The reason for my title is there are three Biblical stories that are traditionally read in worship during Epiphany, and they all share the same purpose. Epiphany means “appearance” or “manifestation”, and the themes of Epiphany are about seeing and knowing Jesus as the incarnate One, the Light of the World.
So Act 1 in Epiphany is the story of the Magi, who represent the manifestation of Jesus to the Gentiles, that is the non-Jewish world. In the Bible they are pictured as Eastern astrologers who read the stars for signs and find baby Jesus, paying him homage and bringing him gifts. I saw a meme on Facebook recently that said, “If the Wise Men had been women, they would have asked for directions, got there on time, and brought appropriate gifts for a newborn.” Early Christian tradition turned them into Kings, stressing the sovereignty of Christ over all the nations. In many nations Epiphany is called “Three Kings’ Day.”
Act 2 in Epiphany is the story of the Baptism of Jesus, when he is recognized as the Beloved Son of the Divine Father. That is the story I will focus on today, the meaning of Jesus’ baptism and ours.
Act 3 of Epiphany is the story of the wedding feast at Cana, when Jesus performed his first miracle by changing water into wine. The only thing I want to say about that is that the big jugs of water were there for purification rites, and so John is telling us that Jesus himself supersedes all the old rites and rituals in his own person.
We use the word “epiphany” in everyday speech to mean a realization we have, as in, “I just had an epiphany. I can save 15% on my car insurance by changing to Geico!”
But the Greek word epiphany doesn’t mean something we realize so much as something we are shown, an appearance or manifestation. And what is shown or made manifest is the glory of God. Glory is another complicated word. It can mean radiance, a visual brightness. It’s the word Patty spoke of from Hebrews last week, which her translation called “shimmering.” But glory is more than light. It also means honor or reputation.
Glory is depicted by artists as light, or by the haloes of angels and saints. When I was a child I believed if you could get in a time machine and walk around with Jesus and the disciples, they would have visible haloes, as they do in Renaissance paintings.
So now that we know that Epiphany is about the manifestation of God’s glory in Jesus Christ let us take some time to look at the story of his baptism and at the meaning of our own baptism.
The first thing we should notice is that the story of the baptism of Jesus echoes the language of the creation story in first chapter of Genesis. As you will recall the opening lines of the Bible, “In the beginning” there are the primordial waters of chaos; then the Spirit of God moves over the waters, and finally, God speaks: “Let there be . .” and there is! Creation begins.
Now notice that in the story of the Baptism of Jesus, we have the same elements: the water of the Jordan River, the wind of God’s Holy Spirit (wind and spirit are the same word in both Hebrew and Greek), and finally the divine voice from heaven saying, “This is my son, the beloved.” So there are in both stories wind, water, and Word.
This resemblance between the two stories is not an accident. The early church understood Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection to be inaugurating the kingdom of God, and they used the language of “new creation” to speak about what God was doing in their midst. To them, the active presence of God’s Holy Spirit was a sign of God’s new creative movement, and the place where that new creation became manifest in their lives was in baptism, which ritually reenacts the new creation with water, wind, and Word.
I included the reading from the Book of Acts today to remind us that the baptism of Jesus by John was a different baptism than Christian baptism. In Advent Brent shared with us that the baptism of John was a baptism of repentance. The story in Acts tells us that Paul met some disciples in Ephesus who had received the baptism of John, but not Christian baptism, and so he baptized them “in the name of Jesus.”
Baptism is one of the two sacraments in our church. The preamble to the Constitution of the United Church of Christ says, “In accordance with the teaching of our Lord and the practice prevailing among evangelical Christians, we recognizes two sacraments: Baptism and the Lord’s Supper or Holy Communion.”
Baptism is the entry sacrament and is performed only once. Communion is the sustaining sacrament and is repeated again and again. My theology teacher, Gabe Fackre, called them respectively “the bath” and “the meal.” The ritual bath brings you in and prepares you for life in the community, while the ritual meal is sustaining spiritual “bread for the journey.” We don’t’ have a baptism today, but we do have communion.
