Last Sunday, as you may recall, was the feast of the Baptism of Our Lord, and we heard St. Matthew’s account of that event. Today we get a second version of that event, taken from the Gospel of St. John. Now, in Matthew’s account, Jesus sees the heavens open up and the Spirit descend like a dove. But it isn’t absolutely clear if anyone else sees what Jesus sees, or hears what he hears. Well, St. John’s Gospel clarifies the matter. John the Baptist also saw the descent of the Holy Spirit at Jesus’ baptism. And for him this was the sign he had been waiting for, that the “One who was coming into the world” had finally arrived.
The Baptist announces to all within hearing distance that Jesus is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” That’s a rather curious expression, and the meaning is not self-evident. The most common interpretation of this metaphor is that John is equating Jesus with the paschal lamb, the animal that was slaughtered, roasted, and eaten in a communal meal each year at the Passover in commemoration of the Exodus. Now, the sacrifice of the paschal lamb was a symbol of the redemption of Israel. But St. John the Baptist goes further when he states that this sacrificial lamb takes away the sin of the world. This is something completely new. In Judaism there was no sacrifice that took away the sin of the whole world.
As the Church Fathers noted long ago, there are also eucharistic overtones to the Baptist’s paschal metaphor, overtones that elucidate its meaning for us today. For just as a paschal lamb was sacrificed and then shared in a communal meal, so Jesus was sacrificed on the Cross, and the Sacrament of his Body and Blood is shared in a communal meal, namely, Holy Communion.
If the Gospel reading for today had stopped halfway through, it would have been enough. For we would have gained a more profound understanding of the true identity of Jesus: he is both God’s Son and the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
The Book of Common Prayer recommends reserving Baptisms for a baptismal feast day, of which there are four. And today is not one of them! But perhaps it should be, for the appointed Gospel reading deals in an indirect way with both of the Great Sacraments of the Christian faith: Baptism and Eucharist.
Last week’s reading from the Gospel of Mark skipped over a large chunk of text, the story of the feeding of the 5000. Today, we get the missing story, although from John’s Gospel.
Word has spread that Jesus is miraculously healing the sick. And in an age when only the very wealthy could afford to consult a physician (much like today!), there were many people who were sick. And they were besieging Jesus. Needing a little respite from the crowd, he climbed to the top of a hill overlooking the Sea of Galilee. When he sees that the crowd is following him even there, he doesn’t get angry. He doesn’t even complain. Instead, he expresses concern that the people will suffer hunger.
Now, Philip and Andrew, who are there with Jesus, are realists. They know that there is nothing they can do for a crowd of 5000 people. Andrew points out that all they have on hand is five loaves of barley bread and two dried fishes. Philip and Andrew undoubtedly knew the story of how the prophet Elisha multiplied 20 loaves so as to feed 100 people. But for Jesus to feed 5000 from only 5 loaves would require a miracle 200 times more powerful than Elisha’s. Clearly, they didn’t think it possible—even for Jesus. But they were wrong—quite wrong! Jesus took the bread and the fishes, blessed them, and distributed them. All were filled, and there were even leftovers!
Today is the first Sunday in Lent, a period of 40 days of self-examination and self-discipline in preparation for Easter. Those few who were able to attend the Ash Wednesday service heard a lengthy address concerning the origins of Lent. For those here today who missed that, I will read just a brief excerpt: “This season of Lent provided a time in which converts to the faith prepared for Holy Baptism. It was also a time when those who, because of notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the Church.”
This explains why all three of today’s Bible readings deal in some way or other with the sacrament of Baptism. The first reading from Genesis gives us God’s covenant with the remnants of humankind, those who were saved from the Great Flood. As you may recall, God was disgusted with the sinfulness of his people, and he decided to “reboot the system.” He drowned all the creatures on Earth, with the exception of eight members of one family and the animals that they had collected into the ark. God then made a covenant with those eight survivors, and with their descendants, never to do such a thing again.
Now, if we take the story literally, it is horrific. Millions of people must have been drowned. But our ancestors in the faith, including St. Peter, sought a deeper, more spiritual meaning in this tale of mass destruction. And they accomplished this by reading the story of the Flood as a kind of allegory. The waters of the Flood were understood as symbolic of the waters of Baptism. In their understanding, the drowning of the Earth’s many sinners symbolically represented the drowning of our sins in the holy font. Noah’s ark of wood was understood as a symbol of either the wooden Cross of Christ or his salvific Church. Lastly, the covenant of the rainbow that we heard about in the first reading was seen as a prefigurement of the baptismal covenant.
Today is the feast of the baptism of our Lord Jesus Christ, one of four feast days in the liturgical calendar reserved for baptisms. On these days, if there are no baptisms, it is recommended that the congregation renew their baptismal vows instead. So, at the 8 o’clock service we renew our vows. But at the 10 o’clock service, we are blessed to have three baptisms. And I do mean blessed! For we are both blessed and privileged to participate in the incorporation of three new members into the Body of Christ through the action of the Holy Spirit.
We learn something about the working of the Holy Spirit from today’s readings from Luke and Acts. In the Gospel of Luke, we have the story of the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River. John the Baptist is preaching repentance to the people of Judea and inviting them to be cleansed of their sins through a baptism of water. But he freely admits that one greater than he is coming who will offer a greater baptism, a baptism with the Holy Spirit and fire. That greater one is, of course, Jesus Christ. And that greater baptism is baptism in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.