By the Rev. Darren Miner
Last Sunday was the feast of the Epiphany. In the Western Church, the focus of that feast day is the manifestation of the Christ child to the Gentile Magi. But in the Eastern Church, the focus is the Baptism of Jesus. So in a sense, this Sunday is a kind of liturgical tribute to the tradition of the Eastern Church. And since the focus of the day is baptism, the Episcopal Church commends this day for baptisms or, if there are no baptisms, for the renewal of baptismal vows. And so that is exactly what we will do right after this sermon.
Jesus’ baptism is a bit of an anomaly. It doesn’t make sense on the face of it. John the Baptist is baptizing the people who come to him to cleanse them from sin. Yet, Christian scripture affirms that Jesus was without sin. So why did he need to be baptized? Moreover, John was, by his own admission, unworthy to perform the baptism—he wasn’t even worthy enough to touch Jesus’ shoes! I can think of only one reason for Jesus’ requesting baptism—as an act of solidarity. It was an act of solidarity with his cousin John, endorsing the validity of John’s ministry. But more importantly, it was an act of solidarity with the sinners standing in line by the banks of the River Jordan, and more generally, with all of sinful humanity as it moves step by step towards God’s all-forgiving love. Jesus, the Incarnate Word, submitted to baptism for the same reason that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, as an act of salvific solidarity.
And similarly, when we submit to baptism or are brought to baptism by our parents and godparents, it is a sign that we, in turn, wish to be in solidarity with God in Christ and to be members of his Body in the world.
After Jesus’ baptism, the Holy Spirit descended upon him, and a voice came down from heaven proclaiming, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Now I can’t prove this, but I imagine that something similar happened at your baptism. Maybe no one heard God’s voice. Maybe no one saw a divine dove. But I believe that God spoke words of acceptance and approval at your baptism, and I believe that the Holy Spirit descended upon you and spiritually anointed you.
In one sense, our solidarity with God through the sacrament of Holy Baptism is a free gift. But in another sense, there is a rather high cost. As St. Luke tells us later in his Gospel, “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.”
After this sermon, we will stand and recite the vows of the Baptismal Covenant. We start out by renouncing the powers of Evil and by proclaiming our solidarity with God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. We then promise to manifest that solidarity to the world by our words and deeds. Five times I will ask you a question concerning your commitment to live a righteous life. And five times, you will give the same response, “I will, with God’s help.” The second part of that response is a humble admission of our human weakness. For the truth is that we are not strong enough to keep those five vows without God’s assistance.
Now, if you will recall, in the Collect of the Day, we prayed for two spiritual gifts from God. The first is for God’s help in keeping our baptismal vows. And the second is for God’s help to “boldly confess [Jesus] as Lord and Savior.” Now, if we are honest, how many of us really want the gift to “boldly confess Jesus as Lord and Savior”? Wouldn’t we really rather have the gift of never having to boldly confess our faith to anyone at any time? Well, folks, boldly professing Jesus is a small part of that high cost of baptism I mentioned!
Let me tell you a little story. Last year, on May 26, to be exact, Mathew and I were on the banks of the River Jordan with a group of pilgrims from Grace Cathedral. Our guide had promised to take us to a place on the river where we would be able to renew our baptismal vows in private and then to be sprinkled with water from the same river where Jesus was baptized. It sounded delightful! Well, as it turned out, that private spot was not so private! When we got there, there was a group of Jewish campers sunning themselves by the side of the river and swimming in the cool water, accompanied by music from a boombox. After a few apologies to the campers by our guide, we proceeded to renew our baptismal vows in public.
Looking back, I realize just how easy it would have been to cancel the event out of sheer embarrassment. I suspect that a majority of the pilgrims would have been relieved. My sense is that many of my fellow pilgrims were embarrassed, if not actually ashamed, to stand by the river in the presence of non-Christians and to proclaim their faith in Jesus. But I am ever so grateful that we did not, in fact, cancel the event, that we gathered up the courage to stay put and to say aloud in the presence of strangers, “I believe in Jesus Christ.” I don’t know what those Jewish campers thought of our declaration of faith. Maybe they thought we were fools or fanatics. But just maybe they heard our promise to “respect the dignity of every human being” and came to have a bit more respect for Jesus and his followers.
Today, we will stand together here in this Christian place of worship, far from the River Jordan, and we will renew the vows of the Baptismal Covenant. Later this day, we will go out into the world one by one and try our best to live out those vows. And someday, I predict, in a time and place of God’s choosing, we will each be asked to stand up and to proclaim, without shame or embarrassment, the most basic of Christian creeds: “I believe in Jesus Christ.” I pray that, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, each of us will respond to God’s call when it comes and boldly confess our baptismal faith. Amen.
© 2019 by Darren Miner. All rights reserved. Used by permission.