Year C, Baptism of the Lord
January 13, 2019
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you…”
This line from Isaiah, with the prophetic proclamation “Thus says the Lord,” is the only place in the Bible where we are told that God loves us in God’s own words. God’s actions throughout scripture, throughout much of the experience of our lives, reflect a deep, abiding and creative love… but being told that we are loved, in words… this is it.
The matter at hand today is the Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ. I’ve been having a conversation about baptism with Fr. Tim Hannon, one of Resurrection’s own, now the Rector of St. James in Coquille. A question came up about whether is it proper to offer the Eucharist to the un-Baptized. To my mind, and in the practice of this parish, yes, “all are welcome here.” We offer radical hospitality. Sure, it is better if you are baptized, canon law and tradition would say that; it is better if you are sacramentally a member of the body of Christ, theologians and pastors would say that; but I doubt that Jesus would. I don’t think He would exclude anyone on a ritual technicality, not someone desiring His presence, His love, desiring inclusion as one of His people. He was constantly cleansing people of their sins and thensending them off to the priest to do it in accordance to the Law. He was constantly offering Himself, the first sacrament, to all, the plain-belly sneetches and their star-belly friends. If we were ever to adjust our policy, it would be that all are welcome here at God’s table; if you are not baptized, you should talk to Fr. Brent after Mass and maybe make a plan. I think that is the Jesus way to do it. In any case, our table is radically and hospitably open (and our Bishop allows for it).
The issue that the must-be-baptized crew has is all about what happens to us when we are Baptized. Now I am not interested in a theological debate about why our offer of Eucharist to all is defensible. It is right for us to do it that way and that is not changing. But on this commemoration of the Baptism of Jesus Christ, our vision is directed to the subject of baptism. Jesus did it. Most of in this room have done it. (If you haven’t or if your children haven’t I’d love to talk). It is our tradition. But what is going on in this sacrament? This morning is a good time to pose the following question: what happens to us when we are Baptized? That’s a question. Any thoughts? ___
OK, so let’s say you don’t have any thoughts on it: fair enough. Infant baptism can lead us to do it more habitually if not superstitiously than those Christians of persuasions that hold believer’s baptism as the norm. That’s not a critique, just an observation. The adults and older children I have baptized have been significantly more moved than the infants (though they have generally cried less). But where might we go to learn about the meaning of Baptism? St. Luke is pretty sparse, Holy Spirit and fire, a winnowing fork. Everything is there, but a lot is left up to the imagination. No, for us, when it comes to the theology of the sacraments, we go to the Book of Common Prayer. You all know that. But where in that wonderful red-covered tome? _____ The Catechism at the back and the rite of Holy Baptism itself.
Open up your BCP to p. 858, the section on “Holy Baptism” in An Outline of the Faith: Commonly Called the Catechism. Could someone read the answer to the question, “What is Holy Baptism?” – “Holy Baptism is the sacrament by which God adopts us as his children and makes us members of Christ’s Body, the Church, and inheritors of the Kingdom of God.” (Don’t loose that page). That’s a familial formula. “Adoption.” Being made “members” as in members of a family. As family members we become “inheritors.” In Baptism, we are adopted as members of God’s family (the Body of Christ in Christian vocabulary). That sounds pretty good (and is a good WWJD argument against excluding the unbaptized – Jesus went out of His holy way to welcome those not amongst the chosen people of God – Canaanites, the Syro-Phoenician woman, the lepers, Lazarus on the stoop of the rich man…)
OK, so we are made members of God’s family. How does that happen, or what does it mean to be a member of this family? In your BCP look two questions down, “What is the inward and spiritual grace in Baptism?” Would someone read that? “The inward and spiritual grace in Baptism is (1) Union with Christ in his death and resurrection, (2) birth into God’s family the church, (3) forgiveness of sins, and (4) new life in the Holy Spirit.” That is pretty monumental. A half a cup of water has never worked so hard!
Union with Christ? This is the mystical, mystery laden side of ur relationship with God. As one writer puts it “the present experience of the risen Christ indwelling the believer’s heart by the Spirit.” The “present experience.” We die and rise with Christ now, right now, in this present moment. This is, as St. Theresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross teach, the mystical unification with the one that is “nearer to us than we are to ourselves.” Like I often quote from Thomas Merton, “But O! How far have I to go to find Him in whom I have already arrived.” Union with Christ… it’s the culmination of mystical experience. The centering prayer we do here, The Cloud of Unknowing,the 14thcentury English gift to the spiritual world… that is what it is all about, becoming in all ways one with God. In Baptism that union is made real. There is, maybe for but an instant, no gap between you and our Living God, and the path to continue that union in your life from here on out is made real. That’ powerful. So in Baptism, we are in union with God.
Birth into God’s family the church? We sort of covered that above, but to be born into it… that’s more tactile than adoption. Being reborn, as Jesus teaches, is a whole remaking of the self in relation to others. We are born into the family.
Wonderful. Those feel pretty good. Now we are on to the two points that make us less comfortable: The forgiveness of sins and new life in the Holy Spirit.
In a three month-old, there is not a lot of sin to be forgiven. Not sins of omission or commission at least. And even for that sin drenched 47 year-old, sins, active ones, might be washed away, but this is not a one-offer. Sins in need of repentance and forgiveness start up immediately. What is given to us in Baptism is in part a forgiveness of sins themselves, the things we have done, left undone and have had done on our behalf. It is also an acknowledgement of our original sinfulness, the ease with which we chose wrong over right, the unedifying path of least resistance most of us spend a good deal of time on. The 3 month-old isn’t choosing that path, but human nature has put her on it. This gift of the sacrament is an acknowledgment of our sinful nature, our natural willingness to be separate from God, AND it offers a path to remedy that. The story Our Lord’s baptism, as sparse as St. Luke’s telling is, helps illustrate this.
St. John the Baptist is baptizing in the wilderness. He proclaims that there is one “more powerful” than him who is coming. “He will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear the threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” That is one of those images that Episcopalians generally gloss over, winnowing forks and unquenchable fire.
This scene is teaching us a basic Christian truth… that is that 1. we are forgivable, and 2. there is a path to forgiveness. (It is parallel to the second and third Noble Truths of Buddhism). More so, it is teaching us that within us, part and parcel to our human nature, there are parts of us that are good, very good and there are parts of us that are not, that we would do better to let go of, to let ourselves be winnowed of.
One of the best farming days I ever had was setting up a threshing floor at our rural monastery for a farm visit by a bunch of children from inner city Boston. We did the reaping (12 year-olds with scythes and sickles, as romantic as that sounds, was judged to be a bad idea). Then we spread sheaves of wheat on a canvass tarp, and the children beat them mercilessly with rubber hoses (again, arming 12 year-olds with ironwood flails seemed unwise). Then they forked out the straw, leaving the grain and the chaff, all the bits of shattered hulls and whisps of straw. They scooped that all up, climbed a step ladder, and poured the wheat and chaff into a small bucket. From high up, the gentle breeze would carry away the chaff while the wheat would clink into the metal bucket. Repeat that four or five times and you have clean wheat over here and a pile of chaff over there. Using a winnowing fork, you’d throw it into the air rather than drop it from a height. We then milled the wheat and made pancakes for 100 after a dramatic reading of Eric Carle’s classic picture book Pancakes, Pancakes. What a day!
John is not saying that Jesus is going to separate the wheat-y good people from the sinful chaffers, no. (Jesus does speak of separating sheep from goats, but that is not here). No, what Jesus can do, will do, does do is help us separate the good parts from the bad parts within our selves. We are the threshed. That is what is being offered in baptism: the ways and means to remove the chaff from our souls. You know what I am talking about. We all have our propensities that we would do better (in all ways) without. A mean streak, a wandering eye, greediness, jealousy, selfishness, being judgementa, being a gossip, ill will… what would your life look like if your bad habits, your sinful ways were winnowed away?
That’s part of what we do here, winnow the wheat of our souls. It is right there in our baptismal covenant “Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into in, repent and return to the Lord?” “I will, with God’s help” is how we answered or had answered for us. A constant review of ourselves, our actions and intentions, and repenting, changing our direction… process and invitation. Both are offered in baptism.
The last gift received in Baptism is New life in the holy spirit. That can mean all sorts of things. That dove descending in “bodily form” and the voice from heaven “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased…” we rarely get it that clearly, that visibly, but we do get it, we do get the blessing of the Holy Spirit. The most palpable way that that manifests is our commissioning for ministry, our ordination into the priesthood of all believers. We, as Baptized Christians are empowered to go into the world and do, serve, help and save in the name of God!
That is critical. Surely we can do all the good that needs doing without God as we know God. Billions of people do every day. But empowered by the Holy Spirit… oh the places we’ll go! We are linked to a billion other Christians, representing every form of human being that has lived over the past 2000 years, and together, joined in faith we could make real the Commonwealth of God we have inherited. Really. Like right now, if we just acted like it, the Commonwealth would happen now. (The bummer is that it might take a couple of centuries for us to agree what that commonwealth looks like). But that power, that invitation, the invitation to do in the name of God… that is given in Baptism.
That’s a look at the sacrament of baptism. It is not just an initiation rite, a hoop to jump through to join a club, though too often that is what it is taken as. It is about membership in the Body of Christ, but that doesn’t have a whole lot to do with the institutions we have created to contain the body. As one of my favorite commentators writes, “We tend to think o Christianity as a cause that somehow we must support, and if it does not prosper, we become anxious about it. The Bible, however, is not concerned about “Christianity” but about the mighty acts of God, culminating in Jesus Christ. Our task is to respond to those mighty acts in faith and obedience, not to defend a human religious cause.”
It all comes back to the fact that God loves us. That we are in indelible relationship with the foundation of the universe itself, the very first spark of life, of being itself is in us, completely. That is love. That is God. The evidence is all around us, forever and a day in each sun rise, each breath of air, each touch of a loved one, each bite of bread made from the finest wheat, and in that little word passed on by the prophet Isaiah, “…you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you…” AMEN