Sermon for High Mass Baptism of Christ Sunday 13 January 2019
Baptism of the Lord
At my seminary, baptism was our first topic on the liturgy syllabus. Our tutor, a philosophically acute Jesuit, began with a proper question: why do we baptize people (not just infants, but anyone). Like many of you, I suspect, it had never occurred to me to ask that question, but it is a proper question in the philosophical sense. We remember the great commission at the end of Matthew’s gospel, commanding the disciples to make all nations disciples by baptism in the name of the Trinity, but those verses were added later, precisely to support evangelism and baptism, so we need to work a bit harder.
First, we baptize people into membership of the church because Jesus was himself baptized. I’ll come back to that in a moment.
Second, it is clear that for the earliest Christians baptism was understood as replacing circumcision (which is a naming rite as well as a membership rite): St Paul, writing before any of the gospels, teaches that circumcision is no longer required. Rather, baptism in the name of Jesus and signing them with the cross in holy oil (‘the seal of the spirit’ as Paul calls it) marks people as belonging to Christ, as Christians.
Third, following from that, whereas circumcision was one of the works of the Law which Paul explains are now superseded by faith in Jesus Christ, baptism is not such a ‘work’; rather it is a sacramental entering into the death and resurrection of Jesus, a complete identification with what Jesus has done to save us and put us right with God. That is why this sacrament is as core a part of our Christian faith as the Eucharist in which it entitles us to partake. Baptism is unrepeatable, a one-off grafting into the vine; the Eucharist is repeatable, a regular and nourishing participation of the baptized believer in the sacrificial events of Calvary and the new life of Easter.
This explains why we keep the feast of the Lord’s baptism as a part of the Christmas cycle. This moment in Jesus’ earthly life signifies something for us (our identity as members of the church), and something for him: a revealing of his full identity (giving meaning to the name he received at circumcision, which we celebrated on New Year’s Day).
And that, to return to the first reason for this feast, is relevant to what we celebrate today. If it is a proper question to ask ‘why do we baptize people’, it would have been a more pressing question, just under 2000 years ago, to ask ‘why was Jesus baptized’?
This was a controversial question for the early church. It was a question of authority – Jesus submitting to his cousin John in this way – and also of John’s baptism being one of repentance, whereas the sinless Son of God who comes to save the world from sin should have no need to express repentance.
For me that makes this story a perfect parable to put before people who want to draw neat lines around what is right and wrong Christian practice, because Jesus’ baptism is neither logical nor obvious. It is, however, what we would call a pastoral move, something done in order to help the other people involved to understand God’s loving purpose. The church often has to compromise in that way; it is good to see that Jesus did so from the beginning. Pope Francis starts from this place.
For the gospel writers, the relationship, and any power-dynamic, between John and Jesus is less important than the revelation of the heavenly voice. This is where the story communicates. The baptism of Jesus provides the occasion for the revelation of his identity, which in turn prompts Jesus’ journey into the wilderness and the beginning of his ministry.
I recently reread Fr Timothy Radcliffe’s book, Why go to Church? Discussing the articles of the creed and why dogmas are invitations to belief rather than narrow propositions which shut down discussion, he tells this story:
I was once stopped outside Blackfriars [the Dominican house in Oxford where he was Prior] by two young men conducting a survey. They asked me if I believed that Jesus was literally the Son of God. I replied that it depended upon what they meant. If they meant: was Jesus the son of the Father in exactly the same sense that I was the son of my father, then ‘No.’ If they were asking whether he was truly the Son of the Father and was ‘begotten and not made’, then ‘Yes.’ They looked at one another, puzzled, and then one said, ‘Put him down as “Don’t know”.’
Proper answers and proper distinctions are as important as proper questions. Timothy Radcliffe’s answer is exactly what the gospel writers want us to know.
This also helps to explain why we baptize; it isn’t, strictly, to give us a name, but in the sense of identity that is in fact what it does. It gives us not a ‘Christian name’, but the name of ‘Christian’. Twelve days ago we kept the feast of two great saints of the early church, learned men of the turbulent third Christian century, St Gregory Nazianzen and St Basil the Great, who helped to clarify the identity of Jesus, his relationship with God and our relationship with him. Near the end of his life Gregory wrote of their friendship and joint endeavours,
Different men have different names, derived from their ancestors or their own pursuits and deeds. Our great concern, our great name, was to be Christians and be called Christians.
Jesus was baptized to show his identity, his oneness, with us; we are baptized ‘into Christ’, as Paul put it, to show our identity with him, our becoming his brothers and sisters in the great family of God. The Gospel revelation has at its core a proclamation of relationship: the model of the church as our primary family allegiance. God is ‘our Father’ as we sing together after the consecration; Jesus is our brother.
That truth puts our Christian allegiance in context: rather than a humanly flawed institution, the Church is most obviously a properly dysfunctional family. As Pope Francis seems to understand, we have to work on it, on ourselves, as that dysfunctional family, rather than arguing about who is a ‘proper Christian’, who is in communion with whom, or how to keep people out. The Epiphany and the Baptism of the Lord are celebrations of divine welcome, invitation and inclusion.
That same St Gregory Nazianzen wrote a sermon for this feast, which begins:
Christ is bathed in light; let us also be bathed in light. Christ is baptized; let us also go down with him, that we may also rise with him.