January 10, 2004
Sermon for Sunday ....
Well, I've finished the third draft. I'll probably have a major flash of inspiration about 30 seconds before I go into the pulpit, but by then it will be too late.
Tomorrow we celebrate the Baptism of Christ and the lectionary (the table which determines the Bible Readings for various services during the day - it actually works on a daily basis for a year at a time and over a three year cycle!) dictates readings from Acts Chapter 8 verses 14 to 17 and the Gospel reading is from Luke Chapter 3 verse 15 - 17 and then verses 21 & 22. Lukes account of the baptism is possibly the most anodyn of the four! And the Acts reading only serves to confuse an already difficult area in the whole debate on "initiation".
Well, for what its worth you can read my thoughts on the significance of this sacrament by following the link ......
Baptism of Christ (Epiphany 1)
11th January 2004
+ Christ before me, Christ beside me,
Christ to comfort and restore me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.
“Then Peter and John laid their hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit.”
Where I grew up in South Africa there were a lot of splinter Christian groups, many of them exuberant in their worship. Some of them came from a “Baptist” tradition and met at least once a year at a river or dam to conduct baptism services by full immersion. These were always colourful affairs – and there would inevitably be some entertainment and some drama involved. On occasion it was difficult to tell the difference between the Ministers baptizing and the baptized, and the occasional drowning probably added something to the ritual as well.
Looking back, I suspect that the Baptist’s sessions along the Jordan probably wouldn’t have been that different – in fact he would probably have approved. He would probably not have recognized our use of a font, or our somewhat more structured approach to the sacrament of baptism – but, somehow an encounter with the water of the Swilgate or the Mill Avon might have shown him something of our reasoning!
Why do we baptize? What exactly are we doing in baptism – and for some, how should we actually do it? These are probably questions that have been resounding down the centuries, and we still do not have complete answers to the last part at least.
The Western Church has, since the 3rd Century, tended to separate the act of Baptism and the reception of the Holy Spirit into two acts, baptism as an infant during which parents and godparents make the promises, and the act of Confirmation in Faith made before a Bishop in which the individual makes a personal declaration of that faith. This is, in part, an echo of the first reading from Acts, in which the Samaritans receive baptism, but the two Apostles Peter and John must journey separately to Samaria in order to “Confirm” that baptism with the laying on of hands. However, is our practice correct? Is our understanding of this passage complete? Elsewhere in the scriptures we find that baptism and the reception of the Spirit are simultaneous. This suggests that The Samaritans may have been a “special case”.
Certainly the Eastern Church recognizes this in its practice of baptizing, chrysmating and confirming all in one ceremony!
But let us first ask where this tradition has come from.
The Bible gives us three different examples of the use of baptism in a ritual manner. The first is in Leviticus where the priests are to “sprinkle” the people with water “purified” for the purpose. The Prophets use the water of the Jordan (and probably other rivers and lakes as well) for ritual bathing and healing. The Jews themselves used baptism as one of the initiation rites for Gentile converts to Judaism and finally we have John the Baptist offering a ritual washing away of sin in the act of baptism which required the recipient to make a declaration of repentance.
John has probably combined the Jewish initiation ritual with the practices of the Essene community of which he may well have been a member at some stage of his life. The purpose of John’s baptism was the ritual washing away of sin and the declaration of a new start for the recipient. It was to this, then, that Christ came at the start of His ministry. Our gospel reading for today is probably the tamest of the four accounts. Luke tells us only that Christ was baptized – and not necessarily by John himself – and that the Spirit came upon Him as he prayed following this. Matthew tells us of a conversation between Christ and John, Mark, that the Holy Spirit descended on him as he rose from the water and John, that the Baptist pointed out Jesus as the Messiah.
But why did Christ need to be baptized if the action was one of purification and commitment to God? Surely He of all people had no need of either? There are several arguments in answer to this, each having its own merit. Personally I believe it was done for several reasons, first and foremost to identify with His people, second to make a statement of intent and thirdly as an act of self preparation and declaration. Thus, as he has sanctified the act of acceptance in our faith by baptism, it is something we can do in identifying our own commitment to God.
Over the intervening centuries the rituals have changed, we have acquired additional “rules” which can confuse the issues and hide the simple and elegant truth which lies within this sacrament. This is the sacrament where, for the first time in our lives, we confront the throne of Grace and make our own commitment to be God’s own person. In return we receive in the sprinkled water and the prayers of the faithful supporting us, the gift of the Holy Spirit who will guide and sustain us through the journey ahead.
Peter and John had to go to Samaria to lay hands on those who had accepted baptism, but not received the Holy Spirit in that act. We retain the laying on of hands by a Bishop as a symbolic rededication of the individual who is making their own declaration, confirmation of the promises made on their behalf at baptism, yet it is important to remember that the gift of the Holy Spirit was given in the grace of baptism and is not a separate gift at some later point.
Nor should the confirmation of these promises be limited to the day of Confirmation. We should renew our promises as often as we have opportunity to do so, because they are the foundation of our faith – the sole reason we call ourselves Christ’s Church.
In a few minutes we will have the opportunity to commemorate Christ’s Baptism by renewing our own Baptismal vows. As we do so, let us consider how well we have kept those promises in the year gone past, and how we can work to keep them in the year ahead.
“You are my Son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Posted by The Gray Monk at January 10, 2004 07:04 PM