Sunday, January 7, 2018

1 Epiphany

Baptism of Our Lord

January 7, 2018

Genesis 1.1-5; Mark 1.4-1

+ As often happens, on occasion, I like to share books with you that I’ve read with you. I recently read a book that  didn’t initially really want to read, but did so at the suggestion of a friend of mine. I was discussing with this friend how my relationship with God has been changing a bit recently. It’s not a big change. Actually, it’s fairly subtle. But I’ve found myself exploring a bit more a more parental relationship with God. (You can take from that psychologically what you will)

The problem, I discovered, was that there is not a whole lot out there about such a relationship. There are lots of books, as we all know, about our relationship with Jesus, about making Jesus the center of our lives, etc.  Which is all very good.

But there’s not a lot about our relationship with God as Parent, as Father. This friend suggested a book I had never heard of before: The Forgotten Father, by an Anglican priest, Thomas Smail.  Smail was a leader in the Charismatic movement in the Church of England and, as such, I was a bit wary of reading the book (I’m a liberal Anglo-Catholic after all). But the book actually blew me away. In fact, it challenged me and disrupted my spiritual life and kind of threw me into kind of spiritual chaos. The book really made me have to question and reexamine much of what I thought I believed and how I prayed.  And it made me confront the fact that I really had not ever given much thought to God as Parent or, more traditionally, God as Father. (I’m trying to use inclusive language here, so please bear with me)

I don’t think many of us have. Certainly, considering the lack of books and lack of real systematic theology I was able to find on the issue, that definitely seems to be the case.

Smail’s book is certainly interesting and one that, as I said, challenged and shook me and disrupted my spiritual life in a way I really didn’t want or need at this point in my life.  I won’t get into all of that today because, to be honest, I haven’t fully processed all of it myself at this point. But, I do have to say that, as I pondered our scripture readings for today this past week, much of what I have been dealing spiritually was brought forward, especially in our Gospel reading for today.

Now, yesterday, of course, was the Feast of the Epiphany. We actually observed it last Wednesday, and today we continue the celebration with the Proclamation of the Date of Easter at this service, with the blessing chalk and the homes of the parish and with the Three Kings Cake we’ll be eating at coffee hour today.  Epiphany is a beautiful feast, though I think it’s a bit anti-climactic, following Christmas.  This word, Epiphany, comes from the Greek word epiphaneia, which means, “manifestation” or “showing forth”.

Epiphany is all about manifestation or “showing forth.” Or to use words that I have used recently: These are very clear signs of God’s reaching out to us.

In our Gospel reading for today, we actually find a very clear example of God’s reaching out to us.  We hear it in the Voice of God proclaiming to Jesus,

“You are…my Beloved; with you I am well pleased,”

We find God reaching out to us in this baptism of God’s Son. And we find God reaching out in God’s Spirit descending as a dove upon Jesus.

It is an incredible event—in the lives of those first followers and in our lives as Christians as well.   Here the standard is set.  In this moment, it has all come together.  In this moment, it is all very clear how this process is happening.  Here the breakthrough has happened to some extent.

For us it’s important because we too are still experiencing the benefits of that event.  And this is where Smail’s book and this spiritual awakening regarding God as Parent plays in.

Yes, we experience in our Gospel the Baptism of Jesus today. But, there’s more than that going on. We are actually celebrating what happened at our own Baptism today.  What was spoken by God about Jesus is spoken about us as well in our baptisms:

“You are my Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Yes, I know: I preach a lot about baptism.  And I don’t just mean that I preach a lot about how much I like doing baptisms.  I preach often about how important each of our baptisms are to us because they are important.  And certainly we all hear a lot about how important Baptism is for us as Christians. But, I realized the other day that I don’t think we really think very often about what baptism is exactly.

Yes, we know there’s water. We know that God is involved in some way. But what really happens in Baptism? Well, whenever we ask these kind of hard questions, it’s always good to take a look at the trusty Catechism, found in the back of our Book of Common Prayer.   There, on page 858, we find this:

Q.
What is Holy Baptism?
A.
Holy Baptism is the sacrament by which God adopts us
as his children and makes us members of Christ's Body,
the Church, and inheritors of the kingdom of God.

So, in Baptism we are essentially adopted by God as one of God’s children. We are made members of the Church (we become Christian). And, as children of our God, we become inheritors of God’s Kingdom. I really love that definition.

So, in Baptism, God becomes our Parent, or to use to the wonderful word we heard in our reading last week from the book of Galatians, We are able to cry out to God Abba.  Abba is simply an affectionate Aramaic word meaning essentially “Daddy.”

