Baptized Within and Without 

The Rev. Paul Nancarrow. This sermon is based on Mark 1:4-15 

“Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.”  

The Baptism of Jesus is one of the few events of Jesus’ life that is narrated in all four Gospels; and, perhaps not surprisingly, each Gospel tells the story in a slightly different way.  

Matthew says that at first John doesn’t want to baptize Jesus, because John recognizes Jesus, and John says that Jesus ought to be baptizing him 

Luke says that when Jesus is baptized the Holy Spirit comes “in bodily form” like a dove, stressing the physical manifestation of the miracle.  

John narrates the whole incident “offstage,” he doesn’t even show Jesus getting baptized, he just says that John the Baptist told people he saw the Holy Spirit come down on Jesus and remain.  

But in Mark’s account — the account we read today — the distinctive feature of the story is that the manifestation of God in Jesus’ baptism is a private experience which Jesus alone has. Mark says when Jesus was baptized, “just as he was coming up out of the water, he, Jesus, saw the heavens torn apart, and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.” There’s no indication that anyone else saw anything happening. And Mark says that when the heavenly voice speaks, it addresses Jesus directly, in a message meant for Jesus alone: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” The address is in the second person singular — You — and Jesus is the only one who hears it. As Mark tells the story, when Jesus is baptized he has a powerful experience of the love of God and the energy of the Spirit — and that experience is very personal and very private and very much part of Jesus’ own inner life. 

But that personal and private experience of God in baptism leads almost at once to a very public expression of God’s presence in action. Marks says that immediately after his baptism (sometimes I think Mark’s favorite word is “immediately,” he uses it so often in his Gospel) immediately after his baptism, the Spirit drives Jesus out into the wilderness to fast and pray; and as soon as the forty days of fasting are completed, Jesus immediately appears in Galilee, preaching in a very public way, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”  

The personal and private experience of God in Jesus’ baptism leads immediately to a public and outward expression of God in Jesus’ mission. And that’s the way it was with all of Jesus’ ministry: the personal and the public were always in balance. In every way, in all the episodes of Jesus’ life and mission throughout Mark’s Gospel, we don’t ever see the one without also seeing the other. 

And that’s a very important observation for us, because that tells us how our life and our mission ought to be put together as well. We celebrate the Baptism of Jesus because we believe that when we are baptized, we are baptized into Jesus; we believe that, by baptism, our life and ministry takes its shape and its direction and its energy from Jesus’ eternal life and Jesus’ everlasting ministry. So Jesus gives us a model for how the inward, private, personal experience of God and the outward, public, active expression of God work together to make one whole, mature, complete spiritual life. 

And it is important for us to be reminded of that, because it seems like, all too often, we can let the inward and personal dimension of our faith, and the outward and public dimension of our faith, get out of balance with each other.  

We can come to feel that our religion, our spirituality, is all about how we feel, it’s all about how we experience our relationship with God, or Jesus, or the Spirit, or each other, what some people call a “me-and-Jesus” spirituality — and we can downplay how our faith calls us to be active in the world, out there in the messy, risky, unbelieving world, and how our being Christians should make a difference for our community and for our society and for our whole planet.  

Or we can come to think that our religion is all about what we do, that Christianity all boils down to doing good works and engaging in social action and politicking for justice and peace — we can strive to change the world for Christ, and we can forget that the Christian promise is also about changing ourselves, about being redeemed and transformed in ourselves, so that we become new people, filled to overflowing with the love and the joy of Christ.  

I knew of a church once that was very active in all kinds of social ministries, that really strove to make a difference for Jesus in the world. But in the process of doing all these activities they made themselves so anxious and tense and tired that it seemed they were more afraid of disappointing Jesus than they were capable of celebrating and sharing Jesus’ love.  

On the other hand, I spent some time in a parish once that really enjoyed getting together, that loved the sense of home they created for their members, that gave thanks to God for the love they felt for each other. But if you asked them who lived in the houses next door to the church, or what were the issues in the minds of their neighbors, or what difference the church’s being there made to the neighborhood – you were apt to get some blank stares in reply.  

It can be all too easy to fall into thinking that being Christian is all about what we feel, or all about what we do, but losing the deep connection between them.  

But the good news is that balancing the inward and the outward, balancing the public and the private, is what God really wants for us; and because God wants that for us, God will send us the Holy Spirit to make it possible for us — just as God sent the Holy Spirit to Jesus in his baptism, to name him as God’s Beloved, to empower him to express God’s love in a life of ministry. The good news is that experience and expression are both parts of the blessing God promises to us — and with prayer and with patience and with practice, we can learn, like Jesus, to keep those parts of our spiritual lives in a healthy balance, so that we too can know the love of God deep in our own hearts, and show the love of God in the ways we act in the world.  

In a few moments, we will mark our celebration of Jesus’ Baptism by renewing our own Baptismal Covenants. We will make a whole series of promises about how we will live as Christ’s own — by continuing in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, by persevering in resisting evil, by proclaiming good news in word and example, by seeking and serving Christ in all persons, by striving for justice and peace among all people — we will make a whole series of promises about what we will do in a public and outward way to express God’s love as we have come to know it in Christ. But for each of those promises, we will answer, “I will, with Gods help”  and that reminds us of the inward, private, personal grace God offers to each of us to experience God’s love in our own particular needs, in our own particular joys, in our own particular ways. The Baptismal Covenant we share in today is an invitation and a promise to us to be public and private, to be inward and outward, to be loved and to be loving in the love of God.  

And that is what we celebrate when we celebrate the Baptism of Jesus, and our baptism into Jesus, in our worship today. Amen.