All Saints' Episcopal Church

Baptism: Where Stories Meet

A sermon by the Rev. Teri Daily…

We’ve just come through the season of Christmas in the life of the Church, but it’s not as if we’ve wrapped up all the nuances and logistics about what it means that God became truly human in this person, Jesus of Nazareth. There are still things that are difficult to wrap our minds around when it comes to Jesus being both human and divine. The first week after Epiphany always brings us face-to-face with one such conundrum: If John’s baptism was so linked to repentance and forgiveness, which it was, then why did Jesus need to baptized at all?  Why did this sinless person, fully human and fully divine, line up with all the other people, just another face in the crowd, and be baptized?

It’s a question that isn’t lost on the gospel writers; in fact, they seem uncomfortable with the idea of Jesus being baptized. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all write about John’s claim that he was not worthy even to untie the thong of the Messiah’s sandals. Matthew even reports John as saying to Jesus at his baptism: “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” In today’s gospel passage, Luke seems to slip past the baptism as quickly as possible, having the Holy Spirit descend not during the actual baptism itself as in Matthew and Mark, but as Jesus is praying afterwards. I can’t blame Luke for wanting to get past the baptism quickly. We, coming two thousand years later as we do, still ask the question: What does it mean that Jesus was baptized by John?

Well, maybe Jesus’ baptism highlights just what it means to really be human.  To be human is to be present in the world at a certain time and place, to exist in a particular set of circumstances, social structures, systems, and relationships.  One can’t really be human alone.  And so the need to repent isn’t merely about what I have done or haven’t done, although that’s always worth some reflection; instead, it’s also a matter of the story or history of which we are a part.  Sin is for the most part corporate, not individual—and so repentance is about the part I play in the sins of the world.

In her book on original sin, Fall to Violence, theologian Marjorie Suchocki writes of her experience as a member of a jury that convicted a defendant. After the trial, Suchocki began to reflect on the system that she herself was a part of, a system that both formed this defendant into the man he had become and indicted him for the man he had become.  She writes:

The sorry world of the crack house…seemed so distant from my world as the academic dean of a seminary.  But in truth, that “other” world was only a few miles from my home.  Where did that world start, and where did it stop?  “My” world was geographically close, but had I ever intentionally done anything at all to touch the lives in that “other” world?  Was I only involved to judge its inhabitants?  Or was there a sense in which I was a participant in that world as well as mine, even if that participation were as an absentee neighbor? — Marjorie Suchocki [1]

Sin is rarely purely an individual occurrence; it is part of a system, a history, a web of relationships that exists as part of a story. And when God became human in the person of Jesus, God placed God’s self in the very midst of a story – within a lineage of Israelites who had struggled and sinned and returned and hoped, within a system of imperial and socioeconomic oppression.  Perhaps the baptism of Jesus speaks to the system in which he found himself as a human being.

But Jesus’ baptism also reveals another set of relationships – another story – in which Jesus, as divine, is embedded. As Jesus is praying, the heavens open and the Holy Spirit descends upon him in a bodily form like a dove. Then this voice from heaven says, “You are my Son, my child that I love.  I am so pleased with you.” Here we get this glimpse into the very life of God – it’s a revelation, an epiphany.

Only within the context of this story of love that has no beginning and no end, the story of love between the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit – only here in this system of relationships can we know fully who Christ is.  He is the Son of the Father, revealed through the power of the Spirit.  It’s no accident that today’s Old Testament reading highlights God the Father, the Creator, while our epistle reading focuses on God the Spirit.  Because we only know God the Son through his relationship with the Father and the Spirit; we only know the persons of the Trinity through their intersecting stories.

The baptism of Jesus is about overlapping, intersecting stories – both within the divine life and between the human and divine. And the same is true of our baptism as well. Just as Jesus’ baptism reveals that he (as the divine Son of God) joins our human story, our baptism reveals that we are joined to his divine story – that we, too, are beloved children of God. But it doesn’t end there.

See, John the Baptist was an apocalyptic prophet. He announced the coming of the apocalypse – the end of the sinful age in which he found himself and the beginning of the kingdom of God. The baptism with which John baptized the people was about repentance – turning away from complicity with the current system and turning towards the coming of the kingdom of God. When Jesus comes to be baptized by John, he is proclaiming that he is part of a new world order marked by justice, peace, and love. And when the heavens open and the dove descends, God is proclaiming that the coming of this new social order – this new heaven and new earth – has begun in the life and ministry of Jesus.[2] Jesus binds himself to our human story in his baptism, but he also takes the human story to a new place. He joins our story, and then we join his.

That’s why the season of Epiphany doesn’t just tell us who God is; it also tells who we are at the core of our being, and who we are called to be. That’s why the season of Epiphany isn’t just about the intersection of human and divine stories in Jesus’s own life, but about the way our human lives are taken up into the divine plan for the world. That’s why we meet God not just in the dramatic events like those we hear about in scripture (the parting of the Red Sea, manna falling from heaven, or the dissolution of linguistic barriers on the Day of Pentecost), but we also meet God in the day to day lives – the intersecting stories – of those around us.

As we go through this season of Epiphany, may we be aware of the ways our own story intersects with the stories of others. May we turn away from the ways our lives are complicit in the pain and suffering that exists in the word. May we become a manifestation of God’s dream for the world.

 

 

[1] As quoted in Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 1.  Eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor.  Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009, page 238.

[2] Ronald J. Allen, “Commentary on Luke 3:15-17, 21-22,” Working Preacher website, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3934.

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