"Empowered Church," by Rev Fred Kinsey
“The baptismal [story] begins a pattern in Jesus’ ministry,” says Robert Saler, of Christian Theological Seminary, “that I’m not sure is taken with enough seriousness.” What Jesus starts in his baptism, says Saler, is a pattern of “continually empowering the church for service, rather than limiting that power to himself.”
In Thanksgiving for Baptism today, we were sprinkled with baptismal water as a part of our Gathering rite, a remembrance that we are a baptized people. As one of our two sacraments in the Lutheran Church, baptism is a daily practice for us. And here at Unity, we were blessed with 4 baptisms in the past year, another good way to remember our Baptism and the cleansing renewal of these baptismal waters, that wash away our sin and initiate a brand new day, a new opportunity, to worship the Lord, and serve our neighbors.
And today, we celebrate the Baptism of Our Lord, as we do every year, on the first Sunday after the Epiphany. It’s the perfect way to remember that Epiphany means “manifestation.” The manifestation of Jesus in his baptism reveals to us that he is the Son of God, and is specifically made manifest in the person of Jesus, who is earthly, manifest in the ordinary things of our world, revered by other people and prophets, and blessed by God in a voice we can hear.
“Frederick Dale Bruner, in his book, Matthew: A Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), says, that he considers Jesus’ first miracle to have occurred at his baptism. The miracle is that Jesus was humble!
“The divine Son of God humbles himself by allowing John to baptize him. This act of humility is an act of obedience to God and solidarity with all humankind. Jesus has no sins to be forgiven,” as we’ll confess later in the Nicene Creed. “However, for us, he goes down to the river of repentance with all the other sinners to be baptized.”
This was not an issue when Matthew wrote this gospel, late in the 1st century, around 85 A.D. Only later, in the 4th century, when the Christianity became a state religion by decree of Emperor Constantine, a legal religion of the Roman Empire for the first time, did the issue begin to rise up for those theologians and politicians who wanted to match up Jesus’ divinity with a kingly, above reproach, image. And the doctrine of Jesus’ sinlessness began to take form.
But to live within the biblical picture of Jesus and John the Baptist, in Matthew, we find a bit more ambiguity. In our gospel reading this morning, Jesus appears in the wilderness where John is, to receive the baptism John is offering, which is a baptism for the repentance of sins. Just as the people came confessing their sins – so did Jesus. It’s true that John sees something extraordinary in Jesus, and is surprised that it’s not the other way around, that Jesus should baptize him! But Jesus is adamant that he be baptized with the same baptism as everyone else – “for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness,” he says. In other words, this it is what God desires.
Jesus has come to take on our form, our nature, as the offspring of God. And so, the ‘manifestation’ of God in Jesus, is localized and particular. Jesus wades in the Jordan River, in Palestine, during the reign of Herod, in order that we, in our baptism into Christ, are, continually being empowered in the church for service, because God’s Son did not limit that power to himself. Jesus disperses the divine gift of righteousness and love to all the baptized!
And this is what is confirmed by the heavenly parent from above: “the Spirit of God descends like a dove and alights on Jesus,” says Matthew. And a voice from heaven says, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’”
God is with us! The same One – the Emanuel – we heard about at Christmas, born humbly in a manger.
Pope Francis makes a confession, you could say, in his new book just published last year in 2016: “At times I have surprised myself,” he says, “by thinking that a few very rigid people would do well to slip a little, so that they could remember that they are sinners, and thus meet Jesus.” Jesus knows what it is like to live in a sinful world. Jesus comes to meet us so we don’t have to pretend we are equal to gods.
Jesus comes to John at the Jordan, with all the other people confessing their sins, as Matthew says, but before that discussion can happen about Jesus, he is being baptized, and God proudly seals his moment of washing with the declaration of his son-ship!
And so, of one thing there can be no doubt, that of Jesus’ humility. The one chosen and blessed by God, identifies with us. There is nothing we experience that Jesus has not gone through, for us, and with us – even a death, more torturous than most of us will ever experience.
For us then, to be baptized into Christ, the same baptism that Jesus was baptized with, means we too will die with him, so that we might have the promise of rising again, and having life beyond fear of the enemy, of death. As Paul says in Romans: “Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”
What other God can offer such particularity, such a comforting identity with our humanity, and at the same time, such a universal promise of life everlasting?
But even this is not the sole purpose of his coming, perhaps not even what is most important to his humility. Jesus immersed himself fully into our world, to open up and spread out the power of the divine for our discipleship and service in the world. How we live, and who we are, are marked by this baptismal immersion. Like Jesus, we are to heal, and to teach, and to preach, and to worship and celebrate, to prophesy and be workers for justice and peace. When we become Jesus’ disciples, we begin to hear and trust God’s blessing too – you are my children, whom I love and am well pleased with!
This is what is made manifest in the Baptism of Our Lord. God desires us to receive the power of serving, as we come to know it through the ministry and example of the Son of God, a humble king, strong in love for neighbor, as we ourselves desire to be loved, otherwise know as, The Golden Rule, which I’m afraid is fast becoming a lost gift. But without it, we descend into a world farther from the kingdom of God here on earth, which Jesus came to bring us.
What Would Jesus Do, in such a moment as this? In the very next story after his baptism, we find Jesus going out to confront the root cause of sin in our world – in his temptation in the wilderness – that’s what Jesus does. As disciples, we can recognize and must stand up to the power of the Evil One in our world. The temptation to greatness without humility, leads to the illusion of stardom, and the love of wealth. We see this vanity oozing into our culture and world. In baptism, we vow to squash it, stomp it out, and not follow after it.
Jesus, the Son of God, came to totally immerse himself in the particularities of our world, not to keep the power of the divine for himself, leaving us downtrodden, but to disperse that power to us for service in the world, that we may follow and be formed into his disciples. If Jesus can immerse himself in the world, we can certainly immerse ourselves too, empowered to give life, and share it, after the model of the Beloved Son, rather than grasp it away as our own possession.
In our daily baptism, a baptism into Christ, the kingdom and realm of God are made manifest, and God is well pleased!