Two Sermons on Baptism
I. Sermon on the Baptism of Jesus
Delivered by the Rev. Rhonda J. Rubinson
Church of the Intercession, NYC
January 8, 2016
Text: Luke 3:13-17
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Although today is one of the four days that the church sets aside for baptism, on this Sunday we don’t have any baptisms. Nevertheless, we will renew our baptismal vows in a just a few minutes, reminding us of our own baptism. This is a reminder that we particularly need now in our very unstable and often frightening times.
There are some things you might not know about baptism. You might not know that the Greek word for baptism (“baptizo”) was used in a Greek recipe for making pickles many years before Jesus was born. “Baptizo” meant to dip or to immerse. It did carry the sense of immersing something to effect a permanent change as opposed to a temporary one – this same pickle recipe uses another related word to instruct the pickler to first place the vegetable in boiling water – which would simply cook it – but then the recipe instructs the cook to “baptizo” the vegetable in vinegar, which would make transform its nature.
There are also several Hebrew words about bathing and immersion that carry different but relevant meanings, too. The first is “mikveh,” which is a cleansing bath – you might recognize the word because “mikvehs” are still used today by the Orthodox Jewish community as purification baths. Then there is word “rachatz” which means to “wash off filth” – the prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures use this word all the time. Then there is one more word that we will get to in a little while; I’m going to keep you in suspense for a bit.
All of those senses of transformation, purification, and removal of dirt do, of course, apply to our baptism. But you should also know that in Jesus’ time, there were many water initiation rites for a variety of cults. You could be “baptizoed,” for example into the cult of Isis. The point is that what John the Baptizer was doing in the Jordan River would not have seemed particularly unusual to Jesus or his contemporaries in its ritual form. But the object of John’s baptism was unusual, in fact it was world changing. People were coming to John to repent, because the Kingdom of God – the arrival of Jesus the Messiah – was at hand.
Today commemorates that arrival. Christmas of course celebrates Jesus’ birth, but today is the celebration of the day when Jesus truly arrives. The church calls this day “The Baptism of Our Lord,” which marks the beginning of Jesus’ ministry to the world. We all know that Jesus was baptized, but if I asked you to tell me why he was baptized, I’m not sure that any of us wouldn’t have a very good answer. We are baptized to cleanse us from sin, to make us Christ’s own, to graft us on to the body of the faithful, the church, and to gain us entry into heaven when we die – which are all very good reasons for us to be baptized. But Jesus had no need any of that: he had no sin, as God, he didn’t need to be made one with God, and he certainly did not need a ticket to get into heaven.
So what was Jesus doing when he shows up in the crowd at the Jordan? At first, even John himself doesn’t seem to know why he is there. In our gospel today, Matthew includes a short dialogue between Jesus and John that doesn’t appear in the other gospels. In it John tries to stop Jesus from being baptized, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” – meaning, “You don’t need this.” But Jesus replies, “Let is be so now, for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” “For us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” That’s a curious phrase, and what’s “curiouser” is that almost every English translation from the days of King James Bible right up to the present renders that phrase in exactly the same way.
Now righteousness gets a bad rap in our culture today – to say someone is “righteous” means that we are saying that they are “self-righteous”: arrogant, prideful, and generally obnoxious. But in biblical times, being righteous meant that you followed God – remember that Abraham “believed God” when God told him that he and Sarah would have children although they were very elderly, and the Bible says “it was reckoned to him as righteousness” that he believed against all odds that this strange prophecy could come to pass. His “righteousness” was faith, which in turn was really submission to God’s will, getting in agreement with God about God’s plan for his life, which would in turn would put into effect God’s plan for countless other lives to come in the world.
Later in biblical history, beginning in the time of Moses, righteousness meant faithfully following the Law. Now following the Law has gotten a bad rap, too, since it seems to imply superficial behavior instead of true faith, but Jesus was a good Jew who viewed following the Law as righteous and faithful. The quarrels that he had with the Pharisees over, say, what exactly you could or couldn’t do on the Sabbath were about interpretation, not about the Law itself. It was about obeying God in a community of those obeying God.
