In this morning’s Gospel reading, Jesus comes to John and asks to be baptised. John doesn’t think that this is such a hot idea; who is he to baptize Jesus? It should be the other way around. Jesus says no, we should do what God requires. So John baptizes Jesus, at which point the Holy Spirit descends in the form of a dove, and we hear the voice from heaven saying the beautiful words, “This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.”
One of the ways to figure out what is going on in a Bible passage is to look at where it falls in the larger book. In this case, this story is very early in the book of Matthew, before Jesus begins his public ministry. Matthew starts with a long genealogy. Then we get Jesus’s conception explained to Joseph by an angel. Then a highly uneventful birth (compared with Luke’s account), followed by the visit of the Magi—the wise men, the astrologers. More angels, an escape into Egypt, a horrible massacre that Jesus narrowly avoids, and then a return to Nazareth. Sudden scene change: John the Baptist is preaching and baptizing, and the adult Jesus shows up and asks to be included.
All of the events I have described function to tell us who Jesus is. The genealogy takes us all the way back to Abraham, which tells us that Jesus is just about as authentically Jewish as possible. But it also includes several foreigners and other sinners, notably a couple of prostitutes.
The angels are a tip off that this baby is something special, not to mention the extraordinary arrival of the foreign sages, these outsiders, who are looking for a king. Herod feels so threatened by this little king that he orders a massacre of children.
The stories that Matthew chooses to include at the beginning of his gospel contain several themes about who Jesus is: The genealogy shows that he is part of the house of Israel, but also descended from foreigners. The angels point to his connection with God. The Magi point to his connection with kingship, and his connection with foreigners. Herod’s reactions points to Jesus’ power. Every detail holds meaning. So, what does the story of his baptism tell us?
First is the marvellous exchange with John, a kind of biblical “after you, no, after you, no I insist…” The dilemma is that John cannot possibly be greater than Jesus. But then we get to see just what kind of guy this Jesus is: he wants to do what is right, he wants to do “all that God requires.”
Then Jesus is baptized, just like the others John has baptized, and just like many of us were baptized. But then: the dove, like the dove that Noah sent out after the flood, that sign of new creation and peace. And then the voice from heaven: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Some translations read, “in whom I take delight.”
It’s worth paying attention to the last word of a passage. In this case, “delight” or “well pleased.” This tells us about Jesus, and about God. God takes delight, loves, claims his own. And Jesus is claimed by God.
And in our baptisms, we too are claimed by God. Baptism is our response to God’s generous love. We too are God’s beloved sons and daughters.
But what does it mean to be a child of God? How does this influence how we live?
We make several promises in our baptisms, about who we trust and how we will try to live.
I’m assuming that many of us were baptized as infants, so we didn’t make these commitments knowingly. And some of us are not baptized. But we are here now, for a reason. There is something about this way of living, about participating in this community of faith, that draws us here. I think that that is good enough: I think that the way we understand our baptismal covenant is by trying to live it out, regardless of our understanding at the time these commitments were made for us. And for those who are not baptized, here is a chance to go deeper: you too are here for a reason.
The baptismal covenant opens with an affirmation of faith, asking “Do you believe…”. What do we mean when we respond, “I believe”?
Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams reminds us that “believing in God is not the same as believing in UFOs.” The Greek word that we translate as believe can also be translated “trust.” Faith/ believing/ trusting/ hoping is an orientation, a stance, a verb, a choice to live in a particular way, with a particular outlook. Again from Rowan Williams: “Christian belief is really about knowing who and what to trust.”
The affirmation of faith takes the form of the Apostles’ Creed, which has been recited in baptisms since the 300s. It affirms the three persons of the one God and Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. The Church of England explains that this creed is not a detailed statement of individual and personal beliefs; rather, it is a summary of what the church teaches and of what Christians together believe. And they point out that when we say the Creed, “we join Christians past and present, and from all over the world, in proclaiming our common faith.”
If faith, trust, is a choice to live in a particular way with a particular outlook, then it is necessarily connected to everyday living, to our ordinary hurts and hopes, to ordinary truths about us, good, bad, and indifferent; so, after the affirmation of faith, the baptismal covenant invites us to commit to a certain way of living. It asks six questions that are central to Christian living and being. Each question could form a sermon all on its own, so I won’t go into them now. But I will share this:
The verbs that are used in those questions — continue, preserve, proclaim, seek and serve, strive, respect, sustain and renew — say a lot about the nature of the Christian way.
Continue, sustain: It is not a one-time commitment but is ongoing.
Persevere, seek, strive: it requires effort.
Proclaim, respect, serve: it is not a solitary undertaking but includes others
Repent, return: it requires self-examination and accountability
Renew: with God’s help, it leads to new life for us and for all creation.
The Christian way requires ongoing effort, is lived out in community, requires self-examination and accountability, and leads to new life for us and for all creation.
The reply that we are invited to make to the questions is always: “I will, with God’s help”.
There’s a lot packed into the baptismal covenant. How can we possibly live up to it? There’s a reason we renew our baptismal promises — we don’t so much live up to them as we live into them. Day by day, encounter by encounter. And most importantly, we don’t do it alone, by our own force of will. We have been claimed by God as God’s beloved children. God is with us. So we express our intent to keep these promises, knowing that we do it with God’s help. Thanks be to God.
Questions for reflection
Thinking about Jesus’ baptism, I wonder what your favorite parts are? I wonder what you think are the most important parts?
Thinking about what I have said about the baptismal covenant, I wonder what your favorite parts are? I wonder if you resist any of it? I wonder what you think are the most important parts?