BAPTISM OF JESUS – FIRST SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
January 12 2020 – 10:30 AM
Saint Cecilia Catholic Community
Rev. David Justin Lynch
Isaiah 42:1-4;6-7 | Psalm 29:1-4
Acts 10:34-38 | Matthew 3:13-17
+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN.
Throughout our lives, we make promises. We sign business contracts. We make marriage vows. We promise things to spouses, family members, and friends. Although for many and varied reasons we sometimes don’t keep promises, most of us at least try to do the best we can.
When you become a Christian, you promised God certain things in your baptismal covenant. Of course, if you were a young child when you were baptized, as most of us were, someone made the promises in your baptismal covenant on your behalf. Whatever format the covenant had at your baptism service, the basic idea was that made a commitment to God.
What exactly is a covenant in the biblical sense? It’s a promise to do or not do something for which there is a sign of some kind of sign from God. The Bible has more than one covenant. Here are a few examples.
God covenanted with Noah that never again would massive rains destroy all humankind. Its sign was a rainbow, so whenever you see a rainbow, think of Noah.
God covenanted with Abraham that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the sky and the sands on the beach. Circumcision was the sign of that covenant.
And God covenanted with Moses that God’s people would inhabit the Promised Land, the area we now know as Israel, and the sign of that covenant was the various laws, supposedly from God, that appear in the first five books of the Bible.
But what kind of covenant was involved in the Baptism of Jesus? The Gospel story does not mention one. God did not promise anything. Instead, the Baptism of Jesus is a theophany of God, that is, a sudden, unexpected appearance of God, to manifest fulfilment of God’s promise of a Messiah.
The Baptism of Jesus was an act of grace, a fulfillment of God’s promise of a Savior, in the form of a servant, prefigured in the prophets. This can be seen in today’s first reading, which is from among the four servant songs from the prophet Isaiah. The concept here is that of “type” and “anti-type.” Put another way, it’s a situation where something in the Old Testament, called a “type”, is predicted and then superseded by something in the New Testament, called an “anti-type.”
And that’s true for Baptism itself. Believe it or not, baptism originated in the Old Testament. It was the type from which the anti-type of New Testament baptism was derived.
Old Testament Baptism was a ritual of cleansing and renewal. The prophet Ezekiel used the metaphor of washing and anointing when he proclaimed the restoration of Israel after the Babylonian exile.
The emphasis in Jewish baptism was on purification. There were pools of water in front of temple where people performed cleansing rituals before entering.
In biblical times, lepers were considered impure. Recall the Story of Namaan the leper in Second Kings who was told by the prophet Elisha to wash himself in the River Jordan, where Jesus was baptized.
The Jews baptized those converting from paganism. Again, the emphasis was on purification, as pagans were considered spiritually unclean.
For Christians, however, non-Christian candidates becoming Christians through baptism are not unclean, but like for the Jews, Baptism is a sacrament of initiation, something that makes us part of the community.
Yet the “purification motif” continued from Judaism into Christianity. Traditional Western Christian theology has the waters of baptism washing away the stain of original sin from one’s soul.
According to this theory, the consequence of the disobedience to God by Adam and Eve is carried as a sin from generation to generation. We are born guilty of sin. We are born with a fallen nature, separated from God. Under that theory, baptism takes that away. Baptism frees us from that sin and rebirths us.
We are a parish of the Ecumenical Catholic Communion. Ecumenical Catholic means we draw on the rich heritage of all churches of the Catholic tradition. That encompasses Old Catholic, which is our tradition, as well as our Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, and Roman sisters and brothers in Christ.
The Eastern Church, however, takes a different view of what the Western Church labels as “original sin.” To quote Greek Orthodox Bishop Kallistos Ware, humanity was “Created for fellowship with the Holy Trinity, called to advance in love from the divine image to the divine likeness, but Adam chose instead a path that led not up but down. Adam repudiated the Godward relationship that is the true human essence.”
The Easterners don’t believe everyone is guilty of Adam’s sin, but that the Adam’s fall from grace infected humanity in three ways:
It made humanity mortal instead of immortal;
It made us distant from God; and,
It gave us an inclination towards sin.
