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On Baptism

Baptism of the Lord, 11 January, 2015
Stephen Duckett, parishioner, St Peter's Eastern Hill

Mark 1:7-11; 1 John 5:1-9; Isaiah 55:1-11; 1 Corinthians 12:12-14

We're still early in the New Year, but the fireworks have faded in our memories and possibly so to have our New Year's resolutions. New Year resolutions have a long tradition. According to Wikipedia, 'the ancient Babylonians made promises to their gods at the start of each year: that they would return borrowed objects and pay their debts. The Romans began each year by making promises to the god Janus, after whom the month of January is named.' And today, many people start the year with vows for change — a set of good intentions about how they are going to change their lives.

In today's Epistle, we have some guidance about what our resolutions ought to be: loving God and carrying out his commandments (1 John 5:2). However, these are not like many other New Year resolutions, passing whims that are forgotten by the end of January, or sometimes even the end of the first week of January. These are instructions for every day, for every year.

The Epistle writer tells us that it should be a joy to abide by this resolution as quote 'his commands are not burdensome, for everyone born of God overcomes the world' (1 John 5:3-4). Unfortunately for me, I find it hard to keep some of his commands, not because they are burdensome though, but because I'm a backslider. I try pretty hard at both the Love of God before all else bit, and the Love your neighbour as myself bit, but I backslide too often on both.

But today's reading from the Hebrew Scriptures has good news for us all, good news which is brought into reality in the New Testament with the presence of Jesus. In Isaiah we hear:

Seek the LORD while he may be found;
call on him while he is near.
Let the wicked forsake their ways
and the unrighteous their thoughts.

And here's the really good promise: 'Let them turn to the LORD, and he will have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will freely pardon.' (Isaiah 55:6-8)

Isaiah is a book about God's salvation. A couple of chapters before the reading we heard today, we have a detailed prophecy of the coming of the Messiah. Isaiah is a book that challenges us. It sets us an ambitious target. In today's reading we hear: 'As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts (higher) than your thoughts.' (Isaiah 55:9).

We can deal with aspirational targets in two ways: we can strive toward them, one step at a time, or we can just give up and say the standard is too high, I'm never going to reach it. As Christians, we're on the former path. We know God sets an ambitious standard, but The Way that Jesus set his followers is to live as close to that path as we can, knowing that when we stray like lost sheep, when we do things which we ought not to do, and leave undone those things which we ought to have done, He is still with us. We slide back, but we don't give up.

Which brings us to today's Gospel. Here we have the story of Jesus' baptism by John the Baptizer. It's a story which appears in each of the synoptic gospels, and parts of it, in modified form, in the fourth gospel, so it must have been pretty important to the early church. An icon has been written of John the Baptizer as one of the 12 displayed in the beams above us, next to Our Lady.

The writer of Mark puts this story right at the start of the gospel. There is a brief introduction to John, positioning him as a prophet of his time and then, wham, here we are. No royal genealogy back to David and Abraham as in Matthew, no divine genealogy back to Adam as in Luke. No stretching the link back to the beginning of the world as in John. In contrast to those ways of highlighting Jesus' importance, the baptism story is Mark's way of signalling that this Jesus guy is a really important person.

Just in case we might miss the importance being highlighted, Mark does it in spades, with threefold emphasis. Mark has John make two strong statements about Jesus' importance, and we have the Holy Spirit also giving an endorsement. The other gospel writers agree on these points of the story too.

John starts by telling us that 'After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie' (Mark 1:7). Hear that? Get it. Jesus is important! In case you missed it, he says it again, but slightly differently: 'I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.' (Mark 1:8). We've not heard anything about the Holy Spirit so far in Mark, so people may have been a bit puzzled by that, but I'm sure they realized that baptism with the Holy Spirit is more important than baptism with water, something I'll come to later.

The final signal that Jesus was important came with the endorsement by God directly: 'You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.' (Mark 1:11). This is a direct communication from God and endorsement of Jesus' earthly ministry.

