Sermon for Baptism of Christ (Epiphany 1) High Mass Sunday 8 January 2017
Sermon preached by the Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses
Readings: Isaiah 42.1-9; Acts 10.34-43; Matthew 3.13-17
“Let it be so now; for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.”
I have no recollection of my baptism 60 odd years ago in a small country church in Teesdale. However, family history records no extraordinary events like those recorded in Matthew’s account of the baptism of Jesus in today’s Gospel.
However, the Collect and the Post-Communion Prayer in today’s liturgy make a clear and direct link between the Baptism of Jesus, which we celebrate on this Sunday of Epiphany, with the Church’s practice of baptism and with your baptism and mine.
This link is suggested by Matthew himself. He begins his account of the public life and ministry of Jesus, with his coming to the Jordan and his baptism by John. There we hear his first words: “Let it be so now; for thus it is fitting for us to fulfil all righteousness.”
Then, at the very end of the Gospel, we hear his last words: “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.”
But before, we leap forward to think about what baptism means for us, we should first consider what the Gospel is saying about Jesus in this account of his baptism; because what we say about Christ must govern what we say about ourselves in relation to him. Otherwise, we run the risk of defining Jesus in terms of ourselves, making him in our image, rather than understanding ourselves in the light of Jesus, in his image.
Jesus emerges from the hidden life of Nazareth to come to the Jordan where John is preaching and baptizing for repentance. He joins the queue but John, who recognizes him as the one he has spoken of: “he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire,” tries to refuse. It should be the other way round: “I need to be baptized by you,” protests John. But Jesus, as we have heard, insists that this is how it is to be “for now,” and adds as a reason: “for it is fitting for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”
“Righteousness” is a key idea in Matthew. In the Old Testament “righteousness” means behaviour which accords with the requirements of a relationship; and especially, the covenant relationship between God and his people. The Law showed Israel how to live out the covenant requirements in everyday life. So, a righteous person was one who keeps the Law– not simply in a legalistic sense but because it represents the practical expression of God’s will.
For Jesus, “fulfilling all righteousness” is doing “what God wills,” and “what God wills” of him here and now as he stands before John is to submit to baptism in the Jordan along with the rest of repentant Israel. His submission to baptism at this point, because that is “what God wills,” is the outworking of his incarnation, his humble taking of human life. It anticipates his subsequent submission to suffering death because that too will be “what God wants,” an entrance into even deeper solidarity with sinful humankind.
Jesus is baptized along with repentant Israel, but what happens as he emerges from the water sets him apart from the rest (16-17). This is a defining moment in the Gospel: a divine response to the “righteous” action of Jesus in submitting to baptism at the hands of John.
From the beginning of his Gospel, Matthew has been seeking to answer the question: “Who is Jesus?” In our passage he weaves a tapestry of Old Testament references and allusions to answer this question.
The “opening of the heavens” recalls the plea of Isaiah 64.1 “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.” It signals the end of the long absence of communication from heaven, the long silence of which Israel had been conscious since the return from exile.
The descent of the Spirit takes us further back still: to Genesis (1.2,) where creation begins with the Spirit hovering, as a dove does, over the face of the deep. Jesus’ empowerment with the Spirit for his ministry, his messianic role, is then the beginning of a renewal so profound as to amount to a new creation. His Spirit-empowered ministry will reclaim human lives for a new humanity to be lived out in a renewed people of God.
The high point of the scene comes with the divine address from heaven: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well-pleased.” What in Mark and Luke is a private reassurance, becomes a public proclamation. That Jesus, as well as being Messiah, is also uniquely Son of God has been made clear in the infancy story. Now, as he emerges from the waters of repentance he has obediently entered “to fulfill all righteousness,” he is publicly acknowledged as God’s Son, the status and title most significant for Matthew. “Beloved” evokes the description of Isaac in Genesis 22.2, whose obedient submission of God’s apparent will for him had become a celebrated theme in post-biblical Jewish tradition.
Above all, the echo in the first phrase “In whom I am well pleased” of Isaiah’s First Servant Song, which we heard in our first reading, introduces something vital to Matthew’s view of Christ and his mission: that he replays the role of the Servant. Though not explicitly quoted here, as we heard, he following line of the Servant Song reads: “I have put my Spirit upon him.” That is what God has done: empowered the Son with the Spirit to carry out the servant’s mission.
The moment of revelation after the baptism brings out the intimacy of this relationship, “the Beloved” and indicates the way in which this Messiah/Son of God will carry out his mission. As Messiah has been defined by Son of God, so the direction of Jesus’ obedience as “beloved Son” will be that of the servant of God. He will come, not as many hoped, with the power of a worldly ruler, but as one who “will not cry out or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street, a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench…”
Now we can move to consider what our own baptism means. Because of his entrance into and that solidarity with the burdened, sinful lot of humankind, what Jesus experiences here following his baptism is something that all the baptized can claim. Each of us, before any good work of which we may subsequently be capable, simply because of our union with Jesus, can have that same divine assurance: “This is my beloved son or daughter, with whom I am well-pleased.”
But just as the baptism of Jesus is seen as the inauguration of his mission, and the bestowal of the Spirit as empowerment for it, rather than just a declaration of exalted status, so too, the baptism of the Christian is not just so that we can be moved from a category called “lost” or “damned” into another called “found” or “saved.”
Our baptism, too, is inauguration and empowerment for our mission. In that we are to “fulfil all righteousness” – that is, to be obedient to God’s will for us.
That will extends, as the great commission at the end of Matthew’s Gospel proclaims, and the story of the conversion of Cornelius in the Acts of the Apostles confirms, not just to Jews but to all peoples. That event, of which we heard a short section, is crucial in Luke’s account of the infant Church’s struggle to grasp its universal mission which springs from the fact that “God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”
To be part of the community of the baptized, to be part of the Church, is to be called to “fulfill all righteousness,” to do the will of God, not in the sense of keeping the rules, but to be a “covenant to the people, a light to the nations…”
In the annals of Christian mission, this task of obedience to the great commission has taken people to all nations, to the ends of the earth, sometimes at the cost of their lives, and it still does. It has involved preachers of the gospel and teachers of the faith. But it also involved people just relating and witnessing to their neighbours and serving their communities in solidarity with a suffering humanity.
As his ministry as Bishop of London draws to a close, one of Bishop Richard’s recurring themes over the last two decades has been to remind us of the reality that the world, all nations, have come to us in this “world in a city.” Our calling, our commission, is no longer just to be what he calls “the church for the East Saxons,” or the English or the British for that matter, but for all people.
As catholic Christians, we believe that in our worship, in the Eucharist, Jesus comes among us. He comes still to be with his people. He speaks to us; calling us to fulfil the will of God. He empowers us with his Spirit for that calling.
To take this challenge seriously may well be as daunting for us as it was for Peter and the others to absorb what God’s lack of partiality meant for them. But if we believe that God has placed his Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus Christ, upon us, then our understanding of what it is to be, and to become, the catholic church, the universal Church, the Church for all, will be expanded and stretched, and we will be all the richer and happier for it. We may find ourselves surprised to discover that the bruised reed of our faith is not broken but strengthened and the dimly burning wick of our belief is not quenched but bursts into flame when exposed to the world outside.