Sermon for the First Sunday after the Epiphany (The Baptism of Our Lord) January 13, 2019 – the Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas

ASEP Sermons

Isaiah 43:1-7 – Psalm 29 – Acts 8:14-17 – Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you… (Isaiah 43:1b-2a)

         It may not sound like it on the surface, but this reading about the baptism of Jesus is one of the most scandalous you will find in the bible. All four evangelists have some version of this. In Mark, it comes right at the very beginning (Mark 1:9-11) but with very little detail. Mark is always in a hurry to get the story out. Matthew has it immediately following the return from Egypt where the Holy Family fled to escape Herod’s wrath (Matthew 3:13-17). John’s baptism account is a bit more vague, but it is clear even there that John the Baptist baptized Jesus and saw the Holy Spirit descend on him (John 1:29-34). And here in Luke, John is once again baptizing in the Jordan River when Jesus comes to him to be baptized just like everyone else. As I have said to you before, multiple attestations, or when something occurs in more than one gospel account, is a pretty good sign that an event actually happened. When it appears on all fourgospels, it is almost certain.

         So, why is this so scandalous?

         In the second part of Luke, the book we call the Acts of the Apostles, we read that the Apostle Peter addresses the first converts, saying, ‘Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38), andat Paul’s conversion, old Ananias says to him, “Get up, be baptized, and have your sins washed away…” (22:16). This has, over time, led to an understanding in the Church that our sins are forgiven, washed away, in the waters of baptism.

         But if Jesus was the son of God, born to perfection and without sin, why did heneed to be  baptized? Or, is baptism notabout forgiveness of sins, or – horrors – was Jesus not sinless?

         These are questions theologians have wrestled with for centuries, and so, when it comes time to preach on baptism, what’s a preacher to do?

          Perhaps a reframing of the question is in order. Perhaps the baptism is not the instrument but only the sign of our forgiveness. If we believe, and we do, that a sacrament is “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace (BCP Catechism, 857), then our forgiveness is through our faith, and the baptism is the sign of that.

         So why do baptize at all? Why do we need this outward sign? Because Jesus commanded it. There are only two sacraments about which this is so, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…” (Matthew 28:20), and “Do this in remembrance of me” (1 Corinthians 11:25).These are the things Jesus did to say to his followers that they are with him, they are part of the body of Christ in this world. And so we break bread and drink the cup, and we baptize.

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         In this season of Epiphany, we are shown who this Jesus is – the One sought after by magi from the East; the One on whom the Spirit rests like a dove, the One who changes water into wine. It might be a good time for us to consider how weshow the world who this Jesus is. How is Christ manifested and made known in us?

         We observe the Baptism of Our Lord each year on the 1stSunday after the Epiphany at a time that corresponds with the launch of a new calendar year. Many of us make resolutions which we keep with varying degrees of success. But on this day, we make – along with those being baptized – some pretty astonishing promises about what it means to live into our baptism (BCP 304-305):

  • To “continue in the apostles teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers” This means that we will be faithful in the study of scripture, attendance at worship with the community, and spending time with God in prayer.
  • To persevere “in resisting evil, and, whenever” we “fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord.” This doesn’t just mean to resist the evil out there, but to recognize our own sinfulness and to confess that to God.
  • To “proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.” Now this is a tough one for we Episcopalians. Evangelism is not usually our strong suit, but it is in telling others about all that God has done for us that others are blessed and brought into the household of faith.
  • To “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving” our “neighbor as ourselves.” Can we see the face of Christ in those around us? The mail carrier and the guest at the shelter, the co-worker who gets on our last nerve and the one on the other side of the political divide? And can we love ourselves as well as we love others?
  • To “strive for justice and peace among all people,” respecting “the dignity of every human being.” Are we willing to risk all that we have so that all might receive justice and live in peace? And do we really believe in the dignity of everyone, that all truly bear the imprint of God?

These are some pretty tall orders in our Baptismal Covenant. How can anyone possibly fulfill them?

         We can’t. At least, not on our own. That’s why we respond, “I will, with God’s help.” God knowswe are not capable in and of ourselves to love and serve and strive to do and be those things God desires for us. And yet, God loves us anyway!Talk about a scandal! 

         I’m sure most of you have heard this prayer for the morning:

Dear God,  So far today, I’ve done all right.  I haven’t gossiped, and I haven’t lost my temper.  I haven’t been grumpy, nasty or selfish, and I’m really glad of that! But in a few minutes, God, I’m going to get out of bed, and from then on, I’m probably going to need a lot of help.[1]

Yes, God knowswe need a lot of help, and our baptism is a sign to us that help is ours, that God’s love and forgiveness are permanent and irrevocable. 

         This morning, we welcome Dylan Elise Scillia into the household of God through the sacrament of baptism. All of these promises will be made on her behalf, and the congregation will reaffirm its own Baptismal Covenant, recommitting ourselves to live as Christ would have us live, not to win God’s love but in response to God’s love for us.

         So yes, Jesus was baptized, and not because he needed forgiveness. When Jesus was baptized, God called him beloved. Perhaps the scandal isn’t that Jesus was baptized just like we are. Perhaps the realscandal is that we get to be baptized just like Jesus was.[2]We have been called by name; we have been redeemed;and when we pass through the waters, God is with us, loving us, and welcoming us. Jesus’ baptism, like ours, is not some obligation we have to tick off the list. It is a gift from the God who loves us so much that he became one of us. We, like Jesus, are God’s beloved. Now THAT is scandalous.


[1]http://www.freemaninstitute.com/prayer_for_the_day.htm

[2]I am grateful to David Lose for this perspective. http://www.davidlose.net/2019/01/the-baptism-of-our-lord-c-forgiveness-and-so-much-more/

ASEPSermon for the First Sunday after the Epiphany (The Baptism of Our Lord) January 13, 2019 – the Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas