Jan. 13, 2019 – sermon

Posted by on Sun, Jan 13, 2019 in Epiphany, Sermons

The First Sunday after the Epiphany
The Baptism of Our Lord

January 13, 2019

Icon of the Baptism of Christ

The Christian church doesn’t much engage in this sense of being baptized with fire. We’re scared off by the very idea of one coming who clears the metaphorical threshing floor saving the grain and burning the chaff, for fear we or those we love be part of that chaff, or lest we be seen as those who think our way of faith sees others as chaff and we as exalted grain. We think the Holy Spirit descending as a dove is some wild miracle the likes of which we 21st century Christians will never see, one given to only those cool biblical first century ‘baptizees.’ Certainly, intelligent reality-based proper Anglicans would never expect it!

This troubles me on two levels. First because it’s like unfinished business; we have no liturgy for ‘baptism by fire,’ no pageant about today’s gospel, with John narrating the enrobed Jesus with a threshing fork sifting grain from chaff up here by the altar, or even the scene in Acts; apostles arriving with fiery hands to initiate newly baptized Samaritans who still await the Holy Spirit. (Though now that I say so, look out—Jason may well propose one!) In a sense the church used to see Confirmation more along these lines, people were baptized as infants but couldn’t participate in other sacraments, and then later the bishop laid hands upon you to receive the Holy Spirit, usually as a teenager who could then choose and experience it for oneself with due appreciation. We’ve shifted our thinking of Confirmation now to be more centered in our informed spiritual growth and the commitment we make and receive the Spirit in laying on of hands to empower us to live that faithful life we have chosen even as God has called us to do so. We now understand Baptism as full initiation into the Body of Christ, and even infants receive their first sacrament of Communion that same day as a sign of this.

The second “why” of these readings that bothers me is that honoring one’s baptism and anointing in the Holy Spirit all too often fades in importance for us. We say a resounding “We will!” and we mean it, and we recommit ourselves and promise to support the one being baptized so they (and we) continue in the apostles’ teaching and community, in the breaking of bread and in the prayers, —and then too often when it gets hard to get up and get here on Sunday, or it feels socially awkward to call someone we’ve not seen for a while, we have a sort of baptismal amnesia or fear we’re imposing on their privacy. So, let me pause right here and say a heartfelt thank you to those who do this! To you who visit when someone is alone, who send a note or call when this community of the baptized is missing one of our members, because it’s like missing an arm or a leg. Thank you for when you’ve felt the pain of God sorting out your own grain from chaff in life and you still come together here anyway, choosing the better part of living and growing your faith. Thank you for personally inviting newer families and individuals to participate in this Body of Christ, for checking in when you miss them. Thank you for being godparents and godchildren to each other, official or not, and for allowing someone to touch you and reach out when you’re hurting. 

These readings tell us how very much baptism mattered, starting with John’s baptism of Jesus, and then how the Samaritans waited for the coming of the Spirit in its wake. How sad people sometimes wonder ‘what difference does it make?’ Part of our being faithful is to study the scriptures, to see our lives through the lens of these readings. Is baptism’s forgiveness of sins irrelevant to newborn? Is baptism’s grace something we consider preexisting? We want scripture to be a template, when more often it’s an example, an instance, a model. God does something we don’t precisely understand in baptism, at once the same for every person who receives it and also unique to each of us, and as an example it was different for the Samaritans than it is for us. 

At that time Stephen had just been martyred and persecution was escalating. Philip proclaimed the gospel to Samaria so powerfully that even Simon, the magician they’d become devoted to, became a convert. Then Philip baptizes them and yet they don’t receive the Holy Spirit. Was his baptism second class? Were the Samaritans lessor somehow? Recall that there was animosity between Jews and Samaritans and even the gospels portray them in mixed ways. Jesus tells people not to visit their villages, but he meets with one at the well. He heals a Samaritan leper and preaches a parable about one—because how counter-cultural would it be to find a “good Samaritan” as a hero! Philip’s newly baptized Samaritans might’ve wondered if they were fully Christian when they did not receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. Then come Peter and John, the ‘headliners’ of Christianity, if you will. They’d been there at Jesus’ transfiguration, participated in the last supper, and were clearly the leaders of this new faith—and they came to the Samaritans! Their laying on of hands, their presence, their giving of the Spirit, validated the Samaritans’ full inclusion in a community now made more remarkable by including Samaritans too. They were all beloved, all in the Spirit, all forgiven, all in the Body of Christ. 

