a sermon by Fr Matthew Kirby - 1st Sunday after Epiphany.
"I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service. And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God. For I say, through the grace given unto me, to every man that is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think; but to think soberly, according as God hath dealt to every man the measure of faith. For as we have many members in one body, and all members have not the same office: So we, being many, are one body in Christ, and every one members one of another". (Romans 12:1-5)
I will just read that section to you from the letter of St Paul to the Romans. Paul says this "do you not know that all of us that have been baptised into Christ Jesus are baptism into his death. We were buried therefore with him into death. Since Christ was raised from the dead in the glory of the father we too might walk in newness of life where we have been united with him in a death like His we shall certainly be united with Him in a resurrection like His". So, baptism links us to Christ and to his sacrifice and yet we are alive at the end of it. So, we are living sacrifices. In a sense we have been given up in death. Through baptism we crucified the old man - the old humanity - that we may receive God's gift of new life. We become living sacrifices.
I want to talk a little more about the baptism of Christ
The baptism of Christ is the archetype of our baptism. Now the reason I want to look at that is because in the epiphany season that is one of the themes - the baptism of Christ. People are sometimes vaguely aware that in the epiphany we remember the wise men who visited Jesus in his infancy but the interesting thing about the feast of epiphany is that it started as a celebration of Christ's baptism. It got the name epiphany or manifestation because of that, as well as, later on because of the visit of the wise men.
What does it mean to call it the epiphany?
Well, it is the manifestation of who Christ is. We see that at the visit of the wise men where Christ was revealed as God because they worshipped him.
Who was he revealed to who?
Not just to the Jews but to these wise men who were not Jews but Gentiles. Therefore another name for the feast is "the manifestation of Christ to the gentiles".
What has that to do with baptism?
Well, similarly baptism was a kind of epiphany for Christ because it manifested who he was to others. At his baptism the Spirit descended as a dove and a voice was heard from heaven, so again there was this manifestation. This revealing, this unfolding of who Christ was among us.
I want to begin by reading from our prayer book (Book Of Common Prayer - Canada Edition 1962) on the baptism of our lord, a mass we have in this week after epiphany. It can be found if you want to follow along on pages 120 to 121. "The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God; As it is written in the prophets,
Behold, I send my messenger before thy face,
which shall prepare thy way before thee.
The voice of one crying in the wilderness,
Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.
John did baptise in the wilderness, and preach the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. And there went out unto him all the land of Judea, and they of Jerusalem, and were all baptised of him in the river of Jordan, confessing their sins. And John was clothed with camel's hair, and with a girdle of a skin about his loins; and he did eat locusts and wild honey; And preached, saying, There cometh one mightier than I after me, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to stoop down and unloose. I indeed have baptised you with water: but he shall baptise you with the Holy Ghost. And it came to pass in those days, that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and was baptised of John in Jordan. And straightway coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens opened, and the Spirit like a dove descending upon him: And there came a voice from heaven, saying, Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased." (Mark 1:1-11)
So why was Christ baptised when he was without sin and we know that the purpose of baptism is to cleanse from sin? The scriptures teach that repeatedly, yet Christ was without sin and needed no repentance. John the Baptist asked this very question. We find this in one of the other gospels, where we get a little more detail in Matthews gospel. John the Baptist says, why am I baptising you? you should be baptising me. And what is Jesus answer? He says, permit me to be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfil all righteousness.
It was fitting.
Not required because of sin that needed repentance, but it was fitting. Fitting as in appropriately placed in order to teach us and to achieve God's will. To signify something. To symbolise something. To affect the truth. To bring to fulfilment that truth, for Christ says "bring to effect now for thus is fitting for us to fulfil all righteousness". But what does the baptism mean? It is there to make a point, if you will, and to set an example and to fulfil Gods righteousness.
Well, what does it mean?
What is it actually doing having fulfilled that righteousness? Let us unpack this a little further, I’m going to paraphrase or read from things that Thomas Aquinas wrote on this very question. He says "It was fitting for Christ to be baptised" first as Ambrose said in 321 our lord was baptised because he wished not to be cleansed, but to cleanse the waters. "That being purified by the flesh of Christ they that do know sin might have the virtue of baptism" and as Christendom says "that he might bequeath the sanctified waters to those who are yet to be baptised afterwards". So Christ’s baptism is unique, thus the waters cleanse us and something spiritual happens and not just something physical.
Jesus was the one who prepared the waters for our baptism. He made water what is could be. He cleansed the water of it and it cleansed us. The second reason as Christendom says "although Christ was not a sinner yet he did take on a sinful nature and a likeness of sinful flesh". Therefore although he needed not baptism for his own sake yet carnal nature in others had need. Christ was baptised so that he may plunge the old Adam entirely in the water. The point about Christ is that although he was not a sinner he represented us and in a sense took us with him. So, there is a sense in which, when we are baptised we are baptised in Christ’s baptism. He led the way, and he takes our nature with him united to his perfect humanity.
