RCL Year A, 1 Epiphany: Baptism of Our Lord
When I was in seminary my liturgics professor, the great Louis Weil, said that he would believe the church finally understood the importance of baptism when we made our baptismal certificates bigger and more prominent than our ordination certificates – something to hang on the wall over all the diplomas and other markers of status. That hasn’t happened yet, of course. But his point was that we can forget and overlook how important baptism is. It’s at least as important as celebrating the Eucharist – Holy Communion. That we do a lot, every week at least – maybe it sometimes becomes mechanical to us, but even so, we’re regularly reminded that it’s important. But baptism only happens once, and for many of us, it happens when we’re too young to resist. It’s easy for it to seem like just a quaint ritual, something we do that’s important to the immediate family but not beyond it. We can mostly ignore our baptism – or ignore the fact that for one reason or another we never got baptized, as the case may be. It’s easy not to think of it much.
But speaking as one who gets to do the baptizing, it feels different: it is an awesome thing to take a child in my arms, or hold an adult close, and put water on them, saying those words: You are baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Talk about a privileged moment – and a moment that carries on for years. A member of my last parish began her journey into the Christian faith talking with me over coffee about who exactly Jesus was. Within a few months, she had joined the church, and I baptized her. And then over the next few years, I prepared her for confirmation by the bishop, performed her marriage to her longtime partner, and supported her as she began her process toward ordination as a priest. This fall, I hope to travel to New York to be there when she is ordained. No wonder in the gospel we just heard, John the Baptist pauses before baptizing Jesus – are you sure you want me to do this?? This is a pretty intimate moment we’re stepping into here. Do you realize that?
Baptism is important – it has weight and meaning even when we don’t fully understand what it is. But sometimes we’ve made it seem important for the wrong reasons. I talked last week about the barriers we sometimes set up for ourselves in church – we are removing one set of barriers by taking out our altar rails for the season, and seeing how it feels. The invitation God offers us is absolutely open – when God calls us to come closer we really are meant to do it, not to hang back and explain why we shouldn’t. But like we do with the Eucharist, we can sometimes make baptism a barrier and not an invitation. When we say that if you aren’t baptized you can’t receive communion – which is still the official doctrine of the church – or if we say that if you’re not baptized you’re not saved and right with God, which thank goodness never was a doctrine of the Episcopal Church, then we make baptism a fence instead of a gate. That’s why we make it clear here at ECA that all are invited to receive communion if they feel drawn to do so. You can be a member of the church even if you’re not baptized. You’re part of God’s family and can gather at God’s table even if you’re not baptized. It doesn’t have to be a barrier to being here.
But if it’s not a barrier, a marker of who is in and who is out, what then does baptism mean?
As I said last week, the word Epiphany, the season we’re in now, means manifestation, God showing God’s self to us. The stories of Epiphany are all about this kind of invitation from God to us. God is made known in Jesus – God draws people to follow, God is in unlikely humble places, God heals, teaches, loves us. And today the message is so very clear, no less than a voice from heaven announcing it: This is my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.
Baptism itself is an epiphany, a revelation of what is true about God with us. Baptism means just what that voice from heaven said: we are loved and affirmed as God’s own just because. We are beloved, and God is well pleased with us – our whole identity is based simply on that. Which is so different from any kind of love and acceptance we get from the world. This is love not because we’re rich or smart or attractive. This is identity not because we buy a certain product. This is straight-up, unconditional love. I made you, and I love you. That’s all there is to say about it.
But since words alone don’t really register very well with us, we do more than just say the words. We use water, a basic element of our planet, a cleanser, essential to our existence, to establish how important this truth is. We use oil, rich fragrant anointer of kings and prophets, on ordinary us, to bring the point home. We gather the whole congregation around to watch and be excited, so that there are others to remind us later that it really happened.
But if you’re not baptized, does that mean you aren’t beloved of God? No. God works out a relationship with each and every person regardless of creed or ritual. Baptism affirms what is already true, names aloud what is already happening so the rest of us can see it. Jesus was beloved of God before he stepped into the river and heard the voice, and so are we.
But oh how powerful that voice, that naming, still is. Words alone don’t make it so, but the words themselves still do matter. Every night when I put the kids to bed I use the baptism words, you are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever. We’ve had a lot of sleepy conversations about just what that means, but what I always say is, it means God loves you forever and always. I want them to know it and have it imprinted on their unconscious that this is true. So that they will remember it, this truth that is true about each and every one of us: we are God’s beloved. No matter what.
It’s hard to remember. Because words alone don’t register very well with us. ‘God loves you’ has a way of just sailing right on by our ears. Because we know all the reasons why that shouldn’t be true. We know all the barriers there really are to that love, because of the mistakes we’ve made, and the times we disappoint others and ourselves, and the times we still keep screwing up no matter how hard we try. We know that there are all kinds of people in the world who don’t think we’re so great, and probably they have good reason for their opinion. And all of those barriers, all of those voices, crowd out that one voice that says otherwise.
So here’s your homework – for each of you, baptized or not. Say this aloud right now for practice: I am God’s beloved. Now every day over this next month I want you to say it to yourself again, when you get up in the morning or when you go to bed at night or sometime during the day when you won’t forget to do it. Say it and say it and say it, and let that voice from heaven fill up more airspace than all the other voices.
Why is that important? Not just because it makes us feel better. Not just to give ourselves pats on the back. It’s important because being God’s beloved is who we really are. It was Jesus’ identity, and it is what led him to live the life he did. And it is our identity, and if we really believe it, it will lead us to live it as well – and to live as though it is others’ identity too, all of us beloved and children of God. That is the epiphany of this day, the message we are given. No barriers – only invitation. Amen.