In the Eastern view, Baptism is seen as:
The first step towards reunion between humanity and God, because it:
Gives us immortal life as God’s children; and,
Removes the corruption and mortality that resulted from Adam’s disobedience.
Jesus came to fix all that. The Baptism of Jesus has God commissioning Jesus to get us back into bring one with God.
Our human response to the mission of Jesus is to die and rise with Jesus. Baptism is dying and rising with and in Jesus. In his letter to the Romans, Saint Paul tell us that in the waters of baptism we die to sin and are raised up to new life in Jesus.
Today’s gospel lesson has Jesus rising out of the water and encountering God…perhaps a prefigurement of His own dying and rising yet to come.
John’s baptism was one of repentance for sin, tying the concept of forgiveness with a turning around, a change in one’s life. But it wasn’t so with the Baptism of Jesus Himself.
Today’s Gospel tells us that John hesitated to baptize Jesus, believing instead that Jesus should baptize John. Perhaps the message for us in ministry is that we are humble ourselves in relation to those to whom we minister. But in the narrative context of the Gospel, John was recognizing his relationship to Jesus in God’s plan.
But Jesus insisted that John baptize Him. Why? The scripture translation we use says that Jesus was baptized “for the sake of righteousness…” but what does that mean? N. T. Wright, one of my favorite contemporary New Testament scholars, translates that phrase as “This is the right way for us to complete God’s whole saving plan.” It meant that Jesus saw Himself as part of God’s plan to bring about a new world, where God’s justice and mercy reigns forever, a world where things will be on earth as they are is in heaven.
What makes all of that possible is the Holy Spirit, the same Holy Spirit that came to Mary at the Annunciation and impregnated Her with Jesus. Because of that, Holy Spirit, the baptism of Jesus marked the turning point in the meaning of Baptism for Jews and that for Christians.
John the Baptist himself prophesized that when he declared that his baptism was with water for repentance, while that with Jesus would be with the Holy Spirit and with fire.
The involvement of the Holy Spirit at the Baptism of Jesus foresaw the doctrine of the Trinity, because Father, Son and Holy Spirit were all present at the Baptism of Jesus for the first time in scripture. In our tradition, we baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, for a very good reason. In Baptism, Father, Son and Holy Spirit are all involved. God the Father commissions us for ministry by means of the Holy Spirit to carry on the work of the Gospel of Jesus.
The Holy Spirit is the breath of life which Jesus received on our behalf to communicate to us. That is why as part of the baptism ceremony, we are anointed, sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever.
Our Baptism ceremony refers to the baptized person becoming, prophet, king, and priest. We are anointed to call out justice and to proclaim mercy. We are called to be leaders in the world around us in how we relate other people, to show the way, rather than go along with the crowd. And we are called to mediate the presence of God in our relationships with others, which is the essence of priesthood.
And that is precisely why I baptize infants. Our ministry as Christians starts from day one, no matter how old or young we are when we are baptized.
Children are often quite adept in calling out what’s not right. They haven’t yet developed a sense of what one should or should not say to other people, and sometimes, that level of honesty is a good thing. Children also lead by example. In their faces, we can see an image of God unsullied by the vicissitudes of life. Infant baptism serves as an encouragement to those attending the ceremony to help those children become effective ministers and to look within themselves at the effectiveness of their own ministry.
When we baptize anyone, no matter how old or young, they become a part of the Body of Christ. God adopts us as children, and by that fact, we inherit God’s kingdom, where all baptized persons are ministers.
Notice I have been using the word “ministry” in relation to baptism. That is intentional. Being a baptized person is a ministry. The ministry of the church involves more than ordained persons.
You don’t have to receive the sacrament of ordination to be a minister. The sacrament of baptism commissions all of us for ministry. Baptismal ministry is the ministry all Christians share, and in fact, it has some of the characteristics of the sacrament of ordination.
When a woman or man is ordained a deacon, priest, or bishop, they are examined and make promises. Again, we have a covenant.
In both ordination and baptism, the candidate makes a covenant with God and with the church. The baptismal covenant is the covenant we all share. The sacrament of ordination merely adds an additional covenant that relates to the particular ministry to which the candidate is called.
