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The Baptism of the Lord

Fr Simon Tibbs's first sermon, January 13th, 2013

The baptism of Jesus is a problem for the Gospel writers; somewhere between a puzzle and a downright embarrassment. John’s baptism, after all, dealt with sin. Earlier in Chapter three, Luke records that ‘[John] went through the whole Jordan area proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’. The New Testament writers agree that Jesus was unique among human beings in being without sin. Why then should he submit to baptism by John?

Matthew’s Gospel deals with the problem head on, adding in a dialogue between Jesus and John in which the Baptiser questions Jesus about whether it is fitting for him to baptise one who is his superior. John’s Gospel goes so far as to miss out altogether the reference to Jesus being baptised (check it out at home if you don’t believe me).

Luke seems to skate over the difficult issue of why Jesus should need to be baptised by John, or not needing it, should choose to receive it. Instead, he puts the main emphasis on the voice from heaven that affirms Jesus’s special relationship to the father.

In asking the question, ‘why did Jesus receive the baptism of John?’, we are really thinking about two different things. We are thinking about what it meant to the authors who tell the story – this morning, Luke. But we are also thinking about what it meant to Jesus himself. We are twenty-first century men and women, after all, and we cannot help wondering about the psychology.

So let’s think for a moment about Jesus. A young man, perhaps not fully formed as a person (which of us would ever really say that of ourselves?; I hope, in a sense we would never say it, or there would be nothing to learn, nothing to grow into.) A young man, but an adult, shaped by the experience of growing up in a family, and by whatever relationships were significant for him in those hidden years between his childhood and the start of his ministry. Shaped also, I should think, by his experience as a working man, a craftsman trading in the environment of an occupied country, with all its complex cross-currents and tensions, and its economic possibilities. A young man, but I would guess he knew a lot about life already. Added to this, he must have had some special kind of self-awareness, a sense of being set apart.

He hears about John the Baptist, and something wakes up within him. This is it, my moment, my destiny. I must go there.

I wonder if the problem about receiving baptism that we have noted for the Gospel writers is there for Jesus himself. He is not a theologian in our modern sense; perhaps he doesn’t think of himself as sinless, exactly. I rather hope he doesn’t (such a person could hardly help but be unbearable). I think he receives baptism because his intuition tells him it is a good thing to do.

Two aspects of Luke’s account I think show us why it is indeed a good thing for him to do, despite the Gospel writers’ difficulty in unravelling it. First the act of doing it brings about for Jesus a deep and perhaps new intensity of spiritual experience. In Luke’s account the appearance of the spirit descending and the extraordinary, resounding voice, are somehow linked to the intensity of Jesus’s prayer after his baptism.

Secondly, Luke’s account of the baptism of Jesus seems to emphasise his oneness with all the other people who came along to be baptised by John.

The way I interpret it, the intensity of the prayer and the wonder of affirmation by the Father are things that just couldn’t haven’t have happened in a completely private context. Deep down, I think Jesus has come down to the Jordan in search of the truth of who he is. It is in his sense with other people that I believe he finds it.

It is no different for us. We go wrong if we make spirituality too personal, and salvation more of an ‘I’ thing and less of a ‘we’ thing. As regards our spirituality and our salvation, we need each other, and that is the way God intended it.

And if Jesus has made us one with him in receiving the water, we are one with him too in receiving the affirmation of God. The voice is for us also that says, ‘beloved’.

The book says that this is a service of ‘renewing our baptism promises’. We’ve dutifully reproduced that form of words in our Order of Service. But today isn’t really about any promise we might make. Our promises, we know too well, are easily broken. What today is really about is God’s promise to us, the promise that he will truly enable us to be brothers and sisters of his beloved divine Son, and children together of the one heavenly Father.

But you cannot have one thing without the other. To accept Jesus as our brother, is to put ourselves on an equal footing with all the baptised, the old and little children, the wise, the foolish, the charming, the annoying, the wise, the headstrong. To build a community in which none is greater, none less, in which compassion, forbearance and forgiveness routinely triumph over back-biting and power-plays, in which there is never any want of fellow-feeling. In baptism he has given us one another as gifts. He has bound us to one another, making our sameness more important than anything in which we may differ. Differences of opinion or of temperament, controversies over change or the failure to change, and others’ failings – the stuff of which rows in church are so often made – these things are God’s gift to us as He challenges us to grow in holiness in the training-ground of the church.

The water is one thing, but truly it is the spirit and the fire that we seek. Water alone will not convey the new life that is the content of the good news. We need to grow into our baptism, a task that if we engage with it seriously will prove joyful, unnerving, and life-long.

The great occasions of the liturgical year can be wonderfully moving and inspiring. Wednesday night was for me, a moment of hearing with great clarity the resounding voice. Perhaps we will look back on this morning as another such high point. But let us be clear. This way that we follow, the way of Christ, is not just about procuring spiritual highs. Our daily lives must bear out the vision of ourselves and our place in God’s world that we receive here, and so must the relationships within the church.

We say to the newly baptised, ‘Christ claims you for his own’. On this joyful day, on which we pray for a renewal of the promise of baptism, let us ask for grace to honour that claim. Starting with each other.

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