Sermon by The Reverend Christian Baron, I Epiphany, Baptism of Our Lord, January 8, 2017, Year A; Matthew 3:13-17
“This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…
I haven’t seen many of you in a few weeks. The last time I was liturgically here, was on Christmas Eve. And that was a beautiful service, wasn’t it?
Jodi and I are so grateful for all of you who set up, showed up, swept up or tore things down. We’re grateful to be able to work with such a great group of people.
And, she reports, Christmas Day, too was a special service. Nice and quiet as we basked in the glow of the newborn baby, as we let baby Jesus sleep, in between feedings. And then my family was gone on vacation in Three Rivers through New Year’s Day. We had a lovely week with very little to report. I kept my fishing addiction in check and we watched movies, went for walks, visited with some friends, and said a few prayers. It was glorious.
While we were gone, a lot happened here. We missed Fr. Zachariah Char sharing his journey as a Sudanese Refugee…. He is one of the Lost Boys of Sudan… who traveled a dangerous and deadly trip to these United States… Quite a story.
And over these last few weeks, Jesus really started to grow up, hasn’t he?
He got named and circumcised. The wise men made their journey to bare the new king gifts of Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh. Friday evening we celebrated that feast, which, by the way, predates Christmas (it used to be the celebration that people exchanged gifts on. It was a festival!
But we gathered for some songs and prayers and then to mark the doors of this place. Maybe you’ve noticed some chalking on the door posts?
20 + C + M + B + 17
We marked these doors to bless this place as we think about our ministry. As we think about the mission of this place in 2017.
And here we are today, for the baptism of Jesus.
And, we have some problems, don’t we?
For one, why is Jesus being baptized?
Even John the Baptizer has questions. I can see him whispering to Jesus. “Hey Jesus, I realize you just got here, but you’re kind of ruining my schtick. These people are sinners and need to repent… The I dunk them… Voila… Now they are my disciples.”
See the dilemma?
Is Jesus wanting to be a disciple of John? Does Jesus need forgiveness for his sins? Is he repenting?
You see, our current understanding of the divinity of Jesus, or our “Christology” had not yet been worked out when the gospels were written.
We hadn’t gone to war… we hadn’t accused each other, put humans on trial for what they think they think about things…aka “heresy”… We hadn’t really had time to organize or to put boundaries up around our Church doctrine…
We hadn’t come up with the idea that Jesus was sin-free… that, Jesus, was… perfect.
For example, in Mark’s gospel we see this. The Gospel of Jesus according to Mark doesn’t spend time trying to explain how Mary was a virgin… impregnated by the Holy Spirit…
Whether or not Mary was a virgin had not occurred to the Markan Community, or really any community until much, much, much later.
At least it wasn’t important enough for him to put it in this gospel… his only formal account of the story of Jesus… It really just was very important to the author.
And the Gospels according to Luke and Matthew came after Mark.
For those of you who may not have heard this before, these three are often referred to as the “synoptic” gospels. Scholars tell us that it is likely that the communities of Luke and Matthew used Mark’s narrative to provide for much of the guts in their accounts of the birth, life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
An interesting difference between these three, however, is the birth narrative. Luke and Matthew both include the story of the way in which Jesus’ life began. But Mark began his story in the middle. Because, to the Lukan and Matthean communities, this birth narrative was important. It was important for how they understood themselves and connected to this very important story.
All of this to say, we need to remember that each writer of each individual gospel had a specific community of people who assembled to try to live their lives according to the teachings of Jesus. It was a movement, not a religion. Pockets of folks gathering around campfires to listen to Old Man Matt retell the stories of catching fish with Jesus. About Mary sharing stories of what Jesus was like as a toddler…or teenager… (By the way, most scholars think Mary lived in the community where the gospel of John came from… ironically, the community with the mother of God didn’t find it important to put in a birth narrative either…) Each gospel community had their own particular slant (or theory or theology) of who Jesus was and what it all means.
It wasn’t until 300, or so, years later, we decided we better come to some common understanding about these texts. I guess they thought, “We had better put some parameters around things before some of these loose cannon heretics get ahold of them and make a mess out all of it.”
And now, here we are, in 2017, in Beulah Michigan. A few minutes ago we heard our deacon proclaim the gospel of our Lord, Jesus Christ, according to Matthew.
