Sermon for Sunday, January 11, 2015
First Sunday After Epiphany
The Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ
Why would anybody want to be baptized? I mean, being baptized is a lot of responsibility with little to no tangible benefits. Baptism commits us to things like “continuing in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers,” and “persevering in resisting evil, and, whenever we fall into sin… repenting and returning to the Lord.” That’s a lot. And there are almost no tangible benefits, except, maybe, “club membership” and a bit of bread and wine. Given the big commitment and the small payback, why would anybody want to be baptized?
“Why would anybody want to be baptized?” is not just a question that we in our modern, post-Christian society might ask; earlier generations of Christians asked it, too. You may recall the young Augustine, who, going against the wishes and fervent prayers of his mother, resisted for years being baptized. Augustine knew that Baptism would require him to lead a changed life, which he wasn’t ready to do.
This morning’s gospel lesson hints that the question, “Why would anybody want to be baptized?” was asked even earlier than Augustine, even in the first generations of Christians. Christians have wondered for years why Jesus would need to be baptized at all. (Wasn’t he sinless?) Scholars hypothesize that the reason the story of Jesus’ Baptism is in the Bible is because members of the early Christian community, much like Augustine, sought to put off Baptism so that they could go on living lives filled with wine, women and fast cars, as it were. They didn’t want ot live changed lives. Maybe the early gospel writers wrote about Jesus’ Baptism, then, in order to encourage these reluctant candidates to be baptized. “Look,” the Gospel writers said in effect, “even Jesus was baptized. If you want to be a follower of Jesus, why wouldn’t you be baptized, too?”
It’s easy to think of Baptism merely as a kind of ecclesiastical red tape – “If you want to receive communion or be a church member, you need to be baptized” – or it’s easy for us to see Baptism merely as some sort of protective talisman – “If you want things to go well for you at the final judgment, you need to be baptized.” But Baptism is bigger than that. This morning’s gospel lesson and today’s feast – of the Baptism of Our Lord – suggest that Baptism is a way to grow intimacy with Jesus Christ.
Baptism helps us grow in intimacy with Christ because Baptism is an experience that Jesus himself shared. And when we share in an experience that Jesus had, we come to know him better. And… when we know Jesus better, we cannot but come to love him. (For if we know Jesus, how could we possibly not love him?)
Here is a three-fold “rhythm:” Sharing in an experience that Jesus experienced, we can come to know him better. And knowing him we come to love him. This rhythm of experiencing / knowing / loving is true not only of Baptism, but of other events in Jesus’ life. For example, St. Ignatius of Loyola encouraged his brothers in the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) to pray that they might be poor in order that they might better know and love Jesus, who was poor. He encouraged his brothers to pray that they might live in obscurity, so that they might better know and love Jesus, who lived in obscurity. And if it were not possible to experience something Jesus had experienced, Ignatius encouraged his brothers to imagine themselves experiencing it. They could imagine seeing the crowds following Jesus, for example, or what his voice was like when he spoke to the blind beggar by the side of the road. Or they could imagine the way Jesus looked at the rich young ruler, or what the fringe of his garment felt like when the hemorrhaging woman touched it. Or they could imagine what it was like to be in the crowd as Jesus raised the widow of Nain’s son, and so forth. The more we can experience Jesus’ life, the more we come to know him. And the more we come to know him, we cannot but come to love him. (For if we know Jesus, how could we possibly not love him?)
Momentarily we will renew our Baptismal covenant. As we do so, I invite us to imagine what it might have been like for Jesus to be baptized. As we renew our vows, maybe we can imagine what might have been going through Jesus’ mind when he was baptized, how maybe it was a crystallizing moment when he realized the magnitude of his call. As we are sprinkled with cold water, maybe we can imagine what it was like for Jesus to stand in the cold the water of the Jordan River. As we are surrounded by our worshiping community, maybe we can imagine Jesus being surrounded by so many eager to transform their lives.
The more we are able to enter into Jesus’ life and share in Jesus’ experiences, the more we will come to know Jesus. And the more we come to know Jesus, we cannot but come to love him. (For if we know Jesus, how could we possibly not love him?) And I have a hunch that a deeper, more intimate relationship with Jesus Christ is what our hearts, deep-down, really crave. Why not let Baptism take us there?