Taking the Plunge
A sermon preached by the reverend Michael Anderson Bullock
at St. Philip’s, Easthampton, Massachusetts, on Epiphany 1: the Baptism of our Lord 9 January 2022:
Isaiah 43:1-7; Acts 8:14-17; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Where does the time go? Two weeks ago, we were celebrating Jesus’ birth, joyfully singing Christmas carols, and vainly trying to keep our Christmas trees from dropping their needles. Now suddenly, the Nativity season has ended (officially); and we are confronted with a grown-up Jesus being baptized by John the Baptist in the River Jordan. You talk about fast-forward!
Any of us who treasure history can become frustrated by the fact that the gospel account of Jesus leaps over thirty years of his personal history. Of the four gospels, only Luke gives an account in this otherwise missing portion of Jesus’ life: namely, the time the adolescent Jesus ditched his parents and lost himself in the call of the Jerusalem Temple. Like a story for the late television news, the story of Jesus gets edited and leaps from birth to adult baptism in the blink of an eye. What do you make of this?
For one thing, there is no conspiracy going on here. The gospel is not trying to pull a fast one on us, covering up some secret information. Luke, for one, is not manipulating us by omitting historical information about these formative years in Jesus’ life. No, not at all. For one thing, the purpose of the gospels is not to provide biography but to convey an experience and to make a proclamation. Within the context of history, Luke (in this case) shares a verifiable discovery. God’s Christ is among us, and in him we see the manifestation of what the God-life is like and what it is for. The Bible is always set in history, but its fundamental purpose is to chart and give witness to the fact that God is on the move and that the Holy One’s promised life is dramatically in play.
Along with the other three gospels, Luke presents the pertinent parts of Jesus’ story to convey this meaning. Specifically, Luke swiftly moves us from Christ’s birth to today’s account of the Lord’s baptism. Luke’s quiet message rests in the story of Jesus’ birth and then swiftly focuses on his life as a grown-up. In this season of Epiphany, we witness the “manifestation” and significance of Christmas, which is to say, the Incarnation: What it means that God’s Word “became flesh and dwelt among us full of grace and truth”. And so, the first step in this “manifestation” (which I remind you is what the word “epiphany” means)—this first “manifestation” of the God-life among us is Jesus’ baptism.
The First Sunday after the Epiphany [the First Sunday post-Wisemen] always reports the story of Jesus’ baptism; and this narrative raises some big questions for folks like us. First, what is Baptism? Second, what’s Baptism for? A sermon is not the time to provide full answers to these questions, but I would like you to think about your responses to them and to use words that matter to you, not just “church” words. As an aid, I commend the Prayer Books’ “Catechism”, which among us is a largely untapped resource. I will be referring to our Catechism this winter and throughout Lent, and I hope that you will join me in discussing its content and learning together from it. In the meantime, allow me to give voice to what the Catechism says about Baptism. On page 858, we find this:
Question: What is Holy Baptism?
Answer: Holy Baptism is the sacrament by which God adopts us as his children and makes us members of Christ’s Body, the Church, and inheritors of the kingdom of God.
Notice, please: “God adopts us”; God “makes us members of Christ’s Body”; God grants us the inheritance of the God-life. To what extent do you see your Baptism in light of these three actions? Sounds like good stuff to discuss together in a long winter season.
“What is baptism?” “What’s it for?” As I say, two good, probing questions; but the essential and most revealing question, the question that informs the other two, comes this way: Why did Jesus get baptized?
If we relegate our discussion of baptism to common issues such as “sin”, then what was the “sinless” one doing in the waters of Baptism? Perhaps there is more – much more -- to baptism than being washed clean. Perhaps it is a matter of “first things first”; and I suggest that what is first and primary about baptism is that baptism is our commitment to say “yes’ to God’s “Yes” to us.
I am going to repeat a notion that I have used frequently among you because I think it illuminates not only what baptism is about and what it is for; but also because this phrase reminds us of what is really real – everywhere and at all times. Here’s the phrase: From the smallest sub-atomic particle to the farthest star, from the realms of a virus to the birth of a human being, the essence of all reality is relationship. Therefore, if the essence of all reality is relationship, then one thing is required: Commitment. Everything else is detail, albeit some detail is very important.
In the context of our relationship with God, with our neighbor, and with ourselves, baptism is the fundamental commitment to life on God’s terms and to honoring our created identity as God’s partners. That we are called to be God’s partners is an astounding gift. Not deserved and often not even recognized, nonetheless, this relationship is true. As the Catechism says, we are “adopted” as God’s own – all of us, no matter what -- even if we have runaway and made ourselves orphans. God claims us. Good News!
But more than this, again as the Catechism says, we are made “members of the Body of Christ, the Church”. This is not about belonging to an institution, much less a club. This is not a metaphor, a nifty idea. It is true, and it is real. In Baptism, we are joined to Christ. We “put on” Christ with the purpose of being what we see in Jesus.
This is what it means in Genesis [1:26]to be “made in the image and likeness of God”. This, too, is not a metaphor. Our very DNA comes from the Creator of heaven and earth. Consequently, as St. Augustine observes, “we are restless til we rest in Thee.” The only way to calm the restlessness is to come home to the One who is the Source of our lives. And the way home is to follow Jesus and to learn from the Lord and become like him. For in human terms Jesus is the full “likeness” of God.
That is what Baptism is. That is what Baptism is for. And the reason Jesus was baptized is to fulfill what his birth began. Incarnation: The Word of God, dwelling and living and growing among us, with us, for us – through us. Christmas came so that we might learn how to say “Yes” to God and the God-life. Christmas came to grow up among us, with us, and for us. In his baptism, Jesus, God’s likeness and presence among us – the Emmanuel – Jesus plunges into the very waters of human life -- our life -- to show us the way home. And our Lord get soaked in that water – no shortcuts.
One closing note: You will notice that Jesus’ baptism was not a “Damascus Road” experience for him. He wasn’t suddenly struck by God’s presence or call. Luke quietly tells us that the confirming voice from heaven that calls Jesus “Son” and “beloved” was just that: God’s confirmation that Jesus’ choice (and his baptism was most certainly a choice and not a matter of some predestination) – that Jesus’ choice to be baptized was a public demonstration of his commitment, Jesus’ commitment to be God’s Son and to embody physically the life God gives.
This is to say when Luke reports the following: “Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove.” [Luke 3:21-22]. The clear implication is that Jesus’ baptism was, in fact, the culmination of his long discernment to come to grips fully with his life’s calling and his Godly purpose. That he was praying when the divine Epiphany occurred indicates that Jesus had been engaged with a great deal of reflection and preparation and – yes, learning about his “Yes” to the Father’s “Yes” as God’s Son. The point is that Jesus would rather die than break the relationship with the Father. His choice. His commitment.
The lack of thirty or so years of history about Jesus and his life may have entailed this serious process of discernment, which is to say that Jesus learned, and Jesus grew in a mature recognition of his relationship with the Father – as Son, as Emmanuel: God with us.
The closing question I have is this: What do you want to learn about your relationship with God? What can we learn together about that inner restlessness that won’t go away? What do we all need to learn about God’s “Yes” to God’s people and God’s unwavering proclamation that we are the Holy One’s daughters and sons, God’s “beloved” – no matter what?