The Rev. Jay Lawlor
Baptism of our Lord, Year B, January 7, 2018
Church of the Nativity, Episcopal – Indianapolis, IN
This First Sunday after the Epiphany we celebrate the Baptism of our Lord. We are in Year B of the Lectionary cycle, so we have Mark’s account of Jesus’ baptism. John goes to the Jordan River to prepare the way for Jesus. Mark writes of John:
He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” (Mark 1:7-8, NRSV)
Jesus baptizes with the Holy Spirit – the very breath of God – to empower his movement of love, liberation, and life. But first Jesus comes to be baptized by John. So what are we to make of Jesus’ baptism? Cynthia Briggs Kittredge, Dean, President and Professor of New Testament at Seminary of the Southwest – an Episcopal seminary in Austin, Texas, offers this helpful commentary:
One of the undisputed facts in historical Jesus research is the baptism of Jesus by John. For Jesus to have been baptized by John suggests that he was a follower of John or a participant in the movement of John for which baptism in water for repentance was the ritual/prophetic sign. All four gospels explain in different ways how Jesus could have been baptized by John and yet be greater. Mark here implies identification with John as the messenger and one who cries out in the wilderness. Historically, Jesus’ baptism was not Christian baptism. Jesus’ “sinlessness” is not an issue for Mark. (Cynthia Briggs Kittredge, Working Preacher Commentary on Mark 1:4-11 for Jan. 7, 2018)
Jesus’ baptism is not the same as our baptisms. Historically Jesus joined John’s movement for a time. Likely a matter of practicality. John already had a large following and his mission was to ready them to follow Jesus. Jesus would then gather his own following to take the movement to whole other level. John is perfectly clear in the gospel accounts of his role in relation to Jesus.
How then should we understand Jesus’ baptism beyond his participating in John’s movement as a way to ready his own? Simply stating that Jesus was baptized as an inauguration of his public ministry does not do justice to the scriptural witness of Mark’s gospel account. There is much more going on. Jesus’ baptism was, in its own right, an epiphany: God’s revealing of Jesus’ nature and identity. As Mark writes of Jesus:
And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:10-11, NRSV)
The word for “torn open” – schizo – used here for the heavens occurs again in Mark at Jesus’ crucifixion implying a connection between Jesus’ baptism and death. The water and the dove recall the creation story in Genesis 1. God’s announcement “you are my son” occurs here and two other times in Mark’s gospel: at the Transfiguration (Mark 9:7), and at the crucifixion (Mark 15:39). Jesus’ baptism was an epiphany of who Jesus was, what he would accomplish for the world, and who Jesus is as the Christ for us today.
While Jesus’ baptism was not Christian baptism, our own Christian baptisms connect us in powerful ways to the unfolding story of Jesus revealed, in that epiphany, in the Jordan River that day. In the Thanksgiving over the Water for Holy Baptism we recount Jesus’ baptism of John when Jesus was anointed by the Holy Spirit as the Messiah, the Christ. In the water of Baptism we are buried with Christ in his death. By it we share in his resurrection. Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit. (Holy Baptism, The Book of Common Prayer, p. 306)
Holy Baptism is our full initiation into Christ’s Body, the Church. And when we speak of the Church, we are not speaking of a religious institution – or institutions – which grew out of early Christianity. We are speaking of a gathering of people following Jesus, proclaiming his message, and living his mission in service to the world.
Bishop Andy Doyle of the Episcopal Diocese of Texas writes in his book The Jesus Heist: Recovering the Gospel from the Church that Jesus gathered followers who formed an ecclesia (a gathering of faithful people); a spiritual creation of God which is a society of friends of Jesus (Doyle, The Jesus Heist, p. 16). The “church”, Bishop Doyle explains is a religious institution (Doyle, The Jesus Heist, p. 16). The distinction is an important one. The promises made in baptism – promises we will renew today, are not promises to an institution (even our beloved Episcopal Church), they are promises we make to God in following Jesus. They are promises to live into a truth about God, Christ, and the community which gathers in Jesus’ name for the purpose of mission in service to the world.
It is the truth of what it means to be ecclesia. And the truth that is found in ecclesia, as Bishop Doyle points out:
[…] is simply the love of God in Christ Jesus. It is the love of God manifest in the person of Jesus. It is the love of God manifest in the fellowship of those who are loved and are willing to love. […] This is the very love experienced by the first followers of Jesus, and experienced by those whom they loved, and the continual love that has been present in the midst of the fellowship of friends of Jesus for over two thousand years. This love is exemplified by Christ Jesus, who gives himself over to and for the world. (Doyle, Jesus Heist, p. 17).
Jesus’ baptism was God’s revelation of love made manifest in Christ Jesus. Our baptisms make as part of the ecclesia: the fellowship of friends of Jesus. In entering into this fellowship we are to live into the love of Christ. To love God and love neighbor.
It is a love so deep, so profound, that it has the power to transform our lives and our community. It is the love which is the basis of the Christian gospel. And, to paraphrase Bishop Doyle, the Christian gospel is about a generous community of divine love that is founded on giving ourselves away for the sake of the world. Amen.