January 10, 2010

The Sacrament of You

First Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C, RCL

The Baptism of our Lord

January 10, 2010

Today is the first Sunday after the Epiphany, and the day we remember the Baptism of our Lord and Savior. We make a nearly 30 year leap from the day when the Magi appeared at the home of Mary & Joseph to pay homage to the little child Jesus to the day when Jesus begins his earthly ministry. Jesus’ baptism by his cousin John is recorded in all four Gospels in a similar manner, although each has its own signature marks. They all include Jesus in a crowd of people, that this was not an individual event, but one done in community. They all include John’s prophetic statement that he will baptize with water, but one more powerful is coming to bring the kingdom of God to fulfillment. And they all recount that there was a dove descending from the sky and a voice from Heaven naming Jesus as the beloved Son of God. When writing about why the Spirit came down on Jesus as a dove instead of fire, the well-noted Reformation theologian John Calvin said, it "that we may not fear to approach to Christ, who meets us, not in the formidable power of the Spirit, but clothed with gentle and lovely grace."[1]

While each Gospel recounts Christ’s Baptism, each presents a few different details. If we pay careful attention to the particularities of the way each Gospel writer tells the baptismal narrative, it adds some real freshness and depth to the story. John’s Gospel has John the Baptist telling of the descending dove and the voice from heaven. Matthew tells us that John protested, not feeling worthy to baptize Jesus. And Mark’s Gospel says that the dove and the voice came from heaven as Jesus was coming up out of the water.

It is only in Luke’s Gospel that the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus after he is baptized, and, a more important detail, as he is praying. And he was with others who may have been praying, too. The rest of Luke’s Gospel and Luke’s second book, Acts, will show Jesus and his followers deeply engaged in prayer. And that prayer was often followed by some action, either by Jesus himself (in Luke) or by the Holy Spirit (in Acts) or by the Apostles. Let’s hold on to that image of prayer followed by action for a few minutes and talk about the sacrament of Baptism.

Everything I’m about to tell you is in the Book of Common Prayer, beginning on page 857. There are two great sacraments of the Gospel: Baptism and Eucharist. Those are the only two things that Jesus commanded his followers to do in his physical absence. Baptize with water, and share bread and wine as a reminder of his bodily sacrifice for his followers. The Prayer Book-definition of a sacrament is that it is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace, “given by Christ as sure and certain means by which we receive that grace.”

Grace is the unearned, unmerited, undeserved favor God shows us. By grace, our sins are forgiven, our minds are enlightened, our hearts are stirred, and our wills are strengthened.

The outward and visible sign of the Eucharist is the bread and the wine. The inward and spiritual grace is the holy connection we make with Christ, where our bond with Christ and our neighbor is strengthened and we are forgiven of our sins.

The outward and visible sign of Baptism is the water. The inward and spiritual grace is the union with Christ in his death and resurrection, birth into God’s family (the Church), the promise of forgiveness of our sins and a new life in the Holy Spirit.

The Episcopal Church takes Baptism very seriously. We see Baptism as the entry into life in Christ, whether that new life begins at two months of 72 years. And if we have a new life in Christ, then we are full members of the church as well. Much like we say at the start of the marriage liturgy, this is not something to be entered into lightly or unadvisedly. One of the biggest changes to our theology of Baptism with the dawn of the 1979 Prayer Book was to say that Baptism is most “appropriately administered within the Eucharist.” We take these two great sacraments of Christ and we put them together for a powerful, powerful visual that not only is God so close to us we can touch and feel the Holy, but that we are empowered by God to go into the world and share that sacred Love with those we meet.

Jesus’ baptism, as I noted earlier, is set in prayer and with other people, many of whom I imagine would become his followers.

Each of our sacraments, Baptism and Eucharist, has an action, followed by a prayer. After the newly Baptized has had water wash over his or her head, we ask God to give this person or persons an inquiring and discerning heart, a spirit to know God, and the courage and will to persevere. Baptism is something that we believe is going to last a lifetime, and be the start of something new and amazing.

After we have all had the chance to receive the sacrament of the Eucharist, we give thanks to God for accepting us as living members of Christ’s body and heirs of God’s eternal kingdom. And just so we don’t think that the Eucharist is merely a nice little memorial action and not something to strengthen us for ministry, we ask, in one of our prayers, for God to “send us out to do the work you have given us to do, to love and serve you as faithful witnesses of Christ our Lord.”

It’s in that prayer that we remember that the grace that is given to us by God is not ours to keep. Instead, it is ours to share. To keep it to our selves would not be what God intended. Jesus didn’t say to his disciples at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, “Go baptize a few folks, but don’t tell anyone.” He said, “Go into all the world.” That grace may be inward, but it’s not meant to stay there. God intends for each Baptized Christian to carry that grace out into the world, for us, you and me, to be the outward and visible sign of God’s grace to a world that so desperately needs it. God calls and continues to equip each of us to be a sacrament, to be that outward sign of God’s grace.

It may be as simple as a smile to someone at the gas station or as generous as a check to an organization that assists those in need. It may be using the gifts God has given you to help teach a child to read or maybe it is visiting an elderly neighbor whose family doesn’t visit very often.

We are empowered by God to be living sacraments, instruments of God’s grace in the world. For each of us, that call may be different, but it is nonetheless real.

How are you a sacrament of God’s grace?

[1] http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom31.ix.xxx.html

No comments: