Sermon 1/8/12 Epiphany 1A “The Feast of the Baptism of our Lord”
OK, Christmas is past, Epiphany is here, and it has been less than a month since the Nativity and here we are celebrating yet another feast of the Church. Yes, today is the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord, and this is not just another Sunday, but a day upon which we are reminded to focus our attention, on one of the major transitions in the life of Our Lord. So what’s the big deal? A little water, a few words, and we are on the team. I guess it depends on your perspective of what such a pivotal event that Jesus left for us really means and why he left this path for us to follow. We sometimes ask “Why did Jesus get baptized after all?” John who gave him the holy bath really asked the same question too. Scripture records that John was a bit reluctant to baptize Jesus when he said, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ John really didn’t understand the reason and many Theologians have wrestled with this question too.
In the Book of Common Prayer, we may have a little evidence for the significance of Jesus’ baptism, “Grant, O Lord, that all who are baptized into the death of Jesus Christ your Son may live in the power of his resurrection and look for him to come again in glory; who lives and reigns now and forever. Amen.” The Apostle Paul in his letter to the Galatians touched on this notion of dying in a death like his and sharing in a resurrection like his. Paul asserts that “the person who has been baptized is ‘in Christ,’ no longer subject to the divisions of human society, and part of a unified body.” In baptism, we die to our old self and live into a new reality. That new reality is the church, the Body of Christ. The definition of baptism in the catechism is, “Baptism is full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ’s Body, the church.” Thus, we are by virtue of our baptism, we become a full fledged part of “Team Jesus.” So we are on the team, we are unified, we are a group, a gaggle, a community, and we are a family. So, here we are, now what?
The church is a community of folks brought together for a purpose but there are all kinds of groups and communities out there these days and in each one, folks come together for different reasons and purposes. There are civic groups that gather for fun and service to the community, there are golf groups who gather for fun and well, golf; there are social groups who gather for fun and well, fun. These communities can be formal groups or informal groups, well-defined groups or loosely held associations. We humans are social folks and we need to gather with others in order to feel complete and whole. Church is a community with a purpose as well. The Church, the Body of Christ, “Team Jesus” is brought together for the purposes of love, and our association is formal, well-defined, and permanent because of an indissoluble bond made possible by something we refer to as baptism.
Baptism is more than just a little water sprinkle, a cute white gown, and a precious little baby. Baptism is a Christian rite of passage, an initiation, an entry, a turning point, a new phase of life made possible by water and Spirit. In baptism, we pass through water yes, but we also take promises upon ourselves or in the case of infants, they are taken for us and on our behalf. Baptism is ritual and it is a covenant for each of us as individuals and corporately, and between us and God: the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. In baptism, God promises that we will be God’s people and we will share in God’s kingdom. In baptism, our promises to God and each other, define how we will live into God’s promise to us, and how we will be God’s people. This way of life we promise to undertake in baptism is of God, because it is the life, death, and resurrection of God in Christ which we promise to follow. The promises of our baptism are not to be taken lightly, but they are the life of Christ to which we are called to live. We the baptized are the new life God promises, and the work of this community, this “Team Jesus” is not easy, but Jesus never said it would be, he just said he would be with us.
That first baptismal promise is quite challenging. “Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?” Some of God’s people have dedicated their entire life to studying the teaching of the apostles. So should we. I dare say that a 10-15 minute sermon once a week is just not enough. We need to study the scriptures daily, and we should take advantage of the many Adult Christian Education opportunities that are out there. We are invited by virtue of our baptism into a deeper love and commitment to Jesus Christ, and that itself takes effort. The fellowship of the body in the breaking of bread is about coming here each week and receiving the sacrament, but it’s not just about you and me as an individuals. When we share a meal with someone, we just don’t eat and run; we interact. We make ourselves vulnerable, and we enter into relationship. Communal living in Christ is not a drive-thru, fast food endeavor, but a multi-course meal in which, we gather, share, reveal our brokenness, and learn what it really means to love one another (not just the ones we like or those who are like us). That prayer part seems easy enough, but many folks struggle with having a conversation with God. That’s pretty much it though, just listening. Sometimes we say too much. Maybe the key to prayer is merely taking the time for a few minutes to listen, to quiet our spirit and wait on God.
