The Baptism of Our Lord (Epiphany 1), Year B
7 January, AD 2018
St Michael’s Church, O’Fallon, IL
Proper: Genesis 1:1-5; Psalm 29; Acts 19:1-7; Mark 1:4-11
In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
✠ ✠ ✠
There are some things about today’s celebration, and yesterday’s, that can be a bit confusing on the surface. For example, why are we reading the first part of the creation story today if the real focus is on the baptism of Jesus? And why would we sing hymns about the Wise Men today since they visited the baby Jesus on the feast of the Epiphany, which we celebrated yesterday. Besides, they weren’t invited to his baptism? And what’s all this in the second lesson about two different kinds of baptism, the first by John, and the second in the Name of Jesus? Well, luckily for you, I’m here to make it all perfectly clear, and to do it as briefly as possible.
Now just to confuse you all further before clearing everything up, the first thing I’m going to talk about is what we celebrate on Trinity Sunday which, this year, is on May 27th. Why? Because it has a direct connection to that first bit of the creation story that we read today, as does the baptism of Jesus. I’ve known a few clergy who complain that there’s no real value in observing Trinity Sunday, because what we’re actually celebrating, they say, is just a doctrine. Also, some of our fundamentalist brothers and sisters say that the Trinity isn’t a real thing because that word is not in the Bible. Well, both of those groups have missed the mark.
What we celebrate on Trinity Sunday is far more than just a doctrine. It’s a revelation from God about, first, who he is, and second, how he relates to his creation. That’s why Trinity Sunday comes on the heels of Pentecost. It’s the octave day of Pentecost, a term we don’t use much any more, but still that’s what it is. On the night Jesus was betrayed and arrested, he spent a lot of time teaching his disciples and preparing them for what was to come, not just his crucifixion the following day, and his resurrection on the third day, but further along. “I still have many things to say to you,” he told them that night, “but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth” (Jn 16:12-13). He’s talking about the day of Pentecost, when he and the Father would send the Holy Spirit into the Church. And one of the first things the Spirit did on that day was to help the disciples to make sense of everything Jesus had taught them while he was still with them. That included the ability to see how God is triune, that he is one God who consists of three Persons.
For centuries before that, God had worked with the theologians of ancient Israel, referred to in Scripture as the doctors of the Law, to firmly convince them that there is only one God, and that he created and sustains all things. That’s in stark contrast to all the other nations in those days, who couldn’t fathom the notion of one God as the creator and manager of all. Which is why those cultures developed very fluid mythologies which told of many gods, none of whom was omnipotent, omniscient, or omnipresent. And that’s precisely why the one true God stepped in and chose this small, weak nation to be his agent in redeeming the whole world, to show his omnipotence through Israel’s weakness, his omniscience through its short-sightedness, his omnipresence through its isolation. Israel had a bad case of envy back then, of wanting to be like all the other countries, of wanting to fit in. So God patiently, sometimes impatiently, worked with them over several centuries.
And after his chosen people were at last firmly convinced that the Lord their God is one, and that there can be no other gods, he sent his Son into the world. And on the Son’s return, they sent the Holy Spirit. Each of them is God, “and yet they are not three God’s, but one God… not three Lords, but one Lord,” as it says in the Creed of St Athanasius (the longest and most confusing of the Church’s three creeds). “And in this Trinity,” it goes on to say, “there is no before or after, no greater or less…”
Now all of this has been revealed by God himself, who chose and inspired particular people to write it down– not the Creeds, but the Bible. The Creeds are summaries of what the Bible teaches about who God is. But the Trinity not readily apparent to anybody who reads it without God’s help. So back to what Jesus said about one of the jobs of the Holy Spirit being to guide his people into all truth. That’s the Spirit first did on the day of Pentecost. He inspired the disciples while they were worshipping together on that day. He gave them the divine insight to make sense of everything Jesus had said and done, and he led them out into the public square to proclaim the Good News about Jesus to all the people who were in town that day, including all kinds of foreigners, who heard the Good News in their own native languages.
