Harrowing Of Hell
January 7, 2018

Community Through Baptism

Preacher: The Rev. Ruth Anne Garcia

Good morning Christians!

Yesterday we celebrated Epiphany – a festival day from which this community took its name. The Epiphany season ends Christmastide and is the time in our liturgical year that recalls the ways that it was made clear to believers that Jesus is God’s son; the Messiah. Beginning with a recollection of the coming of the Magi to visit the Christ child on the feast day and ending with the Transfiguration of Jesus on top of the high mountain, the first Sunday after Epiphany recalls the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist.

Baptism, as we read in today’s gospel, is a pivotal moment in the life of people of faith. In fact, in the gospel of Mark, Jesus’ baptism begins the story. There is no annunciation, no narrative of Jesus’ birth, any genealogy, or prologue. The gospel of Mark starts “the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God” with a prophecy from Isaiah, which foreshadows the ministry of John the Baptist:

“I will send my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way”—
“a voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.’”

As his name suggests, John’s ministry of preparation centered around baptizing or purifying those who came to them so that their sins might be forgiven. John’s repentance-baptism served as a preparation for the coming of the Messiah. While John baptizes his followers and cleanses them, in repentance of their sins, he does so to ready them for a further baptism – a baptism by the Holy Spirit, which will come through the power of Jesus Christ. He proclaims, “I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

John not only prepared others for the coming of the Messiah, he also baptizes Jesus himself before he begins his public ministry. In the gospel of Mark, it is while Jesus is being baptized, as he is coming out of the water, that the first great theophany or manifestation of God occurs. The heavens are torn apart. The Spirit descends like a dove. A voice comes from heaven saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

This would all seem to suggest that Baptism is important. But if that is not enough, we only have to remember that Jesus, God’s own Son, was baptized. A strange thing about the Bible is that when it comes to determining the historicity of events, it is often those things that seem to be contradictory to the message of the gospels that are considered most likely to have really happened. Since the times of the early church, believers –even the authors of the gospel themselves – have struggled with why Jesus, God’s only begotten Son, who was without sin, would need to be baptized. But he was. In Matthew’s gospel account of Jesus’ baptism, we are told that John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him; “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” And only then John consents.

As Episcopalians, we recognize baptism as one of the two great sacraments “given by Christ to the Church.” Meaning that along with the Eucharist, baptism is something that Jesus himself instituted. The Sacraments, as the Catechism in the back of our Book of Common Prayer tells us, are outward and visible signs of an inward and spiritual grace. In the case of baptism, the outward signs of baptism are water and chrism. And the inward and spiritual grace bestowed on each person who comes to be baptized is the gift of the Holy Spirit. And Jesus himself, the head of the Church, was baptized.

Today the community of Epiphany Parish comes together to recognize God’s grace in the form of the Holy Spirit descending on Carter, Lewis, and William. And while the gift of the Holy Spirit is something that God alone bestows, we as the people of God in this place are the way, the means, and the context in which this happens. The Holy Spirit first descended on Jesus at his baptism in the River Jordan. After his resurrection, the Spirit came upon on his disciples that first Pentecost. In a world that often celebrates the primacy of the individual, it is important to remember that the Holy Spirit chose to rest on the Church – on the community of believers. Baptism is not something that one person undertakes alone. Baptism is something that all of us undertake together. Candidates are given sponsors and godparents who are charged with assuring that they grow within the church, know the teachings of Jesus Christ as given in the scriptures, and learn to follow him. Our whole community, too, vows to support them in their life in Christ. It takes the whole church to raise our children in faith. And their baptism today is only the beginning of the story.

Baptism is not a one-hit wonder with only one song. It is more like a daily Holy Spirit symphony where we are called to play our part within the movement as one instrument of the whole. Baptism is an initiation into a life-long work where what we do and what we say, where our prayer and spiritual practices all work together to help attune our hearts to the indwelling Spirit and help us listen to that heavenly voice from heaven that calls us the sons and daughters of God. We who are witnessing the baptism of Carter, Lewis, and William are promising to help amplify this voice today, tomorrow and that odd Tuesday in February when they are having a bad day. We are doing nothing less than promising to prepare the way for these children of God as the begin their own story—their own life of faith.

The young people that we baptize today are fully initiated into Christ’s body the Church, sealed with the Holy Spirit, and marked as Christ’s own – full members of the Church and inheritors of the Kingdom of God. But, again, they are just beginning their story. And we know that they, like Jesus, and each one of us will face times of testing, discouragement and difficulty. And as members of the body of Christ, as parents and godparents, and family we will need to be present with them and uphold them in their faith tomorrow, next week, and in the years. We are asked to teach, nurture, and help them grow as Christians in a wild world that can all-too-often seen lonely and hopeless. It is up to us to show them what it means to be a Christian and a part of the church. It is only through us that they will come to know that what their baptism initiated them into a community where we are all valued because of who and whose we are; children of God. It is only through us that they will grow up in a place where love and kindness matter, where we help one another and hold one another in prayer. Where we laugh together, rejoice together, mourn together. Where we deeply believe in God and one another. Together. With our help, they will find the things that matter most to them and their necessary and specific role in Christ’s body, the Church, and the world.

Today we are given the opportunity to prepare the way of the Lord for our candidates and one another. We are given the opportunity to show how our belief in Jesus Christ shapes and centers our path day in and day out. How are lives are changed, made more abundant by our faith. Today we are given the opportunity to help each other hear the voice of the Spirit that never ever ceases telling us, “You are God’s beloved and with you God is well pleased.”