Today is one of the high feast days on the church calendar, and it is one of four Sundays reserved throughout the year for baptisms in the Episcopal Church. At least in my experience, maybe because it comes so close on the heels of Christmas and our secular New Year, this feast day is one of the most overlooked. Today is the First Sunday after the Epiphany and it is the Sunday in which we celebrate the baptism of Jesus Christ. And this presents to us a question: What does Jesus’ baptism, and our celebration of it, have to do with you? What does it have to do with anyone who has been baptized?
First of all, I think it is a mistake to view the baptism of Christ as simply a past event, something that happened long ago. There is no doubt that Jesus met John in the river Jordan and there John baptized him. And there is also no doubt that this had a profound impact upon John, Jesus and those gathered along the shore. It was, among other things, a revelation, what the church calls an Epiphany, the manifestation of the long-awaited savior, Jesus Christ, in our world. It was a moment of material realization when the identity of Jesus Christ becomes known to a seeking yet questioning world. But if that is all it is, a historical landmark which we remember like a birthday or anniversary, then we risk missing the true significance and meaning of this feast day. The reality is that the baptism of Jesus Christ is not just an isolated event, is not trapped in the past, but rather it lives now and continues; it lives in the transformed lives of the faithful and in each new baptism. So, even though your baptism will take place in a moment in time, it likewise will not be trapped in your past, only a memory; it will live on in you for all time and beyond.
Because that is what your baptism is all about, it is about the material realization of who you are and to whom you belong. In all the prayers, in the holy water and in the seal with oil of the Holy Spirit, you join the history, present, and future of the church. The story of Israel becomes your story. The words of the prophets throughout the ages become your words. The forgiveness of sins and the salvation through Christ become your forgiveness, your salvation. Today, through the waters of baptism, you join with us as the Body of Christ, the love of God in the world. This is a blessing that will carry you, and a burden that you will carry, all the days of your life.
And as you live your life, I wish I could tell you that you will find the world to be entirely peaceful, loving and supportive. I wish this was true, but it is not. As you go through life’s journey, you will find darkness around you. You will discover among your joys, satisfactions, triumphs, hopes and dreams that there is also hatred, cruelty, and suffering in the world. You will wonder and perhaps struggle at the meaning of it all. St. Paul wondered about it. Even though it is not part of our readings for today, Paul likes to speak of life as some type of race with a spiritual rather than a material or worldly finish line. I have to be honest with you. I think our modern ears make a mess of Paul’s theology. Your life, and everything in it, is a gift from God, not a competition. You do not need to be stronger or smarter or more attractive or popular or richer or better than anyone else. Competition is folly; you cannot compete with what you do not own. Life does not have one winner, with everyone else destined to be a loser. But if we use Paul’s vision of a race, then you will cross the finish line today. While baptism in some ways marks the beginning of your life in the church, it marks the end of your individual life. It is an epiphany. You are being revealed as what you truly are. You are the love of God, sharing in the resurrection of Jesus Christ and reborn by the Holy Spirit.
This revelation will always be part of who and what you are. During what I hope is a long, joyful and productive life, Olivia, you will brush up against forces of the world that will leave you feeling alone, outcast, ignored or meaningless. But through your baptism, you are never alone or outcast, ignored or meaningless. And all of us gathered in this place will shorty promise to support and uphold you with everything we have. During difficult times, come to us and lean on us all that you need to; we will not let you fall away. At other times, you will find yourself faced with a choice of whether to reach out and help someone else, someone who needs you to lean upon. It is my prayer that on those occasions that you are empowered by your baptism, by the example of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit, to always reach out and touch those in any kind of need. It often will not be easy but do it anyway. Let go of the blessing that is your baptism and give it to the world. Share your heart. You are the love of God. Amen.
–Sermon delivered by Father Andrew McMullen at St. Matthias Episcopal Church, January 10, 2016.