Mother Katherine’s sermon preached on Jan. 9, 2022

Posted by on Sun, Jan 9, 2022 in Epiphany, Feast Days, Sermons

The First Sunday after the Epiphany:
The Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ

Jan. 9, 2022

All the gospels report Jesus’ baptism, prefaced with John declaring Jesus is one greater than himself. We have the impression of John doing the baptizing and the Holy Spirit breaking in. Even the icon on our cover shows the cousins together in the water with the dove descending in the moment. Luke gives a different feel to the scene as he almost passively separates them and shifts the time frame; “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.” The focus is all on Jesus here, and in the omitted three verses immediately before this, Luke has essentially set John aside by telling how and why Herod imprisoned him. 

This is the feast day when someone almost always asks me, ‘if Jesus was without sin why did he need to be baptized?’ None of the gospel accounts explain just why Jesus was baptized nor do we know how much or little resemblance his baptism bore to our own. It’s tempting to take our understanding of baptism and project it back onto Jesus. Too often we think of it as primarily washing away our sins and their forgiveness. The prayer in our liturgy for those just baptized (BCP pg. 308) even begins with thanksgiving for bestowing that forgiveness, and then on to our thankfulness for raising them to the new life of grace. I wish we could reverse that, because baptism is much more than forgiveness. It’s about relationship with a loving God, with the community of Christ called to witness and support them, and with our adoption as children of God. Asking what sins Jesus needed to be forgiven for isn’t really the question because it isn’t about specific instances of our sins. Nor is it the message the Holy Spirit is accompanied with. The first thing heard is “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Our own repentance and oft-needed forgiveness flows from being beloved, not the other way around. We will always have it because God knows we will always need it. 

To be named and claimed as a child of God is a powerful gift, although we often discount it. Our own baptismal tradition shares recognition of this gift with Jesus’ baptism, as we are marked as Christ’s own forever. We also find that knowing the people or places we come from can be richly rewarding, and it has become a huge and informative industry. There are innumerable genealogy sites, special tours for doing it, plenty of DNA test kit options, (even for one’s dog or cat), and it’s delightful to discover unknown family stories, ancestors, and history—and yet for us all that is secondary. One difference in Luke’s telling of Jesus’ story is that immediately after the Spirit comes and gives Jesus that message, “You are my son…” the very next sentence begins a lengthy genealogy of Jesus, son of Joseph, who’s the son of Heli, son of Matthat, son of Levi, and so on until he traces Jesus’ lineage through  sons of fathers all the way back to “Adam, son of God.” His identity as the son of God comes first, before all of those ancestral names, and it comes at his baptism. All the rest is interesting, even meaningful in various ways, but none more so than his identity as God’s Son. 

One lesson about our own identity as God’s beloved came during seminary when I worked on a Cursillo team. It’s a long weekend of rich exploration and growth of one’s faith—and it’s a lot of work to put it on. Everyone on the team was assigned another team member to pray for, and mine, I’ll call her Ellen, was someone who had been very badly hurt by a church leader. Though it was many years ago, she said how much she wanted forgiveness for whatever she’d done to deserve it. She wanted to be cleansed of the sin of what had happened to her, and she was frustrated that her priest refused to ‘re-baptize’ her to accomplish this (There is no re-baptism or un-baptism, once done it is forever). Her take sounded backwards to me, but she was emphatic, so as part of my praying for her I embroidered a white washcloth with a small cross with ‘arms’ raised in joy and her first name below it. A name she’d chosen for herself as part of her healing process. She’d talked to me so much about needing her “many sins washed away” that a symbolic washcloth was what came to mind. She loved it. Though what came to her in that weekend was how seeing her name and that cross together felt so right. She saw herself as claimed by the Christ of that resurrection cross. I’d like to say that’s what I had I’m mind all along, but no. That could only have been a gift of her relationship with God — as God’s beloved daughter. 

Pastor and professor David Lose preached, “God forgives us not to make us God’s children but because we already are God’s children.” Forgiveness is the gift of a most loving God —an outcome of that love, not an instrument by which we earn it. Baptism is about identity and yes, forgiveness, and about new and eternal life in Christ. It’s about one’s commitment to follow him, about the vows we take or make on behalf of a young child. It is about becoming part of the Body of Christ, it is how we are the church, and how we are sisters and brothers in faith and in service, setting aside self-doubt or fear of not being smart enough, holy enough, sinless enough, able enough—to answer God’s call. More than anything, it is about eternal unconditional love. 

Ellen, my prayer partner, saw that she was far more than her painful experiences, and was of no less value because of them. As I read through this text and Jesus’ genealogy which follows, I’m reminded that we are not merely the sum of our ancestors or our DNA. We are not defined by our birthdays, friends, careers, accomplishments, nor as vaccinated, boosted or as anti-vaxers, and who we are is not limited to our strange pandemic life and evolving protocols. All of that is secondary to what God says to Jesus after his baptism. In God’s becoming one of us in the incarnation of Christ Jesus, it also becomes our gift. Athanasius of Alexandria (c. 296–373) was a theologian of the early church, and sometime before 319 c.e. he wrote, (depending on translation), “For the Son of God became one of us so that we might become like him.” (From On the Incarnation, Chapter VIII)

Luke tells us it is while Jesus is praying that the heavens open and God speaks, after all the baptizing and wringing out clothes or hair, he goes to pray, and since he usually goes off alone to do so, I imagine the moment as possibly him being somewhat apart, or with only a few others around. He sees the sky change, perhaps feels the dove’s wings moving the air as it descends, he hears the words spoken right to him, almost whispered. I was taught that we are never God’s last resort, and I’ve often wondered how many turned down God’s call before Mary said yes, before Moses said yes. What if God had said those words to everyone baptized that day? Only Jesus listened, heard, answered. It is said, ‘God calls everyone, and then has to make do with those who risk answering.’ Howard Thurman wrote what sounds like a warning; “Through prayer, meditation, and singleness of mind, the individual’s life may be invaded by strength, insight, and courage sufficient for his needs.” And I would say to answer God’s call. (Meditations of the Heart, Beacon Press, 1999). 

What does God whisper to us? Do our prayers leave room for us to hear God’s outright love? When I don’t pray enough, I find mine become too much a list of asking God’s help, or my lengthy confession or self-criticism — I can even slide into justification. Mostly that’s counterbalanced by a litany of thanks and praise. Still, it’s easy to do all the talking in prayer. Sometimes in our services (when I’m not miked) I’ll stop saying the words of a prayer or hymn just to listen to it in your voices, and in that I hear God. What if in our personal prayers, for a while we only listened? Try it, and begin by saying this, and then just be quieted; 

I am your child/son/daughter, the beloved. You, O God, are well pleased with me.”

© 2022 The Rev. Katherine Sedwick. All rights reserved. Posted with permission.