EPIPHANY 1—7 January 2007
St. Mark’s, Maquoketa
BCP: Isa 421-9 Ps 8920-29 Ac 1034-38 Luke 315-16,21-22
(c) 2007 William S. J. Moorhead
John answered them all by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming .… He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
Sally Mae had finally agreed to be baptized in her little rural baptist church, and so the whole congregation gathered by the river for the event, and the deacons plunged her into the water, and she came up sputtering, and the preacher said, “Sally Mae, do you believe?” “Yes,” she gasped, “I believe.” Again the deacons plunged her in, and again she managed to croak, “I believe.” A third time she went down, and as she came wheezing up out of the water the preacher asked, “Sally Mae, what do you believe?” And she sputtered, “I believe you people are trying to drown me!”
There’s something so dainty about the way we get baptized in the Episcopal Church. I wonder if that may be a reflection of how dainty we are about the way we live our faith. “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” Do we, in our Christian lives, show much sign of having been baptized with the Holy Spirit and fire?” At least Sally Mae knew she had really been baptized!
John’s baptism was basically a sign of repentance—a symbol of turning back to God and allowing God to cleanse from sin. And there’s no reason why we should doubt that God’s forgiving grace was active in those who received the baptism of John, and that they were given remission of sin and the grace of amendment of life.
And for a long time—especially in Western Christendom, that is, the Christian traditions of Western Europe and subsequently the Americas—the washing away of sin was the primary focus of the way we talked about Christian baptism as well. Even the Nicene Creed itself, in which “we acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins,” encourages this focus; though I would submit that in the Creed “the forgiveness of sins” is an expression of the whole of the reality of the mystery of salvation; but that’s another sermon for another time. It’s a common question in Sunday School, “What’s the difference between John’s baptism and the Christian Sacrament of Baptism?” And even so noted a theologian as John Calvin ended up replying, well, not much, really. But Calvin was wrong here. As on a number of issues.
The washing away of sin is indeed part of the reality of Baptism, but it is not the whole of it. We might even say that the forgiveness of sins comes not in the first instance, but as a consequence of the whole new relationship with God, through Christ, which is established in baptism. Let us hear John the Baptist again: “I baptize you only with water—as a sign of cleansing from sin. But there is one coming after me—one stronger than I, and I am not even worthy to tie his shoelaces for him—and he will baptize you not only with the outward sign of water but with the inward reality of the grace and presence and power of the Holy Spirit, re-creating you, re-generating you, re-forging and re-tempering you, setting you ablaze with God’s love and God’s justice, firing you with zeal for the cause of the Reign of God.”
Our big problem is that we insist on settling for so little. We want to be decent and respectable. What God has in mind for us is to make us firebrands!
The theme of the Epiphany season is the manifestation, the showing forth, of Christ to the world. In the development of the Christian Year, it was not at first the visit of the wise men to Bethlehem that was seen as the primary epiphany or manifestation, but rather Jesus’ baptism—the beginning of his entry upon his adult ministry, the beginning of his mission. In any case, “mission” has become, very appropriately, a major Epiphany theme. And the celebration of the Baptism of Christ on this First Sunday after the Epiphany—and the restoration of the tradition of making this one of the major occasions for baptisms during the year—should help us see more clearly the direct connection between our own baptism into Jesus Christ and the mission in the world to which that baptism commissions us.
You don’t have to belong to the Church to be good; there are lots of good people outside the Church (and lots of stinkers inside, just in case you hadn’t noticed!). You don’t even have to belong to the Church here on earth in order to be saved. (Though if you really care about salvation it seems like it might be a good idea to hook up with that community to which the message of salvation has been primarily entrusted!) Belonging to the Church is being part of the mission force, the proclaimers and enacters of the Good News of God’s Reign. We are the ones to whom the Gospel has been entrusted, that we may enact it in the world, and invite the world into God’s Dominion of love and joy and peace and justice and wholeness. We are God’s firebrands, sent to set the world on fire with God’s burning love, a love which seeks to reconcile the world and heal it and give it new life. The power we bear is the power of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, into whom we are baptized, with whom we have died and in whom we have been raised. The baptism we acknowledge is baptism for the forgiveness of sins—but not just the pardoning of our own misdeeds but the purging and healing and raising-from-death of the world. As the Church, baptized into Christ, members of Christ’s Body, we are God’s agents, God’s presence in the world, Christened as God’s anointed ones. Me! And you! Sent into the world! That doesn’t mean we have to go overseas to some “mission field”—there’s plenty of “world,” plenty of “mission field” right here in Iowa. To be the Church—that’s what Jesus wants of us. Not just to go to Church, not just to belong to the Church, but to be the Church, to be his Church, to carry out his mission in the world. “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”