One of the main things that they weren’t ready for Jesus to teach them before Pentecost is that the one God is three Persons. Now that God’s people were firmly convinced of the oneness, the unity, of God, it was time for him to reveal his tri-unity, his oneness in three Persons. It was then that the disciples were able to read the Hebrew scriptures with fresh eyes, and to see the Trinity at work in creation from the very beginning, as recorded in the opening verses of Genesis: “God created the heavens and the earth… And the Spirit of God hovered over the waters,” ready to breathe life into whatever is created.
Then God said, “‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” Now, if you remember the gospel we read last Sunday (and on Christmas Day), St John talks about how the Word of God, who is with God and who is God (1:1), is the agent of creation: “All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made” (1:2). The Word is not an it, but a He. And He is the Word God spoke to create everything. “In him was life,” John says, “and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (1:4-5). And what is the very first thing God says in the Bible? “Let there be light.” And he saw that the light was good. Then he separated the light from the darkness, and called the two Day with a capital D and Night with a capital N.
But these aren’t the sun, the moon and the stars, or any other kind of created light. He doesn’t create those until the fourth day. This is the Light that shines in the darkness, which the darkness cannot overcome. This is the Word who was with God in the beginning, and who is God, and who, when “he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary” (Nicene Creed) was given the name Jesus. And later in John’s gospel Jesus identifies himself as the light that God summoned at the beginning of creation when he says, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (Jn 8:12).
So there they all are right at the beginning of creation– the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The greatest thing that God has ever revealed to his people through the Holy Spirit is that he is both One God and Three Persons, which is what we celebrate on Trinity Sunday. Not a doctrine, not a word that isn’t even in the Bible, but the reality of who God is.
The next time that the three Persons of the Trinity are revealed together is in the Jordan River at the moment of Jesus’ baptism. As soon as he came up out of the water, the Spirit descended, making himself visible in the form of a dove, to anoint Jesus, and the Father spoke from heaven, identifying Jesus as his beloved Son. They’re all there at Jesus’ baptism, which is why we read that lesson from Genesis today. And they’re all there at our baptism, which is why Jesus commanded that his Church baptize in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
So now, what about singing We Three Kings on the day we celebrate Jesus’ baptism? That one’s a lot simpler to explain. I mentioned that Trinity Sunday is the octave day of Pentecost. All the big events of the Christian year get an eight-day celebration, even though we don’t talk about that much any more. It’s meant to be something like one long day of celebrating. The Pentecost octave ends on Trinity Sunday. The octave day of Christmas is the feast of the Holy Name of Jesus, formerly known as the feast of the Circumcision of Christ. Jewish baby boys are circumcised and given their names on the eighth day from birth. And St Luke testifies that John the Baptist and Jesus were both circumcised and named on the eighth day (Lk 1:59-63; 2:21). Epiphany is also a high holy day, so it also gets an octave.
And in that octave the Church celebrates three miraculous events that have to do with God revealing the true identity of Jesus to the world. The first is the visit of the Wise Men, what we celebrated yesterday. What’s miraculous about that event is that God led them by a star until it stopped over the house in Bethlehem where the Holy Family was staying; as soon as they laid eyes on Jesus, they fell down and worshipped him; and they presented him with prophetic gifts that indicated that he’s the King of kings (gold), that he would eventually die in order to save his people (myrrh), and that he would rise from the dead because he’s God (frankincense). The other prophetic thing about that event is that the Wise Men were all Gentiles, non-Jews, the very first ones to worship Jesus, pointing to the fact that Jesus had come to draw all people to himself (Jn 12:32), not just the children of Israel. The second miracle we celebrate during Epiphany is the baptism of Jesus. And the third is when he changed water into wine at the wedding feast in Cana. That one demonstrated his almighty power over creation. He’s the creative Word by whom God spoke everything into existence in the beginning, and by whom God will redeem and renew his creation in the end. So on the feast of the Epiphany we actually celebrate three epiphanies, three revelations, of who Jesus is.
