understanding of what their identity is as children of God, and really what their ministry is: to be patient, never-ceasing, working for justice, and merciful. This is the ministry of Jesus and it is our ministry as well.
In the Matthew text (3:13-17). Jesus has come to John to be baptized. And after Jesus is baptized, while he is coming out of the water, the heavens open up and the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove descends on him while these words are being spoken from above “This is my Son, the Beloved; with whom I am well pleased”. In this moment, God names Jesus—the Beloved, and it is from this moment onward that Jesus embarks on his mission and ministry. God has claimed him as God’s own.
In Isaiah, when the people are reminded of their ministry, they are “re-membered” as children of God; they are put back together and made whole. Not that they hadn’t been, but because they had forgotten. In Matthew, this is Jesus’ first direct encounter with God, and he is “re-membered” as a child of God...he is put together and made whole for the ministry he is about to do.
The celebration of Jesus’ baptism perhaps isn’t so much about a deep theological wrestling about why did Jesus need to be baptized, as it is a reminder of who we are and to whom we belong. It is so easy to get caught up in the belief that who we are is based on our resume, on our paycheck, or on our standing in the community. Those things might be a part of who we are, but more importantly, we are children of God. And it’s even easier to think that we belong to the never ending cycle of emails, text messages, phone calls, budget meetings and a whole other barrage of issues that come at us daily, but ultimately, we belong to God.
When we are baptized, or when we renew our Baptismal Covenant, we are claiming our name as “Beloved” and we are giving ourselves over to God. We are being marked for a variety of ministries--be them as teachers, doctors, farmers, care givers, advocates, offerers of hospitality, of kindness and presence. We are re-membered as part of this community and the household of God. Through baptism, we become outward signs to the world of the grace and love of Jesus Christ.
So what’s the point of hearing about Jesus’ baptism? It’s so we can be reminded of who we are and to whom we belong; it’s so we can be “re-membered”…put back together, made whole, and renewed. It’s so we can remember that we have been marked for ministry and that we are beloved.
Let us pray:
Holy God, we thank you that by water and the Holy Spirit you have re-membered us as your beloved. Sustain us, O God, in your Holy Spirit. Give us inquiring and discerning hearts, the courage to do the ministry you have called us to do and a spirit to know and love you. Amen.