As if to prove this point, Jesus includes John in his righteousness – notice he says, “it is proper for us” – meaning him and John – “ to fulfill all righteousness.” It is only then that John consents, and Jesus is baptized. Was this the right decision by both Jesus and John? We know it is because as Jesus arises out of the water, God puts on quite a show! – first the heavens split – not unlike the way the Red Sea was split – and then the Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus’ head like a dove.
Let’s pause here for a moment. I didn’t realize this until I began working on this sermon for today, but the Bible does not say that a bird lands on Jesus’ head, it says that the Spirit came down upon him in the manner of a bird and rested on him, gently, like a dove. This wasn’t a literal bird, despite all of the art works that depict a white dove on Jesus’ head. How do we know for sure that is wasn’t a bird? Well, the Holy Spirit remained with Jesus throughout his life, didn’t it? And Jesus didn’t walk around with a bird on his head. Case closed.
Back to our story. The heavens split, the Spirit comes down, then God speaks, loudly. A voice from heaven says, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” It is a measure of how incredibly important Jesus’ baptism is for his mission that this is the only time in the entire Bible that all three persons of the Holy Trinity are in the same place at the same time – the ONLY time. This is a moment of cosmic significance, not only for Jesus, but for the world.
Why? Let’s take a look at what Jesus accomplishes by this one brief act. He joins the liberation of the world from sin and death to the liberation familiar to all of Israel in the Exodus. Also, both liberations involve water; both have God splitting seas in both heaven and earth that cannot under normal circumstances be parted.
But that’s just the beginning. Jesus’ presence in the water with the Spirit is what sanctifies our water of baptism – you remember that when we fill our baptismal font, we pray “now sanctify this water by the power of the Spirit” – it is Jesus’ own baptism that makes this possible. The early church fathers pointed to the sanctification of baptismal water as the reason for Jesus himself to be baptized – to give us, to transfer to us, this gift of the Spirit through water.
Now remember I told you that there was one other Hebrew word that relates to baptism? That word is “nachal” and it means “to save from death by drowning.” You know the psalm line “He drew me out of the deep waters”? That’s this word, that’s what we’re speaking of here. Death by drowning was a terrifying thing in biblical times. You see it happen many times in the Bible, as when the Pharaoh’s charioteers are drowned pursuing Israel. The fear of drowning is also mentioned many times – the storms on the sea of Galilee for example, or Peter walking on water then fearing that he will drown when he loses faith and falls in.
Baptism carries the ultimate message of Jesus Christ, that nothing can harm us if we stay in him: not opposition, not sickness, not even death. All are temporary conditions for those who love God, for them that are called to his purpose. So anything that is meant for our harm can be turned to our good – even dangerous water, stormy seas, any kind of sea, even the seas of life – cannot overcome us because the waters that threatened us have been turned around into a tool for our salvation in the waters of baptism.
This is what we must remember in these troubling times. We are baptized. We are marked as Christ’s own forever. Whatever comes against us, Christ is with us, and whatever impediment or even injury comes our way, it’s only temporary. We need not be afraid of drowning, because whatever is meant for our harm Christ has already conquered and transformed.
So when you feel fear in the coming days – and you will – for whatever the reason, remind yourself of your baptism. Call on the one who took on our flesh, submitted his will to God’s, suffered himself to be baptized by John, and suffered on the cross all for us. Allow yourself to feel the peace and power of the Spirit, and give thanks for the one who suffered all for our sake. In Christ’s name we pray.
II. Sermon on Remembering Your Baptism
Delivered by the Rev. Rhonda J. Rubinson
Church of the Intercession, NYC
January 10, 2016
Text: Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
How many of you were baptized as babies, and don’t remember it? How many of you were baptized when you were older, and remember your baptism? I am in the second group – I was 29 years old when I was baptized (and confirmed) by the late Bishop Paul Moore at the nearly four-hour Easter Vigil liturgy at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.
