Starting with Baptism
A sermon by the Rev. H. Paul Canady III
Rector of Christ Church, New Bern, NC, on January 12, 2020
Feast of the Baptism of our Lord
When Jesus was Baptized, God, through John, used a practice well known within the Jewish faith to do something new. God often does that: Takes what is known and familiar and uses that to do something new. Over the course of time, followers of Jesus have come to understand Baptism as both adoption into the family of God and a starting point for the ministry to which God has or will call us. The question is, how can we take what is well-known to the practice of our faith and let God use us to renew it, restore it, and leave it for generations of faithful that will come after us?
THAT is a loaded paragraph. So let's unpack it a little.
One of my favorite podcasts right now is called “You’re Wrong About.” It’s two people who take deep dives into headline grabbing events from American history and look at what the public story missed. They bring well-known incidents, like the OJ Simpson trial and the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan saga, back into the conversation in hopes that the listener will see it in a way that was most likely forgotten. The episodes aren’t short, but they are entertaining. And they are really revealing about the backstory that often went untold. One of the (I think) untended traits of the show is, after the chit-chat at the beginning, one of the hosts always says something along the lines of, “OK. So where to start with this story.” One of the pair has done all the research and presents it to their co-host, who then interjects their own memories of those incidents and asks clarifying questions. Their point in saying “where do we start” is that the back story that led to the headline events is always more complex than we realize. But knowing that backstory helps us see it all with new eyes.
Every year in our church calendar, the Sunday after January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany, we celebrate the Baptism of Jesus. It’s one of several days our Book of Common Prayer says is a most appropriate day for Baptisms, which we will do at our 11:00am service today. The Baptism of Jesus is the launch of his public ministry. He didn’t really do that three weeks after he was born; it was more like 30 years. It’s one of the few events that is recorded in all four Gospels. Each Gospel has its own perspective on the event, and each one has a few details that are unique to that writer. But what they all have in common is that, at least according to these four authors, Jesus does nothing related to his mission and ministry until he his Baptized by his cousin John in the River Jordan. And like every good saga, there’s a good backstory and reasons why Jesus was Baptized, even as we proclaim that he lived a sinless life. See, Jesus and John had been hovering around the same circle for a while. And people were going to John for his fiery preaching and a chance to get to turn their lives. Maybe there was a hope they could oust the Roman occupiers if they could get right with God. Maybe they just liked being called a brood of vipers. Either way, there was something attractive and mesmerizing about this guy. While people were going to hear and see what John was doing, the Gospel writers also infer people were also hanging around Jesus, too. So when Jesus comes to John for Baptism and John protests and Jesus says, “it is to fulfill all righteousness,” and John says, “OK, I’ll Baptize you,” God in the person of Jesus is again becoming vulnerable to become more approachable and relatable. It’s a moment that maybe the people at the time, even John, didn’t necessarily recognize as one that would change the course of history, the course of the geo-political world, and certainly the course of religion.
Baptism wasn’t something new or unique to John. Ritual washing had been a part of Jewish practice for nearly a thousand years by the time John comes on the scene. It was most often used for one of a dozen or more ways one might be unclean to enter the Temple or the synagogue. Sometimes, it was as simple as washing hands or feet or another part. Other times called for immersion of the whole body into the water. The sins and offenses John preached against called for that full immersion not merely to be forgiven of sins, but to wash away the impurities of the corrupt world. This devotion to John the Baptists’ teachings still exist in an ethnoreligious group called the Mandaeans, who thrived in Iraq, Syria, and other parts of the Middle East.
In Jesus’ Baptism, God takes what was already there, what already was a well-known part of the faith, and God renewed, refreshed, and reinvigorated its meaning. God used this moment not as a simple act of purifying, because Jesus didn’t need purifying, but God used it as a chance for humanity to see how God is doing something new. And in the course of reflecting on Jesus’ life and ministry, we have learned to see Baptism as the starting point for our own ministry and work as well as being formally marked as Christ’s own forever.
It was quite intentional to choose today, the Feast of the Baptism of our Lord, to launch the congregational phase of the Sacred Sound & Space Campaign. If Baptism is the starting point for our ministry and work in God’s name, then the Baptism of Jesus is a great moment for us, a people empowered by God, to take what is familiar and known and loved and begin to renew it for the generations after us. And as we renew this space, we will renew ourselves and our faith community as well. We started that part in December with the Advent devotion books. We continue it with the Sharing Our Faith series on Wednesday nights, and we will have another program in Lent. We are grateful that gifts have already come in to help us start in the process, that the balcony has already been reinforced to be able to safely accommodate a new organ, and we have been able to seriously explore enhancements to the lighting and lighting system.
Baptism is our starting point for ministry. We don’t all live into that ministry at the same speed or rhythm. Nor should we. The important part is that we work together to build up the Kingdom of God. This campaign isn’t about all of us giving the same amount or trying to out do someone else. It’s about renewing this space that, for generations before us, has been a powerful reminder of God’s love and grace, a space that has been a part of personal and family milestone, and a place where countless people have heard the Holy Spirit’s invitation to go and be the hands, feet, and voice of Jesus in the world. It’s about making sure it will continue to be all those things and more for generations after us.
In the same way that Baptism binds us to Jesus, we envision this campaign binding us closer together as followers of Jesus, that our success isn’t seen just in dollars raised and projects completed, but in deepening relationships across the parish. The podcast “You’re Wrong About” looks back to tell us what we missed at that moment in history. In this moment in the history of Christ Episcopal Church, New Bern, NC, I want people to look back and remember how we grew together, worked together, gave together.
Our three goals for this campaign are to raise the funds we need, to strengthen our individual faith, and to strengthen our community, and to do all those things together, arm-in-arm.
To keep us mindful of that call, I invite you to stand and join in singing “They’ll know we are Christians.” You should find a copy of the words in the pew rack in front of you.