Preached on 13 January, 2019 at Church of the Ascension, Seattle, Washington
Baptism of our Lord, Year C
You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own. Forever. This may well be the single most important Truth about you and who you are. It’s what the priest says while marking your forehead with oil when you’re baptized; a proclamation of what was already true.
Now here’s the trouble I keep running into. Baptism, like all sacraments, is God’s action. And, it’s a mystery. Not a puzzle-to-be-solved-if we-only-knew-enough mystery, but a truth beyond our ability to explain or even to understand. It is a mystery that can only be experienced.
And so, every attempt to talk about what it means or what is happening or why, always diminishes it. They all fall short. But still we try.
Baptism is about being named and claimed by God as a child of God.
At Jesus’ baptism, God names him and claims him as God’s own. Every year, on the first Sunday after the Epiphany, we celebrate the Baptism of our Lord. Now, each gospel-writer has a somewhat different way of telling the story. This year, we hear from the author of Luke.
First, I want to acknowledge that the baptism John did was not the same as the baptism done through the church. We hear a bit about that in our reading from Acts.
There are a couple of details are unique to Luke. In this account, John speaks of the One who is to come after him as having a winnowing fork in his hand. That he will separate the wheat from the chaff and the chaff will be burned with unquenchable fire. You get the sense that John is expecting judgment, separating the good guys from the bad guys; rewarding the good and punishing the bad.
On the one hand, we often interpret this as being about heaven and hell after we die. On the other hand, it sounds like John is expecting the One to come – whom we know to be Jesus – to meet out judgment right away and set the messed-up world to rights.
That’s not exactly what Jesus does, though, is it? Have you ever noticed that there are a lot of expectations presented that Jesus doesn’t quite fulfill – and in many cases doesn’t even come close?
Maybe there’s another way of understanding the wheat and the chaff and the winnowing fork. In listening to a discussion of this week’s lectionary, I heard one person suggest a different possibility and it got me thinking.
What if the wheat and the chaff are actually within each of us? Every healing, every exorcism, every act of forgiveness is a winnowing, separating the wheat from the chaff. Jesus cleanses us, purifies us, restores us, keeping that which is good and nourishing and fruitful (the wheat) and ridding us of the chaff within us.
Perhaps the judgment of the winnowing fork is not so much about rewarding or punishing our behavior. Rather it is about restoring our souls; setting us to rights within our selves and our relationships and most importantly setting us to rights in our relationship with God through Christ. To my mind, this understanding is more in keeping with the whole of Jesus’ life.
Another detail in Luke’s account is that after Jesus is baptized and is praying, a voice comes from heaven, “You are my beloved son, with you I am well-pleased.” God speaks directly to Jesus. God sees him.
Seeing is a central theme in Luke’s gospel. Over and over again, we will hear that Jesus sees someone; someone whom the others disregard, ignore, dismiss, someone whom they see as unworthy and undeserving.
That word, “You,” focuses our attention on Jesus and calls us to come near and see him more clearly. It call us to see all those whom Jesus sees: those we may be tempted to ignore, avoid, or just plain pretend we don’t see. When God says, “You,” we may even hear God’s voice, God’s call to us, saying “You are my beloved child.” To hear “you” is to be regarded, even favored by God.
And then, then we say that same “you” to others, to those who so desperately need to be seen, to be regarded, to know that they are loved by God.
Baptism is a response to that love. In just a few minutes, we will renew our baptismal vows, recommitting ourselves to a life in Christ. I want to talk a little bit about a couple of those vows.
The first vow in the baptismal covenant is to continue in the apostles teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread and in the prayers. That is about your ongoing involvement in a community of faith. Christianity is not a solitary religion. We need each other; it is a faith practiced in community with others.
Every time someone is baptized, you, the people gathered, vow to do everything in your power to support that person – that infant, that child, that man, that woman, that parent – in their life in Christ.
It doesn’t mean only the individuals whose baptism you attended, as if you’re keeping track. It’s a vow we make to one another – all of us. The truth is, we need one another. This community needs each and every one of you in order to live the life Christ calls us to.
As we move forward through this transition and into this new year, we need to prayerfully discern, What will you do to support this community in its life in Christ?
How will you support the children as they grow in Christ? Their parents and families? The church offers numerous opportunities to share your life, to give of your time and creativity so support one another in order that each may grow into the full stature of Christ and serve the world in his name.
Because, you see, You, each and every one of you, are claimed by God as a beloved child. You are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own. Forever.