The first Sunday of Epiphany
The Baptism of our Lord
12 January 2020
The readings for today are:
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The other day, I was talking to my Evangelical friend about Baptism. Which is kinda appropriate: today we celebrate the Baptism of our Lord, as we read this morning in the gospel of Matthew. But when my friend and I started getting into our discussion, we realized that we both had some pretty different ways of thinking of Baptism. He thought, as many or most Evangelicals do, that baptism is a symbol of something that’s already happened. It doesn’t have any internal meaning, but it’s a way of seeing something that is already taking place, of God coming and dwelling within a person who has made a commitment to Jesus Christ.
For me, and for most liturgical traditions, something really does go on in baptism. We’re changed in some way, we’re brought closer to God and given a new relationship to him through Jesus Christ in the waters of baptism. Baptism is, after all, one of the two great sacraments along with the Eucharist. And sacraments are gifts from God, special acts of grace that draw us closer to the life of the Trinity.
And so we disagreed, pretty fundamentally. I dunno, what do you all think?
Here, Father Tim listened and responded to people in the congregation.
There are, I think, three ways out of this sort of situation. First, we can say that “everybody’s different” and go our separate ways. And that’s just fine if you’re trying to decide whether you like apples or oranges, or if you are wondering what kind of cheese to put on your hamburger, but we’re not dealing with simple choices. We’re talking about our relationship with God, and that’s a bit more serious and important to end with a shrug and a “let’s just agree to be disagree.”
Another way you could solve the disagreement is to force agreement. I could say to my friend, and to all Evangelicals: you’re wrong. You’ve got baptism all wrong, you’re schismatics, you’re heretics. But that sort of thing breaks the Church, which is the Body of Christ.
So what should my friend and I do? Or, to put it more broadly, what do we do with any sort of disagreement in the Church? There are quite a lot of issues in the Church these days that risk to rupture the Body, and there are a number of issues right here in our Episcopal Church, and even our diocese, that push people apart.
Back last summer, the bishop search committee did a few surveys to see what people in the diocese wanted in their new bishop. Remember this? And we gave a bunch of options: spiritual leader, teacher, prophet, activist, liturgist, administrator – stuff like that. And we asked people: choose three of these that you want to see in your next bishop, and choose three that you most certainly DO NOT want to see in your next bishop. And you know what? Some of the things that were in the “definitely want” column were also in the “definitely don’t want” column. Some of us vehemently want something that others vehemently DON’T want. And you know what, we’re not all that different from the rest of the Episcopal church, or, really, the whole Church as a whole.
So what binds us together? How do we live with our differences but still live in deep relationships with one another? My friend, the Evangelical, answered these questions when he answered one of mine about baptism: if baptism is only a symbol for you, with no real inner meaning, why do you do it? And he said, simply: Jesus.
I’m not going to get into Evangelical theology, because I’d probably misrepresent it, but even though baptism for many of them is just a symbol, even though their theology sounds strange to me and doesn’t get it just right, even still, they encounter Jesus in baptism. And I get that, I get that. For Jesus is at the heart of the sacraments for those in the small-c catholic tradition. Jesus is present in the Eucharist – “This is my Body” “This is my Blood” he told us. Jesus is present in the sacrament of Healing, Jesus, who spent his ministry going to the sick and the suffering. Jesus is present in Reconciliation, for it is not to the priest who we confess, but to Jesus; and it is not the priest who absolves us, but the priest speaking the words of Jesus pronounces his mercy and love to the penitent. And in baptism, when we are submerged in water, we are brought into Jesus’ life and his death upon the cross. Jesus is the foundation and life of it all.
And that’s where we agree. We could argue over details – is it the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, or whether we should baptize babies. And those are important details. They teach us how God is with us in this world and how to respect God’s gift to us in Creation and in the Holy Spirit. And I think there are real answers to those details, and I’ll continue to preach the Real Presence and I’ll continue to baptize babies, but at the end of the day, what all this is built on, what truly and wholly matters, is that we are standing on a sure foundation, and that foundation, Jesus Christ himself, the second person of the Trinity, is unshakable.
Today we celebrate baptism, and in baptism we celebrate the community that we were brought into when we were baptized. My mom just found my own baptismal record, and it seems I was baptized in a Lutheran church in New Jersey. Helene was baptized as a child in a Roman Catholic church. Gwendolyn was baptized at All Saints in Sewanee on the same day that our presiding bishop was blessed into his position. Fiona was baptized here, so was Cooper.
Where were you baptized? Whose hands poured water over your head and said, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit?” Were you a little child dressed in white? Or were you an adult, and do you remember being thrust into the dark waters? Whatever the case, at the center of all that was Jesus Christ, for the center of our lives as Christians, and the center of the universe itself, is Jesus Christ.
But what does that mean? What does it mean to have Jesus Christ as the center of your life and of the universe? Well, stay tuned for the next, oh, fifty years, and maybe I’ll be able to speak somewhat to that great and beautiful mystery. But I can say this if you don’t want to stick around that long: on the night in which he was betrayed, on the night that he instituted the blessed sacrament, the Eucharist itself, Jesus gave to his disciples a new commandment: that you should love one another. As he has loved us, so shall we love one another. Then he went to the cross for those he loved.