Preached at Langham, 12th Jan 2020.
We are considering together, this Epiphany, what is God’s call on us – what is God’s heart for us as people, as a congregation, for our village and our world? And today, we reflect on the Baptism of Christ, which very much contributes to our reflection. I want to suggest two things: that this event, Jesus’ own baptism, offers the pattern and template for your own baptism; and that your baptism was the defining event of your life.
This was an event which, like so many others in Jesus’ ministry, took on an existing practice and exploded it, so it offers a whole set of new meanings and possibilities.
In the first instance, Jesus coming for baptism clearly challenged John’s own understanding of what he was doing.
Picture the scene. John the Baptist is standing by the river, magnificently shaggy and ferocious, and dripping wet, because he has been baptising. He does this, as we learn in earlier in Matthew 3, as a token of repentance for sin. And yet, here comes Jesus, walking along the river bank. Jesus, the man whom John called the Lamb of God (John 1:29) – which implies he recognises Jesus as the spotless lamb, the one chosen from the flock as being without flaw and therefore good enough to be the sacrificial victim. So why was sinless Jesus presenting Himself for baptism?
As verse 14 says: “John would have prevented him, saying ‘I need to be baptised by you, and do you come to me?’” He didn’t get it.
So, what happens next? Well, John recognised and acknowledged Jesus’ authority, and went ahead with the baptism. And at that point, all became clear. As Jesus surges back out of the waters, streaming wet, above Him the heavens open. The Holy Spirit of God, in the form of a dove, flutters down and perches on his shoulder. And then, the voice: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
Jesus’ baptism was not a ritual of purification. Jesus is the new Adam, who retraces the whole path of what it can mean to be human, and retraces it without any false step, without rebellion against God, without sin, in other words. Which means that Jesus’ baptism was different: it was the first of a kind, which is why it confused John. Rather than a purification, it was an inauguration. In this event, God unambiguously says “Here He is; this is it.” And in the pouring out of the Holy Spirit, God sends power. In this anointing of the Spirit, God irrevocably involves the whole of God’s divine being in the ministry which is to unfold from this moment.
Let us think, now, about our own baptism.
It is probably unfortunate that we mostly only reflect together on baptism when we are actually doing a baptism. This is unfortunate because there are strong pastoral constraints on what we say and do when we have a babe in arms in the church; and a whole bunch of relatives, dressed up and a bit ill-at-ease. In that situation, quite rightly, we emphasise baptism as a rite of adoption: joining the church family. We want, above all, to be welcoming – and I hope we are.
But there is so much more to baptism. Of course, for you and me, baptism may well be a washing from sin – but too much emphasis on purification is unhelpful. First, because it does not always really explain the facts. Just before Christmas I baptised a quite small baby, just three months old. I am not, myself, convinced that such a little scrap is a sinner in need of purification. And in any event, whether for a baby or an adult, a rite that deals with the past is important – but surely we also need to think about the future, and consider how baptism shapes that future.
The fact of Jesus’ own baptism points us towards two other meanings of baptism: meanings which unite us with Christ; and which do not only deal with the past but also suggest that, if we allow it, your baptism can orientate your whole life.
The first meaning is that in baptism we die and are born again. This is part of the symbolism of what happened to Christ, of course. To descend into water is to descend into chaos, to risk being dissolved and annihilated. And, for Jesus, the willingness to be ritually drowned, and then revived, foreshadowed His resurrection.
Now, I’ve never yet told a mum and dad that I’m going to ritually drown their baby! But you and I need to grasp there is no route to maturity as a Christian that avoids the truth that, as St Paul put it (Galatians 2:20): “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”
What does it mean that I have died? It means that, as baptised people, we are invited to surrender the right to live for ourselves. The dead have no further autonomy. Having died with Christ, we hand over to God our autonomy, the choosing of our own life-goals. And, second, it means that we live for others. In the natural cycle of life and death, those who die become raw materials – compost, or meat – that feed and nourish new life. Having died with Christ means that our purpose is not for self, but for the other.
And the second point about your baptism flows logically from this first. It is that, like Jesus’, your baptism was an inauguration of ministry. Like Jesus, when you were baptised it was not just with water, but also with the Holy Spirit. You were marked with the cross. Perhaps you were anointed with oil; and I’m sure you know that Jesus’ title, the Christ, means “the one who was anointed”. And after that anointing, the whole congregation will have said to you: “Fight valiantly under the banner of Christ against sin, the world and the devil, and continue his faithful soldier and servant to the end of your life.”
A soldier, and a servant. That is what your baptism makes you. You are on active service.
This is so important for the village churches of modern England. We have all grown up in a context where most of the ministry was done by the clergy. But, today is different, and we should sing hosannas that it is so. Because, in the last century or so, the church has recovered the truth that every one of us has a calling, and a ministry. Every single baptised person is placed by God in a particular context – a family, an office, a farm, a club, a village – as God’s soldier and servant, on active service, so as to build the Kingdom of God in that place.
That is not to decry the role and importance of ordained ministry. I have the important role of helping and enabling you to fulfil your ministry. By teaching, presiding in the sacraments, leading and organising to the extent we are gifted to. But these things matter not just in themselves, but because they enable your ministry – they enable you to go out and fulfil God’s calling on your life.
So I end with a call to you to be confident in your calling – individually, as a minister of the Gospel, and collectively, as the people called out to collaborate in God’s mission in your village. One of the stories Langham people tell each other is about how you’ve had lots of different priests, and this has held you back. Well, I won’t say there is no truth in that; but it is not the most important truth. God has blessed you richly – with a wealth of love within the congregation – by calling to this place mature Christians, people who are prepared to work hard for the benefit of church and your neighbours – with more opportunities for mission than we have resources to respond to.
This is not to say that you have everything you want for ministry. You might quite fancy taking on some pattern of ministry that would need massively more people or money. If so, I suggest God might be saying “don’t look to the horizon or envy other parishes; look down, here, at what I have already given you.” You might in fact not have everything you need for ministry – you might need more resources, you might benefit from some training – and if so I hope you will step forward boldly to request such help. But, fundamentally, you have everything you need, because you have Christ, and He has you.
Your baptism was the inauguration of your ministry. You are on active service, and your commanding officer knows what He is doing. Like Christ, you have been anointed with the Holy Spirit; as a member of Christ’s body, you act on His behalf, and in His power. And in this, is joy and peace. Amen.