Now, about the two kinds of baptism that St Paul mentions in the second lesson. On his arrival in Ephesus, Paul finds a group of disciples, followers of Jesus. We don’t know who evangelized them. But we do know by Paul’s first question to them that they only had a bare minimum of Christian formation, if any at all. “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” he asked them. “No,” they said, “we haven’t even heard that there is a Holy Spirit”– whatever that is. So Paul said, “Then into what were you baptized?” “Into” is an important preposition, by the way. Baptism is not just a motion that we go through. We’re not just baptized, we’re baptized into something. Now we can be pretty sure by the way these new disciples answered that first question that they were Jewish converts. They said they’d been baptized “Into John’s baptism.” John’s kind of baptism was an ancient ritual by which Jews washed themselves as an outward sign of repentance in preparing for an event, or to undertake a religious obligation, or even just to enter the temple, the house of God. It’s still practiced by orthodox Jews, who call it tevilah (baptism is the Greek word). The event that John preached about was the coming of God’s kingdom. The day Jesus came to be baptized was the climax of John’s prophetic ministry, because it signalled the arrival of God’s kingdom. John’s famous line after that was that Jesus “must become greater; I must become less” (Jn 3:30). It wasn’t long after that that John was arrested and beheaded. But he pointed the way to Jesus right up to his death.
So then Paul says, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus.” So those Ephesian disciples were baptized in the Name of Jesus, i.e. into Jesus. Paul fleshes that out a bit elsewhere when he says that “all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death” (Rom 6:3), and “as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Gal 3:27). So every one of us, by being baptized into Christ Jesus, have died with him; and coming up out of the water, we were raised to the new life in him. Next Paul had laid his hands on them, and the Holy Spirit came on them to anoint them, just like he did Jesus, and they began speaking in tongues and prophesying. Just as the Holy Spirit hovered over the waters of creation, he hovers over the water of baptism, ready to fill God’s people with his life and to empower them to proclaim his Good News everywhere. As a side note, Paul stayed in Ephesus nearly two and a half years, and within three years or so, the Church had grown from that dozen disciples to the point that there was a congregation in nearly every neighboring city and town (Orthodox Study Bible nn).
So, what happened when Jesus was baptized is that he took an ancient Jewish ritual, instituted by God as a preparation for worship in the temple, and he perfected it. In fact everything that God instituted for worship in the Old Testament was a preparation for Jesus. And none of it was complete/perfect until he finished what he came to do. He crowned it with the ultimate significance that God had intended for it from the very beginning. Christian baptism is still a ritual washing, but it’s much more than that. It’s baptism into Christ Jesus, and all that that entails. It’s a death to sin and a rebirth to the new life in Christ. It’s a joining of ourselves to the whole incarnate life of Jesus, from his conception and birth through his death and resurrection, right up to his ascension, when he took our humanity into the heavenly court and sat down at the right hand of the Father.
But unlike ancient Israel, where people went in and out of the temple, washing every time, we are the temple. The new people of God who are baptized into Christ Jesus. We are the place where God is worshipped– the congregation, not the building. As Paul later taught the disciples in Ephesus, “In him [Jesus] you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit” (Eph 2:22) – another veiled reference to the Trinity! And also St Peter who says, “you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1Pet 2:5).
So the primary miracle of Jesus’ own baptism is not that he somehow became adopted as the Son of God. He is the Son of God from all eternity. And it’s not that the Holy Spirit was seen in the form of a dove alighting on Jesus at that moment, or that God the Father spoke from heaven, even though those are both miraculous. The primary miracle is the fact of what Jesus, at that moment, made of baptism for everyone who responds to his Good News. It’s the moment when we die to sin and are born again, born from above, by water and the Holy Spirit, adopted as children of God, and begin to live in him and for him, and for all others whom he would draw to himself through us. So there. I think that’s enough for today. In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Ian C. Wetmore+
Image: The Baptism of Christ, I Yesus Church, Axum, Ethiopia