sermon preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler
First Sunday after the Epiphany: Baptism of Our Lord, January 11, 2015
It's hard to believe, but last Sunday, it was still Christmastime. It was the eleventh day of Christmas, and we sang Christmas carols together. Now Epiphany has passed, the Wise Men have gone home by another road, and we seem to be on fast forward. Already Jesus has increased in wisdom and years to the age of thirty. And today we mark the day of his baptism by John in the River Jordan.
I think that the experience of water may be the most universal human experience of all. We are born through it. We need it to survive. Our bodies are made mostly of it. In ancient Hebrew cosmology, when God began creating all that is, there were already waters over the face of which a wind from God would sweep. In creation, God hollowed out a space in the middle of the primordial waters so that life might exist. Water is life, but water is also chaos and death. Only God’s Word holds back the waters. Indeed, in the story of Noah’s flood, God pulled back the divine hand and allowed the waters to invade the hollowed-out space, destroying nearly all life and washing creation clean again. As we heard in the psalm: “The LORD sits enthroned above the flood.” In chaos and storm and in spite of it, God can always be found.
Much later, it was watery chaos through which the Israelites walked on dry land to freedom. And much later than that, water vapor from the breath of God moistened the dry bones of the people of Israel and resurrected them from exile and despair. So it’s no wonder that it was in water that John baptized Jesus, a simulated drowning, a prefiguring of his death. When we baptize people into the Body of Christ, we pretend to drown them and draw them alive again from the water. We do this to show what God has done and will continue to do throughout their lives. Baptism is a really big deal.
Today we will baptize Eleanor, Everly, Nelmi, and Erik. We will use the tiniest splash of water to stand in for the very waters of chaos through which God saves all of us. They will receive full initiation into God’s Church, the Church that transcends denominational differences, the Church that we humans continue to sustain as a sign on earth of God’s eternal love. These four children will become the world’s newest Christians, and all of us here will promise to help raise them in the Christian faith and life. Though they have parents and godparents, all of us will also become responsible for them! So pay attention to what you are promising. I always remind parents and godparents to hold the congregation to these promises. Furthermore, if these families ever move away, some other church will share the privilege of these promises, and the parents and godparents can feel free to hold those people to the promises as well. We are one Church, and this is what we Christians do.
Christianity is not a solo sport. When we join the Church, we deepen a one-on-one relationship with God, of course. But it’s impossible for that to happen in isolation. We need to be in relationship with each other, because unless we are, Jesus’ commandment to “love one another” makes no sense at all. Our faith is very personal, but it is never private. And that’s hard to wrap our minds around in radically individualistic America. Today, we promise to raise Eleanor, Everly, Nelmi, and Erik with a much deeper understanding: God loves them as individuals, and God loves everyone through them and through all of us—no exceptions. Eleanor, Everly, Nelmi, and Erik will prepare for their baptism after the fact—for the rest of their lives, in fact, with our help.
But baptism is not the only thing we are about today. Today, we will admit Cari into the catechumenal process, the ancient practice of preparation for baptism at the Great Vigil of Easter. Cari’s preparation will take place on Wednesday nights in Journey, and many other people will join her in fellowship and learning every week in order to renew their own baptismal vows in the presence of our bishop in the season of Easter.
Baptism and communion are at the very center of the Christian life. Do go out of your way to meet and become acquainted with the children who are baptized today and their families; with the people who intend to be baptized; and those who intend to renew their baptismal vows. I invite you to pray for them, and also to consider how you, yourself, are living out your baptism these days.
And now, let’s do it. Let’s baptize four people into full membership in Christ’s Body. Let’s admit one other into a process that will lead to baptism at the Great Vigil of Easter on April 4. And let’s honor and pray for those who will renew their baptismal vows during Easter season in the presence of our bishop. Amen.