Now even though I was very much an adult when I was baptized, I don’t recall the experience as a particularly spiritual one. Many of you have heard me share the story of my baptism, so please forgive me if you’ve heard this.
My baptismal preparation was given by the late Canon John Luce at the Cathedral; he gave us two books to read, and we met for six weeks to talk about the books and baptism.
Now I grew close to Canon Luce over many years, and he had many strengths as a priest, but a great memory was not one of them. He never learned that my name was Rhonda and not Rhoda. So for six weeks during the baptism classes Canon Luce called me “Rhoda,” and I would correct him, “My name is Rhonda” but it never stuck. So naturally when he presented me to Bp. Moore for baptism on that Easter Eve – and I felt this coming – he clapped his hand on my shoulder and said “I present Rhoda to receive the sacrament of baptism” and I had to jump up and down to get Bp. Moore’s attention – remember, he was very tall, and I’m not – and point at my name tag and say “I’m Rhonda, I’m Rhonda.” Bp. Moore looked down at me, confused, but then did baptize me as “Rhonda.” He found the whole thing very amusing, so after I was baptized and sealed with oil, he hugged me. Because he was so tall my nose scraped across his rope cincture that bled all over my nice white baptism blazer for the rest of the night. So much for the sanctity of the sacrament of baptism.
Even without the bloody nose, though, I don’t think I would have been half aware of what was truly happening to me as I was baptized, even though I had 6 weeks of classes and read two very good books, which is more preparation than most catechumens get these days. As we well know, what is common nowadays is that we receive a phone call or email from new parents who want to get their infant baptized, either because they are pressured to do so by their own parents or grandparents or out of fear that their baby won’t be in heaven if God forbid something happens.
Infant baptism was not common in the early church; they believed that a child had to reach at least age 8 or so in order to understand and agree to the sacrament. But obviously we baptize infants today, so the church has adjusted our preparation, downward: we give the parents and the godparents a class or two. Then they come church on the day of the baptism, after which they usually vanish, never to be seen again.
This is in stark contrast to the early church, which took baptism very seriously. For many centuries, three years of baptismal preparation were required. Back then, if you were a catechumen (that’s the person undergoing the preparation for baptism, receiving catechesis) you attended many classes, you were required to read the Bible daily and take part in Bible studies, you were expected to fast frequently and attend all-night vigils, and you were given the rite of exorcism repeatedly to help cleanse them of evil spirits. You were also watched very closely to determine your manner of life: Were you humble and honest? Did you visit the sick? Give money and food to widows and orphans? If there was any doubt about your qualifications in any of these areas, you were not baptized.
One of my favorite records of that kind of early, extensive baptismal preparation are the lectures of Saint Cyril, Bishop of Jerusalem in the 4th century, whose life was so holy that he is considered a saint by everybody – the Roman Catholic, Easter Orthodox and Anglican churches. What has come down to us from 1600 years ago are a set of 24 lectures designed to instruct the catechumen on every phrase in the baptismal vows separately, as well as on other subjects like penitence and fasting.
But if all of this sounds like it might be dreary, or even a bit much, that is because we have lost sight of what St. Cyril saw very clearly, which is the true nature of baptism. Here are the first words he would say to his new students desiring baptism, before they took their very first class:
Already there is an odor of blessedness upon you, O ye who are soon to be enlightened: already are ye gathering the spiritual flowers, to weave heavenly crowns: already the fragrance of the Holy Spirit has breathed upon you: already have ye gathered round the vestibule of the King’s palace; may ye be led in also by the King! Thus far there has been an inscription of your name, and a call to service, and torches of the bridal train, and a longing for heavenly citizenship, and a good purpose, and hope intended thereon.
