Sunday 9th January 2021 Baptism of Christ

Sunday 9 January 2021 Baptism of Christ

 

Collect

 

Eternal Father, who at the baptism of Jesus revealed him to be your Son, anointing him with the Holy Spirit:

grant to us, who are born again by water and the Spirit, that we may be faithful to our calling as your adopted children; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

 

Acts 19. 1-7

 

While Apollos was at Corinth, Paul took the road through the interior and arrived at Ephesus. There he found some disciples and asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” They answered, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.”  So Paul asked, “Then what baptism did you receive?” “John’s baptism,” they replied. Paul said, “John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied. There were about twelve men in all.

 

Mark 1. 4-11

 

And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.  And this was his message: “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with[a] water, but he will baptize you with[b] the Holy Spirit.” At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

 

Reflection

 

Do you remember becoming a member of the Christian Church?  No, probably not, because the membership ceremony took place when you were unaware of its surroundings.  I mean, of course, your baptism, which in most Christian traditions took place while you were an infant.  That is important in that it witnesses to the fact that Baptism, the rite of initiation into the Christian faith, is something God does, it is not something we do or may even be aware of.  Throughout Christian history baptism, in the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, has been the way of witnessing to the faith.  Of course, there have been many varieties of practice, of tradition, of belief, and still are.  I myself, having been brought up in a Christian tradition which did not practise infant baptism, was baptised in the Anglican Church at the age of 15, followed a few days later by confirmation. 

 

Today, the Church celebrates the Baptism of Christ, which encourages us, in addition to considering Christ's baptism, to revisit and consider our own, and its meaning for our life.  Baptism with water  in one form or another was familiar in Judaism, deriving from two strands, one, ritual washing, signifying spiritual cleansing, a practice common in the Qumran community (where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found), with which John the Baptist probably had associations, and the other, proselyte baptism, the method of entry into Judaism for Gentiles.  All the gospel accounts of John's baptism emphasise that this was also for 'repentance for the forgiveness of sins', not just a way feeling guilty about wrongdoing but as an entry into a new way of thinking and living.  John the Baptist, as described in today's Gospel, is clearly in his dress and behaviour a 'throwback' to the Old Testament prophets and so linked the prophecies of the Old Testament of the coming of the  Saviour, the Messiah.

 

So why did Jesus need to be baptised?  That, indeed, is the question posed by John the Baptist which is narrated in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, though not in the Marcan account, which is the one set for today.  John's task was to point to Jesus, 'one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie'  (A task considered so demeaning that it was below even a Jewish slave, and could only be carried out by a Gentile slave).  So, is the 'one more powerful' the longed for Messiah, the One whose coming we have just recently been celebrating?  Then, significantly, John adds, 'I baptise you with water but he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit'.  The Spirit was already a concept familiar in the Old Testament, and, of course, one familiar to us, as the lifegiving source of our Christian faith.  Jesus is therefore the giver of the Holy Spirit, but, in his baptism, he is also the receiver of it, 'the Spirit descending upon him like a dove'.  We are familiar with the picture of the dove as a symbol of the Holy Spirit, the coming of which we celebrate at Pentecost. In today's first reading, Paul in Ephesus meets believers who have 'only' received John's baptism and have not heard of the Holy Spirit so they are then baptised 'in the name of the Lord Jesus' and received the Holy Spirit.  Thus in our own baptism we receive the Holy Spirit, Christ in us, God with us, that which gives us life and strength to proclaim that faith.

 

In all the Gospel accounts of Jesus' baptism the Spirit is associated with the 'heavens  torn open' and the 'voice from heaven' saying 'you are my Son'. Absolutely no ambiguity there but nevertheless,  a strange scene.  Did this revelation appear only to Jesus, or was it witnessed by John and the bystanders, too?  We cannot be sure.  Mark and, following him, Matthew, imply that only Jesus saw and heard this event, Luke tells it only as   'the heavens were opened', whilst in John's account the incident is narrated by John the Baptist.  However, the significance of that is the link with other examples of 'heaven' entering 'earth, particularly the transfiguration and, above all, the 'veil of the temple being 'rent in two' thus making clear that Jesus' baptism was the beginning of his ministry and, more importantly, of the path that would lead him to the cross.

 

Much more could be said of the significance of this passage but, as mentioned at the beginning, throughout the whole life of the Christian Church it is baptism, in the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, which initiates us into Christ's Church.  It is God who bestows this membership on us, not something we do, which is important, and which the mainstream tradition of infant baptism makes clear.  In Acts, and in other early Christian writing we often come across someone 'and all his house' being baptised so this is something for everyone, a rite which does not necessarily depend upon the response of the one being baptised.  There has indeed, been, during the two thousand years of the Christian Church's existence, much controversy and discussion over the practice of baptism, whether of infants, adults, whether by sprinkling, or immersion, whether combined with a mature affirmation of faith, whether as a rite of admission to participation in the Eucharist, and many other questions.

 

However, all the main Christian traditions accept and agree that it is in baptism that we receive the Holy Spirit and become Christ's, whether we respond to this at the time, or make our own affirmation later.  So on this Feast of the Baptism of Jesus, at this particular difficult period in all our lives, when we are not coming together to share faith and worship, when many are afraid, and when, moreover in our benefice, we are being asked to leave the caring and loving ministry we have experienced during Fr Brian's time with us and face an unknown future, we recall the Faith to which we were called in our Baptism and pray that we may 'go forth in the Strength of the Lord'. 

 

 

An early Baptismal Font

 

A decorated font from the Byzantine period

 


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