She read the story of the baptism of Jesus and some of us had a hard time making sense of it.
The problem is we have to look back at a text written hundreds of years before it became important for us to think about Jesus living a life without sin. The language of “sin” and the need for a perfect Messiah, simply did not exist, until much, much, later.
That doesn’t mean it isn’t true, it just means this sacred text isn’t designed to be a 1:1 ratio of their theological understanding to ours.
They couldn’t have had a college course on Matthew’s Christology because we, as a Church, had not yet decided how we, the Church, would understand Matthew’s Christology.
I hope that doesn’t sound too pessimistic. I hope it doesn’t sound skeptical or dubious. That’s not my intention. I think the church has done her best and that her best is good. And that the Church’s good attempt is good enough and even better than good enough.
But we still have this baptism problem, don’t we.
I hate to send you home disappointed, but if you came for a good answer to this question, I can direct you to some books written by smart folks about this very subject… but I, your co-rector, just don’t have a good answer….
Unless… this counts…
Baptism is a mystery…
What if, the Church hasn’t done a very good job of communicating the role of Baptism because it is so mysterious?
I don’t know if you knew this or not but there are still big conversations going on within the Church about baptism. I know that many other denominations are having big conversations about infant and believer baptism… what counts and what doesn’t… But I mean that Episcopalians are still trying to figure it out…in 2017!!!
In seminary, we had classmates and professors who found it absolutely abhorrent that a priest would offer a person communion that hadn’t been baptized. And, we had classmates that thought it was OK to baptize adults who were simply interested, even if they hadn’t had any theological framework about what baptism is and what it is not. We had serious arguments about these kinds of things.
The Church, in 2017, still has not come to an agreement about what baptism is and how it should function.
It is still… a mystery…
So, I will offer that to you today.
Your baptism is a mystery. Jesus’ baptism is a mystery.
The next time we, St. Philip’s, come together for a baptism (child or adult), it will still be an ontological mystery.
Does it change the essence of the human being? Did it change Jesus’ essence? I don’t know…
But… what I do know… is that for Jesus… and for you and me… Baptism is the initiating ritual that begins his ministry. For hundreds of years now, Christian Baptism has been the ritual act that people go through who want to be apart of this movement. To no longer have spectator seats but to get in the arena and be “all in”. The very act symbolizes (some say ontologically changes) a willful act of death to oneself, into a (more) full life in Christ and the Kingdom of God.
Sure, the particular meaning has changed… over the years…. but as Episcopalians our baptismal covenant is clear. The promises we make, either for ourselves or on behalf of one we hope to raise in the ways of the Divine, are based on the teachings of the Church around the birth, life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Similarly, as we come together each week to re-remember the Last Supper, as we consume God’s body and blood, today, we come together to hear this story and re-remember John’s Baptism of Jesus, the one for whom this whole thing is all about.
And it is clear, hopefully, that Matthew wanted the hearer of this story to know that Jesus was baptized BEFORE he started his official ministry.
He was baptized before he did anything significant.
The chapter in Matthew after this, Jesus goes into the Wilderness where he is tempted, and then he begins his official ministry.
It is not until AFTER his baptism that he begins to communicate to the masses about the Kingdom of God come near, and to proclaim the good news.
His baptism was his initiation.
And that makes sense right?
Your baptism was your initiation. My baptism was my initiation.
It was, and is, our warrant to get involved in the Kingdom of God.
It was the action that pre-empted, all that we do in the name of God. This action, this ritual, is the way that the Church sanctions its’ people to carry on the work of God. I’d go as far as to say that baptism is the way that GOD sanctions the Church to carry on the work of the Divine.
And I have a feeling that St. Philip’s is going to participate in some baptisms in 2017.
It’s my hope and, I think, God’s dream, that folk will find this place and see who and how we are. That they will see how we live into our baptismal covenants, and that they will feel called to join in on this work.
To join in the pleasure of the mission and ministry of St. Philip’s Episcopal Church.
So keep your ears open and keep your eyes open.
So that, like John the Baptizer, we’ll be ready when Jesus or anybody else shows up and wants to hear more about this place.
And we will be here to initiate them. To mark their beginning into the work of the Kingdom of God.
And if you haven’t been baptized and are thinking about it now, and I hope you are, we will be here when you are ready to make your way into a deeper understanding of what this faith means. And God will be pleased.
“Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”