And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Mark 3:16-17
Baptism is perhaps our oldest Christian ritual. In our various traditions, it is performed by aspersion, affusion or immersion…..in other words, an individual is baptized with water by sprinkling, pouring or dunking. In the Episcopal catechism, we read “Holy Baptism is the sacrament by which God adopts us as his children and makes us members of Christ’s Body, the Church, and inheritors of the kingdom of God.” Through Holy Baptism we are united with Christ in his death and resurrection. This Sacrament, along with Holy Communion are at the heart of our Christian faith and practice.
As evidenced by our Gospel text for today the religious practice of baptism preceded the development of the Christian Church. In Jewish tradition ritual baths were common and the mikvah was practiced by men weekly and monthly by women. However, the baptism that was being performed by John the Baptist in the Jordan River was not your typical cleansing ritual. We read that folks were coming to John for the “baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.” John, the last great prophet was preparing the way for the coming Messiah and getting the people ready for the Kingdom of God, which the Chosen One would bring about. John admonished the people to turn away from their sinful lives and as a sign of their commitment to a new life to be baptized in water.
When Jesus comes to John asking to receive baptism John is reluctant. He apparently recognized Jesus as God’s chosen one and insists that Jesus should be the one baptizing him. Jesus however tells John that this baptism is proper for Jesus to fulfill all righteousness.
For centuries Christians have pondered why it was necessary for the sinless one of God to be baptized if the rite was an expression of repentance and done for the remission of sins. Jesus’ simple explanation that it was the righteous thing to do at the time doesn’t really clear this up. Some theologians suggest that in submitting himself to baptism Jesus was identifying himself with sinners… a prefiguring of his sacrifice on the Cross for the sins of all humanity. Others have suggested that it was an example for those who would follow him. In his own baptism, he established the way for all who would become his disciples. His last comments before his ascension in the Gospel of Matthew hints at this as he told his followers “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,”
Whatever Jesus personal reasons for baptism it is obvious from what followed that his actions pleased God. We read that when Jesus came up from the water the Holy Spirit as a dove descended upon him and a voice from heaven declared “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” This occurrence is celebrated in the Eastern Church as the first appearance of the Holy Trinity…God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.
For Jesus, this moment marked the beginning of his public ministry. From his baptism, he will be driven by the Holy Spirit into the desert to confront the devil. I suspect that having the assurance of his Father’s approval was a source of strength in the spiritual ordeal he experienced in his temptation.
When I was in seminary my liturgy professor, Dr. Louis Weil asked us “What do the sacraments do?” and if we do not think they do anything what is the point of performing them…..are they sacred and powerful events in the life of a believer or merely empty gestures continued out of tradition having form but no function? I confess that I believe that the Sacraments actually do have power…that something profoundly person changing happens during the experience. These ancient and sacred rituals are a means of grace and a conduit for the Holy Spirit.
I was baptized as an adult at an Easter Vigil service at St. Andrew’s on April 12, 1998. I can still recall the feel of the holy water poured on my head….the scent of the oil with which I was anointed and the voice of Bishop Robert Miller declaring me to be sealed and marked as Christ’s own forever. Out of the deep shadow of my former life, I stepped into the light of Christ and felt myself changed in some very real way.
In our baptism, each new Christian follows in the path of our Lord. We are buried with him under the sacred water and rise to a new life….as new creatures….forgiven…reborn by the Holy Spirit in the image of the Christ we serve. If we allow it this baptism is not only in the moment but continues throughout our life as we are being continually remade into the likeness of Christ.
In our baptismal covenant we enter into a sacred relationship with God through Christ Jesus. We promise to continue in the Apostle’s teaching, that we will persist in resisting evil, that we will proclaim the Gospel message in our words and our actions and we commit ourselves to seeking and serving Christ in all persons. These promises are not to be taken lightly. They are life-changing…. They are world-changing. If all Christians truly lived by these tenants we would see the effect in the world. The presence of Christ in our lives would be evident and the Kingdom of God would become present not just to us but to everyone we encounter. These vows are not just words we say but are the blueprint for the Christian life.
In his own baptism our Lord Jesus Christ gave us an example of humble obedience. He himself did not need to repent but in the ritual cleansing he laid down a path for us to follow and made sacred the beginning of His earthly ministry which would come to its fruition in his death and resurrection. At the same time, God announced his approval of his chosen and gave evidence of the power of God working in and through the man Jesus.
When we live into our own baptism we too receive the gift of the Holy Spirit and the approval of God who through Christ will be with us. We too are called to earthly ministry and this sacred rite of passage marks the beginning of our new life in Christ.
Today, as we each renew the vows we made at our baptism let us recommit ourselves to living into those sacred promises. Let us repent of our own failure to follow in the way of love and rededicate ourselves to becoming Christ to the world. We have been given a sacred calling…all of us members of the priesthood of believers…..the disciples of Christ. Let us not be afraid to proclaim the Gospel message of love in our words and our actions and may the Holy Spirit pouring down upon us from God the Father give us the grace and the strength to be the lights of Christ in our generation.