Isaiah 43:1-7; Psalm 29; Acts 8:14-17; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
Today we commemorate the First Sunday after Epiphany, but more importantly, it is the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord. It is one of only six baptismal feasts at which, baptisms may occur in the Episcopal Church and in many mainline churches. In Luke’s gospel account of Jesus’ own baptism (we heard today) John the baptizer told the people, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you withthe Holy Spirit and fire.” Like at Pentecost, today we hear the use of the word fire and Spirit in conjunction with one another. Let me clarify something here about the fire John was talking about, because some folks are a little confused by all this talk of fire and its relation to baptism.
Have you heard the term, “spiritual fire insurance?” It is a misconception that comes from medieval times, when people then, perceived baptism as a magical formula for saving babies from the fires of hell. Even today, some people still believe that baptism is a ritual, done as soon as possible after the child’s birth, to insure the safety of the child’s eternal soul. Baptism is not “spiritual fire insurance,” nor is it a private affair for the child and family, nor is it an empty rite of passage that is once and done, and the child (or adult) is all set. Baptism is the beginning point of a person’s faith journey, and the door into the Body of Christ, which is why the baptismal font is located at the door of the church. Baptism is the holy beginning point of a life-long journey of faith in Christ and life together in the church.
What is Baptism
Baptism is one of two sacraments in the Episcopal Church, the other being Holy Communion. Sacraments are sacred moments through which, an inward grace from God is conveyed with outward symbols, prayer, and action. Interestingly enough, in the church, a Bishop consecrates two pieces of sacred furniture, which are the baptismal font and the Altar. Baptism and Communion are the key connecting points of Christian community, because life as a community begins in the waters of baptism and then, each week we come together for Holy Communion, where we are fed to go out into the world as witness of grace. Baptism is the beginning point and Holy Eucharist is the sustaining point of a cycle of community in which, we experience God’s grace.
At baptism, we are forever changed and made free from those things that keep us from God’s grace and purpose for our lives. At baptism, God promises his Spirit will guide and direct our lives. At baptism, we are brought into union with Christ, with each other and with the Church of every time and place.” (1) Community is the key to baptism and something we often overlook. Baptism is entry into the community and that truth, will turn upside down the idea that baptism is “once and done,” private affair, fire insurance, or an empty rite of passage. Following the example of Jesus, we are a baptismal community not just baptized individuals.
Pastor Heather Carlson writes, “at (Jesus) baptism …. (he) isn’t alone. There are others there, being baptized, and there is someone there to baptize Jesus. Jesus isn’t a religious lone ranger.” (3) There are no authentic Christian lone rangers, because it is impossible to be a growing, transforming, and missional Christian all by yourself. Jesus formed a community of people that began with twelve unlikely characters, and now, the church today is a group of over 2.2 billion people worldwide.
Being a Christian has always been a communal journey of nurturing, growth, and transforming that can only occur through involvement in the life of a congregation. You may ask, “Why do we baptize babies; they are too young to make those commitments and what happens if the parents and godparents do not follow up and never come back.” If that happens, then that is a spiritual tragedy (and sin) because at baptism, parents, Godparents and the entire church make a promise to God, to the child (or adult candidate), and to each other, to help that candidate grow in the faith. We make those promises because as a community, we have a Christian obligation to help one another grow in Christ.
So, we all promise to help children and adults to grow in the faith so, at a mature age, they can stand publically in the church and take on those baptismal promises for themselves, declaring to God and the church present, that they accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior. By the way, that is confirmation, when the Bishop lays hands on their heads as a gesture (an outward sign) confirmingthey have made that mature public affirmation. Baptismal promises are essential elements because they help us understand, and they hold us accountable to who we are, how we live, and what our mission and purpose is as the family of God.
Today, in place of the Nicene Creed, we will renew these promises to each other and to God. Please listen closely to each carefully as we promise to gather, learn, share communion, and pray, grow, transform, and follow Jesus together. We will promise to evangelize, serve others, engage in mission, and to love our neighbors together. We will promise (with this caveat) that we can only do these things “With God’s Help,” knowing we have the Holy Spirit to lead the way.
A community of the baptized, the Body of Christ
God’s Spirit got inside our lives at our baptism, and the Holy Spirit is active in our lives, even when things get a little messy in Christian community. Through the Spirit, we are intertwined like the objects of a mobile that hangs over a baby’s crib. Just remember, you cannot move one object on one side of the mobile, without that movement having an affect on every other piece. There are no decisions, actions, or conversations in the church that can be made in isolation. We are connected by the Spirit of God and so, we must care for one another, because we need one another.
We baptized folk gather together for lots of reasons but hopefully, we gather for growth in Christ and fellowship with one another, and not for the purpose of being merely a religious self-help association. The Church is a lighthouse and not a clubhouse. We do not gather for our own benefit, edification, and sanctification. The Body of Christ’s purpose is to be beacon of hope, for a world, struggling in the darkness of despair. The church guides, moves, and goes out to serve. We move from Font, to Table, and then to the Mission Field, every single week.
From Font to Table to Mission Field
Every Sunday, you may have noticed that I begin the service from the baptismal font, and some of you do the same. My practice is to offer a prayer for God’s help, to dip my hand in the baptismal water, and then I cross myself. The font is where I end the service, including the same action as before, but culminating with the dismissal, “Let us go forth into the world, rejoicing in the power of the Spirit.” These actions are not empty gestures, but serve as a reminder that we as a community live this cycle of faith from the Font, to the Holy Table (fed and filled with Jesus Christ) and then we are sent out into the world to be his ambassadors and witnesses of the Good News of Christ. You know in the Nicene Creed we say, “I believe in one holy catholic and APOSTOLIC church.” We are sent out, which is what apostolic means. We are a community sent out on mission, and by virtue of our baptism, we have given gifts for the Kingdom’s use.
In last week’s sermon I said, “Get ready to discover the spiritual gifts, talents, and passions has God given you, and those gifts which are to be offered back to the King, so he might use them to spread the kingdom.” You do know that each one of you have been given gifts for mission and ministry. You do know that “where your spiritual gifts, given to you by the Holy Spirit at your baptism, meet the world’s greatest needs; that is your ministry.”
What gifts at baptism were you given, when the Holy Spirit brought the grace of this sacrament in your life? Are you a teacher gifted to share God’s word? Then teach! Are you a speaker gifted to read scripture to the church? Then read! Are you a singer gifted to sing and lead others to song? Then sing! Are you a leader gifted with insight, wisdom, and vision? Then lead! Are you (Fill in the blank) gifted to do ministry in this church and in the world? Then do it! You see all of us (clergy and Lay alike) by virtue of our baptism are ALL called by God, into ministry to take what God has given us, and to serve others, both inside, and outside the doors of the church.
“He will baptize you withthe Holy Spirit and fire.” We all need a little baptismal fire lit under us from time to time. We need the fire of the Holy Spirit, to insure us each day that with God’s help, we are enabled to keep those promises each one of us have made. We need the fire of the Holy Spirit, so when we gather together in community, we can strengthened, empowered, and equipped to continue together, Christ’s ministry of love, peace, grace, mercy, and reconciliation for the world. My prayer for all of us is that each week, we too can catch the fire and then, “go in peace to love and SERVE the Lord!”
1 “Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry,” World Council of Churches Faith and Order Paper No. 111, Geneva, 1982, p. 2