Genesis 1:1-5; Acts 19:1-7; Mark 1:4-11
Today is the First Sunday after Epiphany, but it is also the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord, which is a day that we remember and celebrate the baptism (by John the Baptist) of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, in the River Jordan. It is an appropriate occasion to explore the nuances of baptism. For instance, the World Council of Churches, in its 1982 “Faith and Order Paper” made an ecumenical statement about baptism listing these three active elements of grace in the rite: Conversion of life, bestowing of the Gift of the Holy Spirit, and Incorporation into the Body of Christ.
As the Christian ritual through which, we experience conversion, “those baptized are pardoned, cleansed and sanctified by Christ, and are given as part of their baptismal experience a new ethical orientation under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.”(1) Through the waters of baptism, we are forever changed and forever made free from that, which could keep us from God’s intent for our lives.
As the Christian ritual through which, we receive the Gift of the Spirit. “God bestows upon all baptized persons the anointing and the promise of the Holy Spirit, marks them with a seal and implants in their hearts the first installment of their inheritance as sons and daughters of God .” (1) Baptism is our outward guarantee of God’s promise that his Spirit will guide and direct our lives, and it becomes real. God is with us both individually and corporately in all we do.
As the Christian ritual through which, we receive Incorporation into the Body of Christ, baptism is “obedience to our Lord … a sign and seal of our common discipleship. Through baptism, Christians are brought into union with Christ, with each other and with the Church of every time and place.” (1) You know, being a Christian is not something you can really do all alone at home. Jesus formed a community of people that began with twelve, and now it includes over two billion. The very nature of being Christ-like is to be in community. As Episcopal Presiding Bishop Michael Curry says, “We all are a part of the Jesus movement.”
Simply stated baptism is when we experience a shift in our lives and we begin to follow Jesus’ example and identify with him, when we receive God’s grace through water and Spirit, and when we become a fellow follower of Jesus, alongside other Christians. Baptism is not merely a rite of passage. It is not “fire insurance” when we baptize children because we fear it is necessary for their entry into heaven, and we just forget the need to have them nurtured through involvement in the life of a congregation.
Baptism is intended to be Initiation into the Body of Christ, the Church, when Parents/Godparents/Sponsors and the entire church make promises to God and the child (or adult candidate), and to each other, to help the candidate grow in the faith. Notice, I said the Church makes promises to the child or adult candidate, because as a community, we have a mutual obligation to help one another grow in Christ.
The Baptismal Promises
On this feast day, or other feast appropriate for baptism, the community typically renews their baptismal promises through the liturgy. Today we will replace the Nicene Creed with that baptismal renewal liturgy. We will today, as a community renew our promises, which are our response to the following questions: (1) Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers? (2) Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord? (3) Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ? (4) Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself? (5) Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
Simply stated, we will renew our promise to God and each other to as Christians we will gather, learn, share communion, and pray, to grow, transform, and follow Jesus, to evangelize, to serve others, to engage in mission, and to love our neighbor. I don’t know about you, but I don’t take promises lightly. Baptism is a commitment and a new way of life. It is more than a mere ticket into heaven, or membership into a church group, or just a rite of passage, like graduation from high school. Baptism is a serious, soul sanctifying, and life changing experience.
We are a community of baptized people, the Body of Christ
Our sharing of the waters of baptism with Jesus and one another, along with the promises we made at baptism, defines who we are as a worldwide community. These promises clarify our common mission, and they direct our future. More importantly, these promises are about more than just us.Paul asked the church in Ephesus, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed? Did you take God into your mind only, or did you also embrace him with your heart? Did he get inside you?” God got inside our lives at our baptism, for a purpose beyond just us. God is involved, because God’s grace is active in this work of our lives, in service to others.
We baptized folk do gather together for growth and fellowship, but we are not a clubhouse. We do not gather merely for our own benefit, edification, and sanctification. The Body of Christ serves as a beacon of hope, a city on a hill that lights the way for the world, struggling in the darkness of despair. The Church is a lighthouse that guides, moves, and goes out to serve.
From Font to Table to Mission Field
We baptized folk are born into the community by the waters of the Baptismal Font and the Holy Spirit, but our journey does not stop there. We move from the Font to the Table, to the Supper of the Lord, or Holy Communion, where we are fed and filled with Jesus Christ but again, our journey does not stop there. We are sent out into this world as emissaries, ambassadors, witnesses, and evangelists of the Good News of Christ. Our call is to represent Jesus Christ in the world, by continuing God’s mission of love, mercy, grace, and peace. We are a people gathered to be sent out, both as a group, but also, as individuals, all to serve in ministry.
Have you heard this phrase, “where your spiritual gifts, given to you by the Holy Spirit at your baptism, meet the world’s greatest needs; that is your ministry.” What gifts at baptism were you given, when the Holy Spirit brought the grace of this sacrament in your life? Are you a teacher gifted to share God’s word? Are you a speaker gifted to read scripture to the church? Are you a singer gifted to sing and lead others to song? Are you a leader gifted with insight, wisdom, and vision? Are you (Fill in the blank) gifted to do ministry in this church and in the world?. You see all of us, by virtue of our baptism (not just clergy) are called into ministry to take what God has given us, and to go out there in the local Mission Field, which is just outside of the church doors.
The purpose of the community gathered is to teach us, prepare us, help us unpack our gifts, feed us for the mission, and then send us out to carry out God’s work in the world. In the weeks, months, and years to come, I encourage you to explore together how and where God is calling you individually and corporately, to make the Kingdom a reality in the neighborhoods all around you.
As you continue to keep the promises you made when you became a member of the Jesus movement, continue the mission of Christ in the world. Keep bringing joy, peace, love, reconciliation, grace, and mercy into the lives of your neighbors. And when we hopefully each day consider these questions, these promises we made at our baptism, let our answer be, “I will follow Jesus faithfully, I will serve my neighbor faithfully, but I can only do it with God’s help.”
1 “Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry,” World Council of Churches Faith and Order Paper No. 111, Geneva, 1982, p. 2