So right from the start of the first gospel that was written, we have Jesus as a really important person who we should take notice of — and we have baptism. As I said earlier, the writer of Mark puts the Baptism story right at the front of that gospel. It's the start of Jesus' earthly ministry, an earthly ministry that ended in the most bloody and agonizing way. Importantly, though, it's a ministry which didn't end on the cross. It's a ministry that continues today, to right here, to right now. It's a ministry which causes us to reflect a lot on what we should be doing with our lives. To reflect, in the words of today's epistle, how we can love God and carry out his commands.

Which brings me back to the puzzle about the difference between being baptised with water and being baptised with the Holy Spirit. There are a couple of places in the New Testament where the writers talk about baptizing in, with or by the Holy Spirit.[1] And the different references have led to quite some controversy about what being baptised with the Holy Spirit means. Is it synonymous with being 'filled by' the Holy Spirit, as happened at Pentecost?

I think we get some clues about its meaning in a very famous passage in 1 Corinthians, where Paul has this to say:

Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many. (1 Corinthians 12:12-14)

For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body. This suggests to me that we become baptized by the Holy Spirit when we become Christians, we all become part of the one body, in Christ. As Christians—people baptized in the Holy Spirit—we are charged to walk in Jesus' ways. As the Epistle writer suggested, following the Lord should not be burdensome. Isaiah phrased it even more positively:

Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good,
and you will delight in the richest of fare.
Give ear and come to me;
listen, that you may live. (Isaiah 55:2-3)

Walking in Jesus' way will be our delight and will let us live, and indeed, live abundantly (John 10:10).

If we are to do that, to walk in Jesus' way, what should be our resolutions? Given that today is the Feast of the Baptism of Jesus, it is instructive to look at the commitments made at baptisms today.

In the current Prayer Book, parents and godparents are asked a set of questions and make the following commitments on behalf of the child to be baptized. They are asked:

Do you turn to Christ?
They respond: I turn to Christ.
Do you repent of your sins?
I repent of my sins.
Do you reject selfish living, and all that is false and unjust?
I reject them all.
Do you renounce Satan, and all evil?
I renounce all that is evil.
Will you, by God's grace, strive to live as a disciple of Christ, loving God with your whole heart, and your neighbour as yourself, until your life's end?
I will, with God's help.

After the baptism, the priest directs the newly baptized as follows:
Live as a disciple of Christ, fight the good fight, finish the race, keep the faith.

The congregation also supports the newly baptized, and asks that they:
Confess Christ crucified, proclaim his resurrection, look for his coming in glory.

After the passing of the candle, the congregation also says:
Shine as a light in the world, to the glory of God the Father.

These are our baptismal vows. This is what it means to be baptized with the Holy Spirit. This is what we are called, as Christians, to do. Our New Year's resolution should not be a once-a-year thing, but a daily resolution, to live as a disciple of Christ, to fight the good fight, to finish the race, to keep the faith, to confess Christ crucified, to proclaim his resurrection, to look for his coming in glory, and to shine as a light in the world to the glory of God the Father.

And what does all that mean, today, for us here present? In the words of the Epistle, loving God and carrying out his commands. That is, Loving God above all else, above money, above power. And loving our neighbour as ourselves. All our neighbours, not just ones who look and think like us, but our enemies and people who are different too. It means struggling to understand, and thus love, those who kill others in cold blood. It's hard, I know, but it is part of our baptismal commitments.

Today we don't just celebrate Jesus' baptism. We celebrate that Jesus is with us as we struggle to live up to our baptismal vows, vows which should be our resolutions and our prayer, today and every day.

Let us pray. O Lord, we thank you for baptizing us with your Holy Spirit. Help us this day, and every day, to shine as a light in the world, to your glory.


Notes:

  1. In Acts 1:5 Jesus talks about baptizing in the Holy Spirit in a few days' time, but in Acts 6:4 the disciples are described as being 'filled' with the Holy Spirit.


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