Sermon for the First Sunday after Epiphany
Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’” After all, a bit earlier in the narrative John had spoken of Jesus as “one who is more powerful than me,” adding “I am not worthy to carry his sandals.” You want me to baptize you? “But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.’ Then John consented.”
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Baptism was not something invented by John. The mikveh was—and is—a familiar part of Judaism: a ritual bath for cleansing from impurity and for use when a Gentile converts to Judaism. What John was doing might be thought of as something of an improvisational take on that familiar ritual; taking it out to the River Jordan, and proclaiming it a very specific sign of repentance in preparation for the coming of the promised Messiah. Even here John may have been influenced by the practices and theology of a group called the Essenes; an almost monastic branch of Judaism that had a powerful expectation of the Messiah’s arrival and a rigorous practice of ritual cleansing. Biblical scholars have long speculated that John’s ministry might well have been shaped in an Essene community, and that his use of baptism was informed by their powerful call to repentance and purity as preparation for the coming of judgment.
Regardless of how he came to the practice, certainly as Matthew relates the story John isn’t sure he should be offering it to Jesus. Reading the story back through the lenses and assumptions of the long Christian interpretive tradition, its easy to imagine that because this baptism was one of a “repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” John might have thought baptizing Jesus was simply unnecessary. Yet in the view of the New Testament scholar Mark Allan Powell, “John’s objection to baptizing Jesus is related to a difference in status. John recognizes Jesus to be the ‘more powerful’ one, the one he has been talking about for some time. John himself stands in need of what Jesus has to offer: a greater baptism of Spirit and fire.”
But isn’t it notable that Jesus will have none of it? It is certainly not the only time that Jesus will dismiss the accepted conventions of power, prestige, and status; not the only time that he will upend all expectations. Again and again he will stand with people, in a posture of solidarity and oneness. Powell suspects that this was at the heart of his seeking baptism by John, who “was calling Israel to repentance.” “[T]he primary focus was probably on the sins of the nation. Jesus and others were baptized by John to symbolize a new birth for that nation, a cleansing for the people of God.” John’s own sensibilities just needed to be stretched a bit here, so he could catch a first glimpse of a Messiah with us, and not one who stands over looking down in judgment.
I hear echoes of this exchange with John the Baptist in the account of Jesus’ washing the feet of his disciples. “He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, ‘Lord, are you going to wash my feet?’ Jesus answered, ‘You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.’ Peter said to him, ‘You will never wash my feet.’” But Jesus persists, for he knows how critical it is for Peter to embrace this new model of servant-hood and friendship, yet poor old Peter still manages to miss the point: “Simon Peter said to him, ‘Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!’” (John 13:6-9) Like John the Baptist, Peter was holding so tightly to all of these assumptions…
Peter would begin to get it right in light of the resurrection and under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and all through the Book of Acts we read these accounts of how all sorts of people are welcomed into the community: women and men, Jews and Gentiles, slaves and free. There are all of these stories of unlikely people like the Ethiopian eunuch being baptized by Phillip in a roadside stream or the Roman jailer baptized with his whole family by Paul and Silas in the middle of the night. Matters of status and prestige were discarded, and sometimes even flipped on their head… there’s room here.
As the practice of baptism was claimed by the Christian movement, there did remain a strong sense that it marked a repentance or new beginning not entirely unlike that of which John preached. This is something very much carried forward in our own baptismal liturgy, as it calls on the candidate to renounce all that corrupts and distorts and to embrace Christ as the one who gives light and life. Yet from those early stories in the Book of Acts we can see also see that a primary theme was new identity; new identity as part of this thing called the Body of Christ which steadfastly resists orders of prestige and divisions based on status.
It is into such a vision of the people of God that tonight we welcome Caleb James Phillips. He’s just over two months old and so hardly in a position to be repenting of anything, yet his parents and godparents will use that same strong language about renouncing evil and embracing Christ that would be used for the baptism of an adult. In time Caleb will need to make some of his own decisions as to what he’s going to do with the words spoken over him tonight—maybe he’ll need to do that at various key points over the course of his life. Yet just as the Roman jailer in the Book of Acts simply couldn’t imagine not having his whole family join him in baptism into this new faith, Caleb’s mom and dad can’t imagine not speaking these words over his young life; not having his forehead anointed with the sign of the cross; not marking him as Christ’s own.
And that brings us back to the matter of status. To do this with a child so young is to say that he is not merely one of us, but as fully a member of the Body as anyone else here. Caleb’s grandparents will be moving with us to the back of the church to stand close by the font, and as some of you may know Caleb’s grandfather happens to be our bishop, Donald Phillips. And here’s the thing; what Bishop Don and the rest of us are about to witness is an enacted proclamation that says that at two months of age Caleb is now his equal. Don might be a bishop with not only a theological degree but also a solid science background under his belt, and he might have a fancy title, a purple shirt, and few other trappings of office to go with it, but tonight that matters not one iota. Like the vestments I wear and the symbolic gestures and rituals I use, all of these things are the paraphernalia of religion. In so far as they deepen our lives in Christ and extend the work of his reign, they’re all just fine. More than fine; they’re good.
But even better, with strong words and the water in that font, this night we say “Caleb, you have as much a place here as any purple-shirted dignitary; we are claiming you as fully one of us, and we pray that you in turn will claim that place with joy and boldness. Titles and degrees and honorifics mean nothing next to that foundational proclamation. You are welcome here.”