The next baptismal promise is “Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?” We all stray and fall off the path. Simply stated, we all will fail, but it’s in the returning to “Team Jesus,” that we embrace our promise. The next promise can raise the hair on the back of the neck for some folks, “Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?” This promise does not include the use of bullhorns and Gospel tracts and street preaching on the local main drag. No, simply stated, sharing the Gospel means that we are to recognize that our lives may be the only lens through which others can see Christ. St. Francis said, “Preach the gospel and if necessary, use words.” We should constantly wrestle with the questions, “Does my life draw others to Jesus,” and “does this community’s life reflect the life of Christ?” Our individual lives and the life of the community, “Team Jesus,” can best be made manifest in the world if we truly live into the next two promises which are, “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?” and “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?”
Responding to the poor, afflicted, and broken is more than a clichéd litany of teachings that Jesus offered us, but didn’t really expect us to follow. The other night when freezing temperatures threatened all of us here in Florida, I watched people in my neighborhood take diligent precautions to insure that our shrubs would not freeze. Many of us spent hours taking care to make sure these precious living things did not die from the cold. Much effort and time went into caring for God’s creation when it was threatened. Interestingly enough, here in this place, right here at St. David’s a group of people also took some life-saving precautions to insure some very precious living things didn’t freeze either. One of our many mission opportunities in this local branch of “Team Jesus,” is our ministry to the homeless and poverty –stricken in our community.
Two nights last week, there were at least a half dozen homeless folk who stayed the night here at St. David’s. These were God’s people who would have spent the night in the cold without food, without shelter, and without sufficient protection to stay alive. Right here at St. David’s we opened our doors and made a shelter, provided food, and saved God’s people from the freezing temperatures. These are the same folks about whom the Apostle referred, when he challenged us as the baptized to remember “we are no longer subject to the divisions of human society, and we are part of a unified body.” “Team Jesus” was definitely at work in our very midst. So who did the work that night? Who made the food? Who setup the sleeping cots? Who took down the equipment the next morning? Who sat with the folks and listened to their stories? Who cared? It was only a few folks who helped. Barely enough team players were here, but just enough to make a warm, safe, shelter possible. We need more help. We need more folks to join the team, to show up for practice, to hit the field and run the plays.
We must take our baptismal promises seriously. We must respond. Stephen Colbert, rhetorical television news show host once touted, “Because if this is gonna be a Christian nation that DOESN’T help the poor, either we’ve got to pretend that Jesus is just as selfish as we are, or we’ve got to acknowledge that he commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition – then admit that we just don’t want to do it.” We as the Body of Christ are a missional community whether we embrace that fact or not; whether we live into that proposition or not. The Church has been commissioned to bring others to unity with God and each other in Christ and that circle of the “each others,” extends well beyond just us.
The folk for whom Jesus wants to serve on and be served by “Team Jesus,” includes all of us, and the “others” as well. The Church’s purpose is to gather, worship, and fellowship yes, but our mission does not stop at the doors of the Narthex. A priest friend of mine each Sunday ends the Eucharist with these words at the dismissal, “The worship has ended, the service begins.” We need to heed these words of challenge and warning. They are words of challenge because they remind us to live into our baptismal promises and to get to work and really follow Christ. They are words of warning because the scary part really is that even though our baptism calls us into a life of service, many of us are not in the business of clothing the cold and naked, feeding the hungry, and visiting the sick and the imprisoned. As we go out today to “love and serve the Lord,” as the candles are extinguished and the Alleluias are thrice shouted, never forget your baptismal promises. As you walk past the baptismal font today, the symbolic reminder of your baptismal covenant, heed these words, “the worship has ended, but the service has only begun.”
Schowalter, Daniel N. The Oxford Companion to the Bible. Edited by Bruce M. Metzger and Michael D. Coogan. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.
 (Schowalter 1993)