Isa 43.1-7 Do not be afraid, for I have redeemed you.
Acts 8.14-17 Peter and John laid hands and they received the Holy Spirit
Lk 3.15-17, 21-22 Christ is baptised by John
Why do we recall Jesus' baptism today? It's certainly not because we imagine that it took place at this time of the year. We have no idea when it was; all we can say is that it was probably sometime in the year we call AD30. According to Luke 3.23 Jesus was about 30 years old when he began his work, and all the gospels tell us that, at the start of this public ministry, he came to the river Jordan where his cousin John was offering a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. To John's surprise, Jesus joined the other candidates: you should be baptizing me, says John.
The gospel writers also clearly find it a bit of a puzzle why Jesus, the sinless one, needed this sign of forgiveness. Matthew offers a kind of explanation, and has Jesus say let is be so for now, to fulfil the demands of righteousness; this sounds impressive, but what does it mean? Neither Luke (whose account we heard today) nor Mark offer an explanation. The simplest answer, perhaps, is that in coming to the waters Jesus is identifying himself, first, with John's mission and ministry, and second, with sinful humanity; and also that he is seeking to show his Father's favour. All four gospels have heaven opened and the divine voice declaring you are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased. In John's gospel the Baptist testified I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove … I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God (John 1.34).
So why recall it at this time of year? We do so because it is one of a series of key moments in Jesus' life, moments which we call epiphanies - times of revelation, when in some way or another the penny dropped, and his true significance was shown, at least to those with eyes to see. The coming of wise men with their gifts, which we celebrated on Thursday, is the first such moment: he is revealed as a king (the gold), a priest (the frankincense) and a saviour (the myrrh), and acclaimed as a light for all the world. His baptism - as an adult, of course, not as an infant - is the next in the series; and traditionally the third epiphany is the miracle at Cana, in the early days of his public ministry, when he turned water into wine. (All three are mentioned in today's eucharistic prayer; and Common Worship invents a whole form of service for today which brings all three together – Three wonders mark this sacred day, it begins – but it's a bit OTT and I think is rarely used.) Other epiphanies follow, such as the calling of the disciples; and the sequence comes to a close at the end of this month, when we hop back to the point where Jesus was presented in the temple, as Jewish law required, when he was 40 days old, and Simeon praised God in the words we know as Nunc Dimittis: Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace - acclaiming Jesus as the light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel. Revelation, mission, light, glory - all these are the themes of the Epiphany season.
Today is a time when we can reflect on the significance of our own baptism; but we need to be clear about the difference between Jesus' baptism and Christian baptism. I don't just mean that Jesus was an adult and it happened in a river, whereas the Church of England has traditionally baptized infants, and in church, at a font. It has always been possible for adults to be baptized – as we do today, with joy, sharing this blessed sacrament with Ali Chavoshi and Mohammad Reza Ahmadoust – and indeed our current liturgies make this the norm, with infant baptism a derivative of this, rather than the other ways round. And some denominations – and some Anglicans – continue to baptize in lakes or rivers or in the sea (or even in swimming baths and paddling pools), believing that immersion or submersion, rather than pouring, is what's required. (The word baptism actually means 'dipping'.)
No, the difference is that the baptism John offered was, as we have heard, a baptism or washing signifying repentance and preparation for what was to come. In John's community it took its place alongside other ritual washings practised around that time by those who were particularly devout. It quite possibly was done without words, letting the dramatic action speak for itself (which remains a good liturgical principle). The sacrament of Christian baptism, on the other hand, has almost from the start been accompanied by words, a threefold formula: specifically and deliberately, it is in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. This comes from the closing words of Matthew's gospel, the 'Great Commission', when the risen Christ says go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age. Ability to declare this formula became, and to some extent remains, a test of orthodoxy, of right belief.
I said 'almost from the start' because, as we heard in our NT reading, in some of the earliest communities people were baptized 'in the name of Jesus', with no reference to the presence or gift of the Holy Spirit – indeed, in another of these passages in Acts they said oh, we had never even heard that there was a Holy Spirit. So an additional rite was offered, typically with the laying-on of hands. I'm not the only one who finds it puzzling to speak of the presence of Christ apart from the Holy Spirit (which is why traditional confirmation, suggesting some thing extra, is such a problem) – but that's another sermon, or indeed series of sermons.
To put in a nutshell what I am trying to say: we are baptized, not because Jesus was baptized (though he was, and the central symbol of washing with water is the same for us as for him) but because he died and rose again. The pattern is similar, but the meaning is different. Paul makes this clear in Romans. Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into his death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. Baptism declares, then, that we die to sin in order to share his risen life. The font is a kind of tomb, a place where there is a kind of death. Some fonts, both ancient and modern, are deliberately designed to bring out this symbolism and make this connection.
That is St Paul's way of explaining it, and it runs through all his writings. John's gospel offers a different perspective, with an emphasis on being born again (for instance, Jesus' conversation with Nicodemus where Jesus says truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit). Baptism is a symbol of spiritual birth as well as of a spiritual death to sin, so we can also describe the font as a kind of womb - and, again, there are fonts designed to bring out this symbolism too. Both are ways of describing the same reality: how in baptism each of us, as individuals, claims our share in the eternal gifts of Christ our Lord, and is identified with him.
Early on in the new year is a good time for us to recall that baptismal covenant, and to renew our allegiance to Christ. In the Methodist tradition, the year traditionally begins with John Wesley's Covenant Service, when each member of the church is challenged to a solemn and serious renewal of their Christian commitment. This is a service precious to present and past members of this congregation. It draws on the marriage imagery of Ephesians, and on Puritan texts, and its central words are I am no longer my own, but yours. The prayer of re-dedication concludes And the covenant which I have made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven.
It's an individual act of commitment (Methodists see it as an annual renewal of their church membership: the Methodist Church website has an excellent explainer piece) - a serious and personal matter, an act of the heart (to pick up what Richard said last Sunday); but like all sacramental actions it can't be seen simply as a one-to-one transaction between individuals and God. It is the act of the whole faith community. That is how Christian commitment works: it is always both personal and corporate. The baptism of Jesus speaks not just of our destiny as individuals, nor even as the church, but of the destiny of the whole creation. It is a moment of cosmic significance. This is an emphasis which another distinctive Christian tradition, that of the Orthodox churches, has always stressed. For them, the baptism of Christ rather than the coming of the wise men is the major Epiphany event, the great revelation of God's glory. One of their traditional chants for today says:
Let the nations bless the one who has wrought a great wonder.
The whole creation is freed from its slavery to sin…
Light from Light, Christ our God has shone upon the world.
The whole creation is freed from its slavery to sin.
The heavens are astonished, for the Prince of Life has come.
The whole creation is freed from its slavery to sin.
The conviction that it is not just individuals, but the whole creation, that is enslaved to sin, and longing to be set free from its bondage, is central to Paul's argument in Romans. In the great 8th chapter, he says that all that exists is subject to futility and decay, groaning in pain like the pains of childbirth, and waiting with eager longing for its liberty, for signs of glory, for the revealing of the children of God. We who are those children - if we are faithful to our baptismal calling - are but part of that process, and are commissioned to help bring about that liberty, for we have the firstfruits of the Spirit; the renewal of creation has already begun, and God's work in us and in his church is - or should be - the sign and earnest of this.
It is in this context that today we renew our primary commitment to God’s purposes, and joyfully share the God's giftg of baptism with our two candidates.
Richard Young (Rector)