The 3rd reason the St Thomas Aquinas gives and again from the fathers is "He wished to be baptised" as Aquinas gives in a sermon on the epiphany because "He wished to do what He had commanded all to do" and this is what he means by saying "so it is fitting for us to fulfil all righteousness". For as Ambrose says "this is righteousness, to do first thyself that which thou wishes another to do and so encourage others by your example". So, yes! Christ sets us an example and fulfils all righteousness and, if you like, allowing us to imitate him.
Something else that Aquinas points out is this, "it was through the river Jordan that the children of Israel entered into the land of promise". So back in the days just after Moses the Israelites first went into the nation (the land of Israel, the promised land) they actually went over the Jordan, which was miraculously parted for them.
So why was Christ baptised at the Jordan?
Because the river of Jordan symbolises the entrance to the land of promise which for us is eternity with God, the heavenly life, and that’s why Aquinas says "unless a man be born again of water and the holy ghost he will not enter the kingdom of god". Baptism is a kind of entrance, a gateway as the Jordan. The river Jordan itself was an entrance, a gateway to the promised land for the Israelites and Hebrews. So by being baptised in the Jordan were the people of god once miraculously crossed to the promised land Christ showed us that baptism is the entrance into the promised land of heaven, of eternal life with God.
What does baptism have to do with sacrifice?
In submitting to that baptism he sets us an example to follow, but more than that, he identifies with us as sinners which makes his act a precursor to the cross where he identifies with sinners to the point where he takes upon himself the penalty for our sins. So, at baptism we have a kind of forerunner of the cross. At the cross Christ identifies with us sinners and takes our penalty and pays the price. But here in baptism we have a kind of foreshadowing of that where Christ identifies with us and undergoes a symbolic death and resurrection, under the waters and out of the waters. By his baptism he sanctifies the water, he makes it able to baptise us so that we may be sanctified in the spirit. So, these are all the purposes and the meanings of Christ baptism.
It is not just what Jesus and John do with water that is significant or important. At this event something else happens. The Father and The Holy Spirit act. We have the water, we have the dove, and we have the voice. The water signifies that the water cleanses us. The dove signifies that the baptism bestows the Holy Spirit to renew us from within. While the voice assures us that the father has accepted us, adopted us as beloved children of His own.
What did the voice say to Christ?
The voice of the father said "thou art my beloved son" Remember as we heard before, baptism is union with Christ so the voice that spoke to him in a sense speaks to us. By baptism when we are united in faith and repentance we are forgiven, accepted and remade.
We are forgiven with the cleansing of the waters.
We are accepted with the voice that says you are my beloved.
And we are remade as the holy spirit descends upon us.
There is one more thing I want you to notice.
It is here at the precursor to the cross that Christ hears the reassuring voice from heaven, that reassuring voice again a little before he begins his journey to the cross.
In Johns gospel (the 12th chapter) just before the last supper there is the voice from heaven again. Then at the cross itself the voice is silent and it is at the cross that Jesus cries the cry of the forsaken, "My god. My god. Why have thou forsaken me?" (the 1st verse of the 22nd psalm).
So we have the voice "Thou art my beloved son in whom I am well pleased". Then we have the voice later on that says "I will glorify again" thinking of the divine name. Again a voice from heaven responding to something Jesus just said, but then at the cross itself there is no voice.
So it may be with us.
We may experience or observe outward or inward signs of God's favour and action and when those things happen faith is strengthened. There will come a time when in the midst of difficulties we see, hear and feel nothing. We cannot detect God in any obvious way. That is when we will be tempted to despair. That is when we are tempted to forget as if nothing god has done before counts for anything, as if god has no right to our fidelity unless he constantly proves himself.
Christ, though at the cross he cried out and revealed pain and isolation, he also trusted until the very end. For there at the cross he also spoke those words of forgiveness to his executors "Father forgive them for the know not what they do". He speaks words of comfort to the thief that "today you will be with me in paradise". And at the very end he says "into thy hands I commend my spirit". Even though the voice is absent and he feels that sense of abandonment He trusts and He obeys to the very end.
Let us then accept His blessings and the reassurance of the Father with the gratitude and faith including the reassurance he gives us in baptism. Because what is baptism but an outward guarantee of his inward grace towards us. Then let us push on as Jesus did during the dry times when we can hear nothing knowing that he has spoken to us already in the faith that he IS with us, that we are beloved still.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen †
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