Now, I really love that word, “Abba.” And it ties in so well with a sort of renewed sense of this whole God-as-Parent understanding of our spirituality.  I like this word Abba.  And not just because I liked the 1970s Swedish band of the same name. I like the affectionate aspect of the word. I like that it invites into a relational exchange with God.  The fact that we actually have such a relationship with God that we can call God affectionally, “Abba.”

All of this reminds us that  in a very real sense, what happened at Jesus’ baptism happened at our baptisms as well.  We became loved children of our Abba

But, as if that wasn’t enough, another amazing thing happens at Baptism. After the Baptism, when the priest traces a cross on the newly baptized person’s forehead, she or he says,

“You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever.”

This is essential to our belief of what happens at baptism.  And you’ve heard me peach about this over and over again because, in my estimation,  it is so essential. In baptism, we are all marked as Christ’s own.

For ever.

It is a bond that can never be broken. We can try to break it as we please. We can struggle under that bond.

We can squirm and resist it.

We can try to escape it.

But the simple fact is this: we can’t.  For ever is for ever.

No matter how much we may turn our backs on Christ, Christ never turns his back on us.

No matter how much we try to turn away from Christ, to deny Christ, to pick Christ apart and make Christ something other than who he is, Christ never turns his back on us.

Christ never denies us.

What Baptism shows us, more than anything else, is that we always belong to Christ.  It is shows us that Christ will never deny us or turn away from us.  It shows us that, no matter what we might do, we will always be Christ’s.

Always.

For ever.

When we realize that, we also realize that Baptism is THE defining moment in our lives as Christians. Whether we remember the event or not, it was the moment when our lives changed.  It was the moment we became new. It was, truly, our second birth.

I am so happy that we do something as simple as commemorate our baptisms
here at St. Stephen’s.  And that we remember the anniversaries of our baptisms here in the Eucharist each Sunday.  Why shouldn’t we celebrate this anniversary of when we became fully loved and fully accepted children of our Abba and inheritors of God’s Kingdom? Why shouldn’t we celebrate the day in which we were inexorably bound to Christ?
  
What Baptism shows us, more than anything else, is that we always belong and are bound to a truly loving God.  It is shows us that God will never deny us or turn away or be separate from us.  Each of us is accepted and loved and equal to each other as children of a loving, living God.

In this way, Baptism becomes, in so many ways, the truly the great equalizer.  In those waters, we are all bathed—no matter who we are and what we are.  We all emerge from those waters on the same ground—as equals.  And as equals, made equal in the waters of baptism, we are then compelled to go out into the world and treat each other as equals.

In Baptism, we are all equal and all precious and deeply loved by our God.  We are all loved children of our God. Christ will never be separated from us.   We are ablaze with the fire of the Spirit.  In this way, we really have been baptized by fire the Holy Spirit.

And that is also the case with our baptism.  In the same waters all of us, rich or poor, physically perfect or imperfect, were washed. All of us came out of those waters reminded that we are all loved and cherished by our God.

For this reason, Baptism is not some quaint dedication ceremony.  It is the event that still provokes us and compels us to go out into the world and make a difference in it.  Our baptism doesn’t set us apart as a special people above everyone else.  It forces us to see those who share this world with us as children of God, as beloved children of God.  It forces us to realize that just we are bound to Christ, so we are bound to each other as well.  It forces us out into the world to be a part of the world and, by doing so, to transform the world.

So, in those waters of baptism, something incredible happened for us.  We went into those waters one person, and emerged from those waters as something else completely.  It was an incredible moment in our lives, just as it was in the life of Jesus, who led the way and showed us that Baptism is an incredible outpouring of God’s love and light into our lives.

So, with this knowledge of how important it is, let us each take the time to meditate and think about our own baptisms and the implications this incredible event had and still has in our lives.  When we enter this church, and when we leave it, pay attention to the baptismal font in the narthex and the blessed water in it.  Let us touch that water, let us bless ourselves with it, and when we do, let us remember we do so as a reminder of that wonderful event in our lives which we became loved children of a loving God. Let us remember when we touch that water that we are in a special, unbreakable relationship with Christ.  And let that water be a reminder to us that we are called to go now from this church and from this Eucharist we have shared in, to love. To love, full and completely.  

And as we go from here, let us listen for those words—those beautiful, lulling words—that are spoken to each of us, with love and acceptance:

“You are my Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”



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