Let’s go back to John’s baptism of Jesus, because we have long been baffled by the idea that Jesus needs baptism as we do. I think we have this backwards though; we are baptized as Jesus was. We speak of baptism and its connection to forgiveness, and wonder what Jesus would have to be forgiven of, and if not, why is he baptized? Yes, baptism is about forgiveness, which we need and cherish and rely on as a gift of God’s love. But it’s also about relationship, about being acclaimed as children of God. Think of God’s words at Jesus’ baptism, and of our pronouncing a child’s name then too. Sometimes we think of baptism’s connection to forgiveness more as a vehicle or instrument rather than a gift. As if God forgives us so we are ‘clean’ or qualified to be called God’s children. That seems backwards to me; God forgives us not so that we’re able to become God’s children but because we already are God’s children. Forgiveness is not a condition of God’s love for us, it is the result of it. Baptism is also about love, identity, commitment, active faith in God and more. In Baptism God proclaims great love for each of us, calls us and claims us, and gives us the gift of the Holy Spirit, and because of that divine and unconditional love for us, God will always forgive us, always welcome us back if we wander, and always send us back out to proclaim God’s Good News.

God sent John to baptize Jesus, who was sent to be God’s presence in the world, and it was Jesus who sent the disciples to preach and baptize to all throughout the world. Today we are reminded of the Spirit descending upon Jesus after his baptism while he was with the others and praying, that God’s voice was heard saying “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” In baptism God does something I can’t entirely nail down, perhaps because it is a so personal and powerful a gift to each person. We are reminded that after Jesus’ death and resurrection the apostles went to share the gift of the Holy Spirit, and I hope we are reminded that we too go out to do so. We as a community participate in it too, and not merely by speaking the beautiful words of the liturgy. So here’s my question for today; when, where, and how does God bring the fire of the Holy Spirit to we who are baptized? In whom does God send that Spirit to bring the gift to others? 

When were you a recipient? When were you a Spirit-bearer? I’ve heard some of you speak of seeing angels in this sanctuary. You’ve seen them in the resurrection garden by the columbarium, and in the woods. You received and you shared the gift. The Holy Spirit descends when I hear one of you tell me how someone was there for you, or knew just what to say, exactly when to reach out, when to make sacred room for you to speak your truth or pour your heart out. I heard it in the depth of sharing in last week’s Adult Forum, and in the caucus laughter of the Spirit in that room. The Holy Spirit comes when a one of you calls another to be godparent, when a child hears something in Godly Play that makes the whole of life or death make sense and feel healed, when someone says ‘yes’ to a ministry of loving service which might bring their spiritual gifts to fiery life-changing presence. When I was home sick at Christmas I didn’t feel alone because you shared God’s Spirit with me in so many ways. You held it open for me and for others in your hearts. The fire of the Holy Spirit has come upon you when you are moved to pray for someone with no apparent cause, and you do it — and perhaps they feel it. I see it at funerals when one widow or widower embraces another with love no words could speak. At the start of our Dinners for Seven a week ago Saturday we each told of a key spiritual Christmas moment, and Anita said it was processing in singing a Christmas carol, the whole of us together in rich sacred voice. I heartily agreed, even while part of me ached to have missed that very thing this year. Then the next morning on Sunday I got a miracle of that descending of the Holy Spirit, as we sang our way in with that beautiful Epiphany hymn, and I cried with tears of joy. I had not missed it after all. 

God opens heavens and sends that dove of a Holy Spirit to us, that fire of the Spirit. At times we miss it or ignore it Like the Apostles went out to share and to give this, so too do we. God comes, sometimes we know God coming to us, sometimes we know God being sent through us. It may not look like it in dramatic form as a dove descending or the fires of Pentecost, so we may need to look to see it, and we are charged with bearing witness to it and so I know — you know!— we need to speak and show it more readily! These are the moments and experiences that shape our lives, and which ultimately shape our communities and the world we live in. More powerful than voting even, which we only get to do one election at a time, more powerful than wealth or position, employment or intellect—seeing and bringing the Spirit of God to the world is what we get to do. Are we willing to risk the fire of baptism, to step forth and do it?

© 2019 The Rev. Katherine Sedwick. All rights reserved.

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