Sermon for Sunday, January 8, 2023 || Epiphany 1A || Matthew 3:13-17
We have a pair of baptisms today, so I’d like to take the sermon time to do a quick session of Christianity 101: An Introduction to Baptism. It’s fitting to do this on a day when we will participate in these two baptisms and when we’ve just read about Jesus’ own baptism by John in the River Jordan.
So what’s really going on in baptism? The traditional understanding tells us that baptism serves as the initiatory rite of the church and marks the cleansing of our sins. Both of these definitions are accurate (let me be clear), but I think if we stop there we will be prone to misunderstanding. We need to dig a little deeper. Here’s one thing to remember about baptism: the sacrament of baptism affirms and celebrates a state of being that already exists. The action of baptizing doesn’t create anything new; rather, the sacrament marks our participation in something God is already doing.
Here’s what I mean. At the end of the baptism service, we will welcome this pair of siblings saying: “We receive you into the household of God. Confess the faith of Christ crucified, proclaim his resurrection, and share with us in his eternal priesthood.” However, by virtue of them being born in the image and likeness of God, they are already members of God’s family. They are already part of God’s household. Their baptism is an affirmation and celebration of a state of being they already possess. The Church is our particular expression of God’s family, but those who belong to the Church are not the only ones who belong to God. Today we will celebrate these two kids’ membership in God’s family so that we can see the deep truth of God’s reality: that we are all members of that family.
Participating in this deep truth is what makes baptism one of the sacraments of the faith. If you’ve taken a confirmation class or CCD in the Roman Catholic Church, then you might remember the classic definition of a sacrament: An outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. Another way to put this is that sacraments are windows through which God gives us the gift of viewing the true and eternal reality of God’s movement in creation. Sacraments take ordinary, everyday things – water and bread, for example – and use them to reveal extraordinary holiness hidden in plain sight.
When we baptize these two little ones today, the hidden will be revealed for a moment, and we will see the unconditional love of God embracing a pair of souls who have never done a thing to earn that love. And we will learn once again that we can do nothing to earn God’s love either. We can only respond to God’s unconditional love in our lives.
If they’ve done nothing to earn God’s love, then neither have they done anything to reject it, so you might be wondering why we baptize to cleanse sins, which was the second part of our traditional understanding of baptism. Once again, we are affirming and celebrating a state of being that already exists.
The word “baptism” sounds all fancy until you dig down to its roots. “Baptism” simply means “to wash.” If you went off to take a shower (and you happened to be a speaker of ancient Greek) you might use the verb from which we get the word “baptism.” When we bathe, we scrub away all the dirt and sweat and grime that accumulates during our day-to-day lives. We have to bathe regularly because we get dirty regularly. But we baptize only once because baptism is a celebration that our sins are forgiven – not just the ones we already committed but all of our sins past and future, everything that has, does, or will separate us from God. When we wash in the waters of baptism, we join God’s reality in progress, a reality in which nothing in all creation can separate us from God’s love. The sacrament of baptism allows us to mark the beginning of our participation in this reality.
So if baptism is an affirmation and celebration of a state of being that already exists, you might be wondering if it asks anything of us at all. If we’re just jumping into a river that’s already flowing, what is our responsibility in all of this?
The action of baptism takes place in a few seconds at the font here. We’ll splash a few ounces of blessed water on their foreheads, say the words, and that will be that. But the baptismal life continues from that moment on. The baptismal life is a sacramental life, a life in which each baptized person becomes one of those windows into the true and eternal reality of God’s movement in creation. Baptism invites us into deeper commitment as followers of Jesus Christ, deeper relationship with God, and deeper resonance with the Holy Spirit’s movement.
When we reaffirm our Baptismal Covenant in a moment, we will promise with God’s help to commit ourselves once again to serve God in this world. We will remember that nothing separates us from God’s love, that we are all members of God’s family, and that God invites us to live baptismal lives, committed to bearing witness to the true and deep reality of God’s presence in creation. We make all these promises with God’s help because God lives at the heart of all we do, prompting us to live the baptismal life.
So take heart in what we do this morning because we are opening a window into the holy. We look through and see God’s love embracing all of creation and compelling us, through our baptismal life, to embrace it too.