Text: Matthew 3: 13-17; Acts 10: 34-43; Isaiah 42: 1-9.
This past Sunday we celebrated the Baptism of Jesus, which marks the beginning of his three year ministry. Over the past few years in Church politics, we’ve heard a lot about concepts such as unity or identity. A lot of this discussion centers around questions like, “What do we call ourselves?” or perhaps more accurately, “What do we or others have the right to call ourselves?” “Are you more or less (insert label here) than me?” “You are not really (insert label here) at all!” We say we identify as Christian … or Anglican … or Progressive … or Conservative … the Muddled Middle … We say that we are white, black, Hispanic, or Arab. Regardless of all of these labels and how we identify ourselves according to ethnicity, political leanings, or styles of worship, as Christians we are all followers of Christ and we are all united to him in a virtually universal rite known as baptism.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus comes to his cousin, John the Baptist and requests to be baptized, which is an act of repentance. A natural question that we might ask is “Why would Jesus, the Son of God, insist on being baptized? After all, wasn’t he supposed to be sinless? Why would someone who is sinless participate in a rite of repentance?” The answer Jesus gives is “It is proper for us to fulfill all righteousness,” which suggests a sort of divine requirement. We can talk about the theological ramifications about this until we’re blue in the face, but one of the core things that Jesus’ baptism means is that it is one way in which it unites us to him and to God. Jesus’ baptism shows he is standing in solidarity with the human race he has come to redeem, a race that is helpless to save itself without direct and dramatic intervention from God. Indeed, in The Episcopal Church when we renew our Baptismal Covenant, we answer questions such as “Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ” and “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being?” with “I will with God’s help.” We affirm that apart from God’s help, we cannot do what we are even asking of ourselves. And yet, even Jesus was baptized, and it could be argued he didn’t need any help since he was God Incarnate. However, Jesus, in this act of obedience to “fulfill all righteousness,” the Father puts his seal of approval on Jesus in the form of the Spirit descending upon him as a dove and a voice proclaiming, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.”
Sometimes baptism can be an outward sign of a the work God has already done in someone’s life. Our lesson from Acts this week contains a short sermon from St. Peter at the climax of the conversion of Cornelius, the first Gentile member of the fledgling Church. Peter was resistant, even reluctant to visiting Cornelius’ household and did not want to accept him into the Church as a full member (does any of this sound familiar?) but the overwhelming evidence is that God has accepted Cornelius (ahem!), so Peter can no longer protest with any real credibility. Indeed, Peter’s sermon shows a grudging acceptance that God has accepted the Gentiles into the fold. Peter and the rest of the apostles are unique figures in the history of the Church because they were living witnesses to the risen Christ….and with Cornelius, they are witnesses again, but in a way they don’t expect. Again, God seems to enjoy working by surprising his followers! Immediately after this passage, it is as if the Holy Spirit says “enough of this!” and descends upon Cornelius and his household. Peter is forced to give up his reluctance to fully embrace that God has come to the Gentiles, those thought to be inherently unclean (I’m just sayin …) . He is a witness to God’s outpouring onto the Gentiles, but he is a passive witness while God recognizes Cornelius as part of the Christian community.
What does this vignette of inclusion have to do with the Baptism of Jesus? It is a reminder that our baptism also carries with it the promise of the Holy Spirit. When Jesus was baptized, he was anointed with the Holy Spirit and with power. He is God’s unique agent in Creation, and this event is the start of his ministry. The Spirit of God equips Jesus and has also equipped us to be his servants. The word used in the Old Testament for the Spirit of God was ruah or wind. The book of Isaiah speaks of God’s servant as one who is empowered by the wind of God to do God’s work and blow newness into the world, a work that the world or even the Church might view as impossible. The servant of God brings justice, but not a heavy-handed justice; it is a justice that is caring, gentle, and transforming. Instead of the world’s mantra of the ends justify the means, God’s justice says that the means serve the end result. God’s servant in Isaiah is sent to do God’s purpose and his work .. a work of reconciliation and redemption, which has been God’s intention from the beginning.
Jesus’ baptism in the Jordon River is a coronation. A coronation of a God’s unique servant and agent, and also the coronation of a king, a king who rules in meekness. In our own baptism we are united to the Son of God to follow in his footsteps of servanthood. It is an ordination that is shared by each and every follower of Christ. Jesus does not only preach and teach, but acts. The miracles that Jesus performs during his ministry are nothing less than direct assaults on the power of sin and evil in the world. And so, we too must follow the path that has been blazed before us by the Son of God, to speak against injustice, to do justice and to love mercy … with God’s help.