Deeper Into Baptism

The Rev. Paul Nancarrow. This sermon is based on Luke 3:15-17, 21-22.

Has it ever happened to you that you have had an experience – you’ve gone somewhere, or you’ve done something – it is was good, it was enjoyable, it was wonderful, it was meaningful. But it was only later, looking back on it, after you’d had time to reflect and consider and remember, that you realized just how meaningful, just how wonderful it was. Has that ever happened to you?

There is a waterfall outside a small town in northern Michigan; and one summer afternoon many years ago I climbed partway up that waterfall, and sat by a pool with a cascade coming in one side and a cascade falling out the other, and spent a half an hour there thinking and pondering and praying. It was a beautiful moment. But afterwards, many times afterwards, I have returned to that moment in memory and imagination, and the image of that pool has been for me a source of prayer and peace that has become even deeper as time goes on. More reflection has made that moment even more meaningful.

I think something like that happens to Jesus in our Gospel reading today. In his story of Jesus’ Baptism, Luke adds one little detail that neither Mark nor Matthew have. Mark and Matthew say that as Jesus is baptized, as he is coming up out of the water, he sees the heavens opened and the Spirit descending and the Voice that proclaims. But listen to how Luke puts it:

Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove, and a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Luke says that Jesus sees heaven and Spirit and Voice after he is baptized, as he is praying. It’s as if the full meaning of baptism doesn’t come just in the event itself, but only in reflection upon the event. The fullness of Baptism isn’t there just in the ritual alone, but in the activity of praying that surrounds the ritual.

And I think Luke is using this detail not just to tell a story, but to make an important theological point. I think he is telling us that Baptism is not a sacramental one-off, but is the beginning of an entire process of life, a grace that grows in us as we pray and act in the Spirit from Baptism on.

For Jesus, the appearing of the Spirit at Baptism was not just a one-time thing. Jesus’ Baptism was just the beginning of a whole public ministry of making the Spirit of God manifest in the world. Years later, when Peter tried to describe Jesus’ ministry to Romans who did not know the Jewish promise of the Messiah, Peter explained that God anointed Jesus with the Holy Spirit and with power to go about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, because God was with him. The power of praying in the Spirit was the best way Peter had to explain what Jesus’ Baptism was all about.

And not only was Jesus baptized in that Spirit, but Jesus shared the Spirit with those who followed him. Jesus promised his apostles the Spirit would come upon them at Pentecost – and when they were praying in the upper room and the Spirit came to them, they were anointed with the Spirit and with power to proclaim Jesus to the ends of the earth.

And, as we hear in our second reading today, when Peter and John came to some believers in Samaria and laid their hands on them and prayed with them, they also received the Spirit, and then they were anointed with the Spirit and with power so that they too could go about doing good and healing and proclaiming the good news.

The Baptism of Jesus which revealed the Spirit was not just a one-time thing, but it was the beginning of a whole new movement of the Spirit in the world, when prayer and action in many people revealed more and more and more of what Baptism meant.

And that is what Baptism is meant to be for us, too. Baptism for us is not just a one-off, but is the beginning of our growth into the likeness of Jesus, the first step in our having the same kind of relationship with God that Jesus himself has, our being anointed so that God’s Spirit can be made more and more manifest in us, so that we too can be epiphanies of God.

And in our liturgy today we have a great moment of prayer that draws us deeper into the ongoing mystery of our baptisms, prayer that pushes us farther into the action of the Spirit in the world. Praying together our Baptismal Covenant focuses our attention on the epiphany of the Spirit in us.

We grow deeper into Baptism in the way we continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread, and in the prayers. Our relationships in the community of the church, how we treat each other with respect and compassion, how we share with each other in sorrow and in joy, how we lift each other up in prayer and nourish each other in the love of Christ – that is an epiphany of the Spirit of God.

We grow deeper into Baptism in the way we persevere in resisting evil, and whenever we fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord. When we acknowledge our wrongs and ask each other and God for forgiveness, when we turn away from actions that harm and hurt and destroy, and turn toward behaviors that build up, and create, and sustain – that is an epiphany of the Spirit of God.

We grow deeper into Baptism in the way we proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ. We all know that “actions speak louder than words” – when our actions are Christlike, when our actions mirror the love and the forgiveness and the welcome and the new life we see in Jesus in the gospels, then we proclaim good news in the most powerful way possible – and that is an epiphany of the Spirit of God.

We grow deeper into Baptism in the way we seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves. The quality of love that we share with others is not just a showing-forth of Christ in us, but a showing-forth of Christ in them, too, as we learn to see the face of Christ revealed in our friends and neighbors and strangers and enemies, and we learn to serve them for Christ’s sake in love – and that is an epiphany of the Spirit of God.

We grow deeper into Baptism in the way we strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being. When we work together to build right-relationships in our communities, and our nation, and our world; when we give of ourselves for value and well-being in the life of everyone and everything we touch – that is an epiphany of the Spirit of God.

And that is what we are celebrating here today, on this First Sunday after Epiphany, on this feast of the Baptism of our Lord: We celebrate that Jesus was baptized in the Jordan, and that we are baptized with the Spirit, and that Baptism is just the beginning of a whole process of living, and that the prayer and action that come forth from Baptism make us an Epiphany People, a Revealing People, a People of Light, to be a living manifestation of the Spirit of God for the good of the world.

And let us give thanks and praise to God for that! Amen.