What do sacraments do? There are lots of complicated ways to express it, but the way I prefer is simply to say, the sacraments show what the Word says. So on this Epiphany, let me suggest one of the ways we can see Christ made manifest is in the sacraments. In that light let us look at baptism.
From earliest times the church believed that baptism brought a believer into the realm of God’s new creation, and quite concretely, into the church, the body of Christ on earth. Just as God the Father had declared Jesus to be his beloved Son, so in baptism, God declares the baptized to be his beloved son or daughter in the household of his love.
So, first of all, the language of baptism is the language of love. “This is my beloved,” God the Father says to God the Son at Jesus’ baptism. I preached on this baptismal story on Epiphany 16 years ago and a strange thing happened. In my church in Pittsfield the deacons had a roster of liturgists, and I often paid no attention to who was reading until late in the game. Well this particular Sunday, as it turned out, my son Andrew, then 19 years old and home from college for Christmas break, was the liturgist, and I had to reassure the congregation that, although he was my beloved son, he was not The Beloved Son of the story, and I was not pulling off some cheap homiletical trick. God has many beloved children, but only one Beloved Son, the only-begotten One.
My own baptism took place when I was eight months old at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. I wasn’t baptized in the main nave of the church, but in the baptistery, which is a large separate room off to the side. The font there is this enormous ornate Gothic pile of carved stone. I don’t remember my baptism, of course, but I have visited St. John’s as an adult to check it out.
My Godfather was Bill Warrern, an Episcopal priest who was a friend of my parents. My parents had been librarians at the General Theological Seminary in New York, when Bill came to study there.
Bill was a faithful Godfather to me who always remembered my birthday. He was an fascinating man who trained as a Jungian analyst and was interested in Native American spirituality. He served in two very remote parishes. One was St. Matthew’s in Fairbanks Alaska, and then he served on the Mexican border in Douglas, AZ. He used to joke that he was “a borderline case.”
When I was growing up he served a parish in Eastern, Pennsylvania near the NJ border, and our families would often get together.
I grew up in a little Episcopal Church in the Northeast corner of New Jersey, The Church of the Holy Communion in Norwood. I went to Sunday school there, and I was comfortable there in a way I never quite was at school. School seemed competitive and, if not outright dangerous, somewhat harsh. I was bullied from time to time, although we didn’t call it that back then. In church I felt safer. I knew the people loved me and loved my family.
I need to say a word about my father and baptism. When I was growing up my father was a grumpy agnostic when it came to religion, but he always came to church with us and was part of the community. But he was never baptized. He had gone through instruction for baptism three times with priest friends, but in the end he always backed out. So I always say that if I learned about faith from my mother I learned about the integrity of honest doubt from my father. Whenever my mother and sister and brother and I went up to the communion rail my father would remain in the pew.
My mother died my second week of college and we had her funeral in that little church. I went back off to college and it isn’t an exaggeration to say that I was more than a little bit lost for several years.
On one of my trips home to my father I was scanning the family bookshelves for something to read. We were a bookish family and when you have librarians for parents you have lots of books. On one of the bookshelves was a smallish dusty gray box. I pulled it out and opened it. Inside was a spanking brand new copy of The Imitation of Christ in bright red Moroccan leather. It was a handsome thing, with a bookmark ribbon. I opened it up and inscribed on the flyleaf it said: “To Richard Lawrence Floyd, on the occasion of his Baptism, October 8, 1949, from his Godfather William Warren.”
Who gives an eight-month old baby a book of medieval spirituality? That seems even more inappropriate than the gifts the magi brought to baby Jesus! But Bill Warren was a wise Christian and that little book speaks to Bill’s theology of infant baptism. Infant baptism is about promises made on your behalf by your family and the church. You have to grow into them and in time make them your own. Bill knew this, and so the book was waiting for me for eighteen years.