This Sunday, we are going to review and rehearse our baptismal covenant, the things we’ve promised to do and should be doing as baptized persons, whether ordained or not.
The baptismal covenant in the Roman Catholic service is limited to resisting the devil and accepting the propositions of the creeds. However, being Ecumenical Catholics, we reach out to other Catholic churches to give us additional insights, in this instance, our Anglican sisters and brothers. Their baptismal covenant, which we use regularly here at Saint Cecilia’s recognizes that being a Christian is more than telling the devil to get lost and intellectually accepting certain ideas. The baptismal covenant is about how we live our lives, what we do as well as what goes on in our head. So we intentionally use the Anglican version of the Baptismal covenant because it better fleshes out that reality with more specificity.
The fact is, Jesus did stuff as well as said stuff. He was not only a man of words, but a man of action. In the Gospel according to Matthew, which we are reading this year, Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount in Chapters 5, 6, and 7, but then 8 and 9, he healed people and began to call people to follow him.
All of the parts of our Baptismal Covenant that follow the creedal part have us promise to DO something…
to pray and receive Holy Communion,
To resist evil,
To turn our lives around if we sin,
To proclaim the Gospel in our words and actions,
To seek and serve Christ in all persons,
To strive for justice and peace,
And to RESPECT THE DIGNITY OF EVERY HUMAN PERSON.
Respect for human dignity is at the heart of Catholic social teaching. Why? Because God created humanity in God’s own image from day one in the first chapter of Genesis.
The church, and every person within it, is required to live that proposition as a concrete reality, even if it gets uncomfortable. Some people have told me that “church should not be involved in politics”. But the work of the Old Testament prophets, and Jesus, included speaking out on public issues. They all attacked a status quo which supported idolatry, neglect of the poor, and the oppression of unpopular people and groups.
Jesus, like nearly all children, learned His values from His Mother, articulately stated in the Song of Mary in the first chapter of the Gospel according to Luke. The coming of Jesus was God’s proclamation that the mighty would be put down from their seat; that the humble and meek would be exalted; that the hungry would be filled with good things; and the rich sent empty away.
Jesus explicitly came to address injustice, not shore up social stability and property rights. In the Fourth Chapter of Luke, Jesus proclaimed that He was here to “preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, and to let the oppressed go free.”
In doing so, Jesus was explicitly involving Himself with public issues of wealth and power, and just like today when clergy address the same issues, people got mad at Jesus.
On January 20, we will celebrate Mass to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a saint who led the civil rights movement to end racial segregation. He used the pulpit to advocate on behalf of those suffering injustice and oppression. And he was not popular as a result of doing so. In fact, the result was he got killed. In the truest sense of the term, he died a martyr for the principles of basic Christianity. The liturgy we will use is that for martyrs. The altar and the vestments that day will be dressed in red, the traditional color of martyrs.
For Christians, Jesus is our guide and inspiration. Jesus’ life provides the model by which we are to work for justice and peace in our world. We are called to be Jesus-like, and that includes not just listening to, singing, or reading His words, but living as He lived. And that includes doing the things He did, among them, advocacy for the poor and oppressed, as part of our Baptismal Covenant, just like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. did.
Dr. King was a Baptist who understood the Baptismal Covenant very well, even though he didn’t recite it explicitly. More important, Dr. King preached it and lived it. While no one will ever be what he was, he was a saint who gave us a example to follow, to courageously live out the values of the Gospel of Jesus and to heck what people who disagreed with him thought about him and what he did.
So today, in place of singing the Creed, we’re going to renew our Baptismal Covenant to revisit the basic principles of ministry all of us share, ordained or not. I invite you to take your service booklet home after Mass, so you can from time to time recite the Baptismal Covenant as part of your personal prayer life to ask yourself on a regular basis how well you are keeping that covenant and what you can do better in fulfilling it.
Finally, what happens if you don’t fulfill your baptismal covenant? Is God going make bad things happen to you, or send your soul to Hell when you die? No. Our God is a loving God, always ready to forgive us and help us do better in the future. Those characteristics of God are more than enough of a reason to believe in God, to trust God and to have faith in God. God is always there for you, rewarding your faithfulness to God with God’s faithfulness to you. AMEN.