BAPTISM OF OUR LORD, A
As you well know, the Catechism defines the sacraments as “outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace.” That said, could you possibly put that definition on hold for this morning?
Why? Because that definition was long in the future when Jesus was baptized. John the Baptist was calling people to repent of their sins and to receive baptism as a sign of their sins being forgiven and of their return to a life of righteousness – righteousness in a Jewish context, not a Christian one. Right?
In a general sense, baptism by John represents a transformation. A person goes into the water a sinner and emerges to a life of righteousness. This is similar to rites in other cultures that promise or indicate a similar kind of transformation.
The mystery religions so prevalent in Greek culture around this same time were also about transformation. The very popular one at Eleusis in Greece did a three day initiation rite about which I know very little, except that it made use of bread and wine, and it included a symbolic death and resurrection to new life. The initiation rites of the Mide Society of the Ojibway also include a symbolic death and resurrection to new life.
For John the Baptist, the plunging of a person into the waters of the Jordan, symbolic death by drowning, and raising them up out of the waters to a new life of righteousness, leaving their former life and former sins behind creates a strong sense of transformation.
So what happens when John baptizes Jesus? Unlike Mark’s version, in Matthew John recognizes Jesus as the Messiah and so questions the propriety of his baptizing Jesus. Jesus insists – “for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” So the Baptist proceeds.
It might help to think of the baptism of Jesus being like our sacrament of ordination. There are several distinct parts to our process. When the individual feels called to ordained service, there is also discernment by the faith community and by the Diocese to insure the call is a valid one. Jesus lived long before such rules. However, ordination does provides a public forum in which the person who has been called by God answers, “Yes! Here am I. Send me!”
God has called Jesus to a unique ministry and his baptism marks the beginning of service to that call. Baptism transforms Jesus from a carpenter to a Rabbi, and then some!
Now a full understanding of the Baptism of Jesus depends in part on your underlying theology. If you agree with the Gospel of John and accept that Jesus was fully divine, then you would conclude that he was always without sin and didn’t need baptism. This view then posits his baptism as an outward sign of Jesus standing with his human brothers and sisters. That’s all. No transformation needed.
If you believe Jesus was either wholly human or half human, then there is the distinct possibility that he was not perfect. Then, like us, he could have been standing before John the Baptist in need of forgiveness and a chance at new life. He’s about to embark on a career that tends to have a very short life span. It’s fraught with dangers and temptations; the greatest of which is to run – not walk, but run, fast, in the opposite direction.
The gift of grace in any of the sacraments includes courage, strength, and fearlessness. It includes connecting us or re-connecting us to the Holy Spirit, whose presence in our lives gives us access to these attributes above and beyond what we can do on our own. That connection to God’s love for us and the Holy Spirit’s support for us is what creates the transformation in us.
So – consider any or all of our sacraments. Again, the Catechism says that in Baptism God adopts us as his children. I would say that we are all born children of God and thus see baptism as our assent to and recognition of that relationship. In baptism we agree to be and to behave as children of God. We enter the water as unknowing children of God and emerge as a committed child of God, indeed as a minister of God.
In Eucharist we participate repeatedly in Jesus’s teachings, death and resurrection in order to emerge free of sin and guilt and rededicated to our task as God’s ministers in the world. We also emerge confident in God’s love for us. We arrive flawed and leave strengthened and refreshed for the tasks ahead.
Confirmation is the chance for someone baptized as a baby to say their own “Yes!” to God’s call to them. Matrimony transforms two individuals into a single partnership. Reconciliation does the same work as baptism and Eucharist, but is meant for someone whose connection to God has been seriously severed by sin or trauma or doubt. And unction is a final sacrament to give one added healing, strength and connectedness to God for the journey through physical death.
All of these contain what’s necessary for our transformation, clearly a process that is not a one time event, but something that happens many times in our lives and is meant to refresh and renew us to live as God intends.
Through prayer, whether public or private, we have another means to strengthen and maintain our relationship with God. Jesus, who had to carry on without most of our sacraments, used prayer frequently to renew his pledge to God and to receive encouragement, energy, and healing – maybe even forgiveness for his moments of doubt or uncertainty.
Marcus Borg has claimed that transformation is the central task of the Christian life. With that in mind, let us pray:
We ask you for the ongoing gift of transformation in our lives;
Transform our weaknesses into assets for your service; Transform our pride and self-centeredness into humility and
compassion for others;
Transform our desire to control into trust of you; and Transform our fear into confidence in your promises to us,
so that we may show forth your light in the world. AMEN