I still wasn’t quite ready for it, and I found the content a bit weird, but I carried that book around with me for several years. Somehow in my lost years it gave me comfort. I had a near magical understanding of the book. It was a talisman, a sacred object. I had it in my Boy Scout backpack as I hitchhiked around the Midwest in the late 60’s.
So at age 19 or 20 I was lost and searching, far from home, grief-stricken, a motherless man-child. Somehow that little book symbolized something I was searching for. It would make a better story for this sermon if I could say I was conscious that it was an emblem of my baptism, and reminded me that I was a beloved child of God, but that would be stretching it. But it did mean something important to me. I still have it.
Years later, when I found my way back to God and the church and became a pastor and a theologian I found the words and theology to express what it was I yearned for.
So baptism is important to me. I baptized both my children, and this year I will witness the baptism of both my grandchildren. And let me share a cool footnote about my Dad. He never was baptized, but seven years after my mother died he became married to a wonderful woman named Gini, who was a Quaker, and he became a Quaker, and a good one at that, as he volunteered in a prison to teach non-violence to the inmates. The Quakers were a good fit for him, since they have no sacraments. When I was ordained he had to tell me he didn’t believe in ordination, and that we were all ministers. He was right about that last part. But I’m glad he found faith and a spiritual home in his final years.
For me baptism is about being part of the community of God’s people, part of the new creation that God is working through the Holy Spirit. And since God the Father has only one Beloved Son, the language of baptism is by necessity, the language of adoption. If Jesus is the natural heir, then we are the adopted ones.
We were all adopted in love. And when one is adopted you don’t get to pick your own family, the family picks you. In much the same way baptism is bestowed on us as a gift, a gift of love. Infant baptism powerfully expresses that we are given this gift by the love and faith of others before we can even know it or accept it. At the time of baptism, we become part of God’s family, and beloved of God as Jesus is beloved of God. Not that God loves only the baptized. God loves all his children. But baptism into the church is a sign of that love.
So this idea of being an heir by adoption is part of the deep meaning of baptism. It reminds us that none of us is brought into the church by our good looks, or our brains, or our race, or our family’s status. No, we are adopted in love through Jesus Christ.
Baptism isn’t a private event. It is social. And the fact that baptism is social was dramatically demonstrated by the way in which it changed the world in the early days of the church. Baptism was so radical that it overcame the very powerful human social distinctions that operated in that time between Jew and Gentile, rich and poor, men and women, master and slave. Not that the church ever got it quite right. Such egalitarianism was never easy. It still isn’t; but where the meaning of baptism is properly understood, the church will disregard in its life those same kinds of human distinctions between classes, sexes and races.
This means a church is in peril if it becomes a religious fellowship of like–minded people. Our agreements or opinions don’t make us the church! What makes us the church is our relationship to Jesus, and whoever belongs to him belongs to us who belong to him.
And if living together as the church was something we just had to do by the strength of our character, it would be impossible. But the early church believed that it wasn’t we who were going to make this happen, but God who was enacting a new creation in us and with us. Christ’s church was to be a sign of this new creation begun in Jesus Christ. God’s Holy Spirit would create a new reality in the church and in the world just as the Spirit had made order out of chaos “in the beginning.”
Did you know that the Methodists renew their baptismal vows on the first Sunday of each New Year? I think it’s a good idea. And so today I invite each of you to consider the meaning of your baptism, and to reclaim its power for your living, both in the church and in the world. And if you are not baptized I would like to invite you to consider if this is something you might want to do. We’ve had several moving adult baptisms in this congregation in the last several years.
Consider, too, whether you are baptized or not, the promised gift of the Holy Spirit as God’s abiding presence with you as you go about your daily tasks; as you accept the costs and joys of discipleship. And I invite all of you to consider our life as a congregation, and how we might more faithfully live out the reality of the new creation that we claim in our baptism. And, finally, in this New Year may our lives make manifest something of the glory of God, in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
(I preached this sermon on January 7, 2018, in The First Congregational Church of Stockbridge, Massachusetts.)