St. Cyril goes on and on, but I’ll stop there. I want to call attention to just a few of the surprising aspects of what I just quoted. First, notice that St. Cyril is certain that desire for baptism is a call from God, not something you do as a result of pressure from others or to conform: the catechumen is someone who is responding to Jesus’ invitation to join the body of Christ, with the holiness of life that that requires. Cyril also strongly believed that baptism makes you an instant citizen in God’s kingdom: once baptized, the believer gets to enter the King’s palace – Christ’s palace – escorted by none other than Jesus himself.
Also notice that, even though there is plenty of penitence in his catechumens’ futures, Saint Cyril says nothing at all about sin in his introduction. This is very wise – it always amazes me what great psychologists Jesus and the early church fathers and mothers were, thousands of years before we ever heard of Freud or Jung. They took it for granted that everybody was a sinner, but the way they dealt with the problem was not to say, “just don’t sin,” but rather to give people a vision of who they could be in contrast to who they were at that moment. It is a great truth of the human psyche that you cannot just stop doing something bad without replacing it with something good, or it will not work.
So even before bringing up the subject of sin, Saint Cyril gives his students a vision of themselves filled with light instead of darkness. In the early church baptism was called “enlightenment” and the baptized were called “the enlightened,” as Cyril says in his very first sentence: “Already there is an odor of blessedness upon you, O ye who are soon to be enlightened.” His new students could also look forward to being filled with the fragrant breath of the Holy Spirit, all to replace the stains of sin and darkness.
It wasn’t only the instruction that was more extensive in the early church; there were also more elements to the sacrament itself. Of course there were (and still are) different rituals in different places, but one early tradition that I’m rather sorry got lost was that of including a mixture of milk and honey in the Eucharist for the newly baptized: first they would receive bread, then milk and honey, and last, wine. The symbolism is beautiful: the newly baptized were now in the Promised Land, the land flowing with milk and honey.
There are also some early traditions that have remained, but which have acquired new meaning over the years. For example, the oil still used to seal the newly baptized is olive oil mixed with balsam; it is called “chrism” meaning “anointing oil” which of course refers to Christ, “the anointed one.” The balsam is what’s interesting – there are several different kinds of oil we use in the church, but we can tell baptismal oil from the others because only chrism smells of balsam, which to us means that it smells like Christmas, like fir trees. I doubt that chrism smelled like Christmas to middle easterners of the 1st century, but the association for us now is profound: the newly baptized Christian is newly born, just like the baby Jesus at Christmas.
Which brings us to the final way I’d like us to recover the true meaning of our baptism. When Jesus is baptized in the Jordan, the gospel says that he heard a voice from heaven: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” I don’t think that we know that we are all meant to hear that voice, the one that calls us God’s beloved. Yes, Jesus was the Son of God, but when we are baptized into the body of Christ we share in his identity as God’s Beloved.
And we also share in his light: the light that came into the world with Jesus. I’ve always rather wondered why Jesus had to be baptized. He did not need cleansing of his soul or forgiveness of sins. But as we spoke about last week, Jesus did mature into his identity, and I think his baptism was a part of that growth, that process. What his baptism gave Jesus was light – enlightenment, as St. Cyril said. The Jesus that went into the Jordan River was an anonymous young man, the Jesus that rose from the waters of the Jordan was Jesus the Christ, the anointed one, and he and everyone around him knew it, because of God’s voice.
So today, even if you were baptized as a baby and don’t remember it, or if you were baptized as an adult and weren’t fully aware at the time of the amazing gifts that God was giving you, we can all learn about our baptism this day, and be thankful. Through baptism, we are sealed by the Holy Spirit, and marked as Christ’s own forever. We are God’s beloved sons and daughters. We are citizens right here and right now, of God’s eternal kingdom, the land flowing with milk and honey, with all of the rights, privileges, and power that citizenship implies. It is up to us to walk in that knowledge and use our baptism to bring others to God by our light. Think how different the world would be, if we all acted truly baptized, as though we truly are God’s beloved children, in whom God is well pleased.