Monday, January 5, 2015

Why Baptism Matters, Part 1


Every year, on the first Sunday after January 6, we celebrate the baptism of Jesus. It’s a curious thing, really. Why did Jesus need to be baptized? Why would the sinless one undergo the baptism of repentance at the hands of John the Baptizer? Matthew and Luke (and even John in his own way) invite the reader to see this confusing detail by interposing a conversation between the cousins, during which John initially objects to the thought of baptizing Jesus, but Mark just gives it the way it was. Jesus came to the Jordan. That was the place where people were discovering anew what it meant to be servants of God. Jesus, himself, was to begin his ministry in that place and in that movement before inaugurating a new way of following the Lord.

This Sunday, as we gather at the banks of the Jordan River to watch Jesus be immersed below the stream, we will hear what we already know: the voice of God confirming that Jesus is God’s beloved Son. With the first few verses of Genesis still ringing in our ears, we will encounter the revelation of all three persons of the Trinity in the great Theophany as the Son comes up from the water, sees the Spirit descending, and hears the Father’s voice. We will walk away with our hearts filled with the joy of seeing Jesus “proclaimed” and “anointed” as we pray in the Collect.

Everything about these lessons seems to plunge us again into baptism. Maybe that’s why I’m drawn to the lesson from Acts (19:1-7). Of all the readings, it seems most to be about us—about why this yearly remembrance has anything to do with twenty-first-century Christians.

When he came to Ephesus, Paul encountered some disciples. At this point the church was spreading quickly—more quickly than the hierarchy could move. Paul asked if they had received the Holy Spirit, and their reply casts a damning pall upon the evangelistic efforts of the early church: “We have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” Immediately, Paul turns to baptism and asks, “Into what were you baptized?” and they reply, “Into John’s baptism.” Then, Paul makes the critical distinction that is, for us, the difference between night and day, between life and death: “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, in Jesus.” As soon as these disciples were baptized into the name of Jesus and Paul laid his hands on them, they received the Holy Spirit and began speaking in tongues and prophesying.

That’s us. Or at least it’s supposed to be.

Has your baptism filled you with the Holy Spirit? The answer is “yes” even if you didn’t realize it. We’re not going to re-baptize anyone. That’s heresy. But have you claimed the power of the Holy Spirit that was bestowed upon you at baptism? Is your baptism bearing fruit in your life? Or is it merely a moment in the past? Is it merely a “wash this original sin off so that I can get into heaven?” If you’re not living into your baptism every single day, you’re ignoring what it means to be a follower of Christ.

As a damning criticism of the evangelism of the modern church, most of us, I fear, would identify with those disciples in Ephesus. We live as if our baptism were a moment in the past. We live as if it were the baptism of John rather than a baptism into Christ's death and resurrection and, thus, into the power of the Holy Spirit.

On this Sunday, it seems fitting to undertake the Renewal of Baptismal Vows (BCP p. 292), which includes the Baptismal Covenant, instead of saying the Nicene Creed—a switch that is authorized on page 312 of the Book of Common Prayer. I feel a sermon on baptismal theology coming on. The trick this week will be to narrow it down to something less than 30 minutes. I’ve got sacrament and baptism and salvation and regeneration and original sin and spiritual gifts and free will and divine providence and Eucharistic admission and lots of others things floating around in my mind. I like the kinds of weeks when I have too much to say and get to struggle with what to leave it. Those usually end up better than getting through the week wondering if I have anything to say at all.

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