10 January 2016
10.30 Sung Eucharist
The Baptism of Christ
Canon Simon Cowling
Readings: Acts 8. 14-17; Luke 3. 15-17 & 21-22
I like the story of the small boy who came home from church one morning having seen baptisms for the first time. Such was his interest that he proceeded to baptise the three family cats in the bath. The cats were of various ages. The first one, a kitten, bore it very well; and so did the young adult cat. But the old family cat rebelled. It struggled with the small boy, clawed and scratched him, and got away. With considerable effort the small boy caught it again and tried to proceed with the ceremony. But the old cat acted up worse than ever. Finally, unable even to get a small amount of water on the cat, the boy dropped it on the floor in disgust and said: “Fine. Be an atheist!”
Well in Luke’s account of Jesus’s baptism, our Lord is not baptised in a bath; nor does he claw, or scratch, or struggle. Quite the reverse in fact. Jesus’s baptism in the river Jordan is described almost casually, it happens alongside all the other baptisms that are taking place in the Jordan at the same time. And John the Baptist is not a small boy; indeed we can’t even be sure from Luke’s account that it is John who actually baptises Jesus. The three verses omitted between the two paragraphs of our Gospel reading tell how John was arrested and put in prison by Herod. Luke is, at the very least, ambiguous about the timing of John’s arrest and therefore about the part he might or might not have played in Jesus’s baptism.
Be that as it may, the thing that strikes me most forcibly about Jesus’s baptism is its very public nature. Early in my first curacy – and while my Vicar was on holiday – I was approached with a request for baptism. All was going according to the text-book for very green curates, until one of the child’s grandparents said, ‘This will be a private baptism won’t it? We don’t really want to share the day with anyone we don’t know.’ This particular bit of the conversation wasn’t in the text-book, but I did my best. Baptism was about the Church welcoming individuals into the wider family of Jesus Christ, I said, and if other baptisms were requested for the same day so much the better. It didn’t cut much ice and the family left politely enough but rather disgruntled, having suspended hostilities only until the Vicar’s return. Thinking about this encounter afterwards, I reflected that it might have been helpful to have steered them to the Gospel accounts of Jesus’s baptism. After all, there’s nothing private about the river Jordan; plenty of other people are being baptised as well; and there’s a good theological reason why Luke, and the other Gospel writers for that matter, home in on the importance of the baptism of Jesus as a public event: it’s all to do with the word Epiphany.
The Church’s Epiphany season runs all the way through January, and the public nature of Jesus’ baptism in the river Jordan, alongside all those other people, is the reason why the event takes its place alongside the visit of the Magi, the wise men, and the wedding at Cana as one of the great stories of this season: we hear these stories at our Eucharist on successive Sundays in January. Epiphany is a word that simply means an ‘appearance’ or a ‘making clear.’ In different but complementary ways these three stories associated with the season of the Epiphany offer us an unfolding sense, a making clear, of who Jesus is: through the visit of the wise men Jesus is revealed to the Gentiles, the non-Jewish world, as the King of all the nations; through the miracle of the water turned to wine at the wedding at Cana Jesus is shown as the one who both reveals and inaugurates God’s new creation; and through his baptism Jesus is revealed to the people of Israel as the Messiah, the anointed one of God. We have heard Luke describe how the Spirit of God descends on Jesus in the form of a dove and how a voice from heaven declares: ‘you are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’ From this point Jesus is, quite literally, out there. He is publicly revealed and proclaimed as the one in whom God’s loving purposes are to be accomplished.
Later in St Luke’s Gospel Jesus speaks of his death as a baptism; and it is this understanding of baptism, as a kind of death, that Christians have always seen as lying close to the surface of our baptismal relationship with Christ. This relationship involves nothing less than a movement through death, to new life; a movement from slavery to sin, to freedom from sin; from the old self, to the new. St Paul puts it like this: ‘if we have been united with (Christ) in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.’
In a moment we will be able to reflect on our own baptism as we use the Act of Penitence and Dedication. The words to which we shall respond help us to understand both the sublime grandeur of our calling as baptised Christians and our failure fully to live up to that calling; they confront us with the gap between the poverty of our human nature and the riches of God’s grace; they speak of the importance of the death of self and of the embracing of the new life and dignity that is ours in and through Jesus Christ. At the start of a new year in which the anxieties and discontents of the old year remain largely unresolved, may these words, through the grace of God’s Holy Spirit, strengthen us to amend our own lives, and to bring hope into the lives of those bereft of hope.
The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge strove throughout his life to be a faithful advocate of Christ amid the anxieties and discontents of his own time. I end with some lines of his sonnet My baptismal birthday. They capture something of the mystery and intensity of our baptismal relationship with Christ, a relationship that draws us into the eternity of God’s love and God’s life:
In Christ I live! In Christ I draw the breath
Of the true life! Let then Earth, sea, and sky
Make war against me! On my front I show
Their mighty master´s seal. In vain they try
To end my life, that can but end its woe.-
Is that a death-bed where a Christian lies?
Yes! But not his -´tis Death itself there dies.