Sermon - Epiphany 1: The Baptism of Jesus - Year A - | RCL Resources Index | DBHome |

To share the cleansing fire

[Note: The last three sections, on Jesus being the representative of sinful humanity, on water and fire as cleansing agents and on the renewal of life, contain important teaching on Christian initiation and discipleship in relation to the baptism of Jesus. They are intended for study in greater depth using the written version of this sermon, and one or more of these sections may be omitted from the preaching or used in separate sermons.]

I ask myself, as perhaps you do, what can be the relevance of the Baptism of Jesus for our lives today. Not that I am greatly concerned about appearing to be relevant. The call for relevance is often little more than a demand that the church conform to the demands of the world around us. There is no easier way to be popular than to give a religious endorsement to the way people are living, or to the way they would like to live. There are plenty who will do that, but there is a strange paradox in the observation that those churches in Australia and elsewhere in the West in recent years which have not tried to be "relevant" but have maintained traditional teaching have been the most successful in terms of active membership. They tended to teach with an emphasis on personal morality that is out of sympathy with the dominant culture of inidividual rights and freedom. They are said to be out of step or behind the times, yet they flourish. Other churches too have been to striving be more effective on issues of social justice, in a different sense "relevant". At the very time when they are challenging in unexpected ways the complacency or duplicity of government and dominant economic interests they are called "irrelevant" by people in positions of power; but many non-church people have commented at those times on the apparent relevance, indeed the necessity of the churches role in society at the very time when it has most frequently been called irrelevant.

I don't mind being irrelevant. To put a lot of effort into doing what the world regards as irrelevant can turn out to be the most relevant and helpful thing we could do for them. We must strengthen the base from which we are able to make an independent contribution. There is no point in the church as the church entering public debate just taking sides with other interest groups in some controversy or competition. Unless we have something different and distinctive to contribute we might as well keep out, and we will only have something different to give if we have a separate life in which alternative ways of seeing things are developed and there is a depth of life, even a mystery, that is built on firm foundations not dependent upon what is going on in the world around us. That depth of life and mystery is available to us in our relationship with God, in the riches of our traditions and the strength of our fellowship in the Spirit of God. So it may be that I could be doing something relevant to life today if I simply teach a little more of our tradition, building up our spiritual capital, multiplying our investment in things of lasting value as we hear the Word and celebrate the Eucharist. In the long run there is nothing more relevant to the life of all the world than that.

There would be nothing wrong with that; but it is really very difficult to understand in depth what happened to Jesus at the River Jordan with John the Baptist without seeing direct relevance to social questions. In one sense it is very remote. A carpenter from a small town in out-of-the-way Galilee went a day or so's journey on foot to the Jordan valley to join in a religious ceremony performed by an old fashioned preacher. This preacher reminded people of those strange but mighty characters with an alternative culture who centuries before went out to live in the wilderness and brought back messages from God. That poses a difficulty right away: what was a forward looking teacher like Jesus, who was all for great changes in society, doing with such a representative of the past tradition of prophets as John the Baptist? That makes it seem even more remote; yet, strangely, that link with the past of the people amongst whom he appeared makes what happened there even more relevant not only to the way people lived then, but to how we live today.

The link with the past

Two things are important for us to understand the link. One is that John the Baptist was one, indeed the last and greatest, of those ancient prophets of Israel who had important things to say about justice in the way people live. John, in fact, lost his head eventually because he dared to speak out against the corrupt behaviour of the ruling family, as ancient prophets like Nathan who challenged King David had done before him. He challenged all sorts of people to live justly with consideration for others:

Second, as had been promised to John's father the Holy Spirit filled him (Luke 1:15, 80), and what happened to Jesus when he was baptised in the river by John was that the Spirit of God came upon him.

The Spirit had been expected by the prophets to come upon or to anoint the Messiah. For example, as we read from the prophet Isaiah at Christmas:

That very gift of the Spirit is directly linked in the ancient prophecies with the struggle for justice. Just think about that for a moment. We often tend to think of interest in the gift of the Spirit as an otherworldly concern -- a bit like those secular commentators who react to the concern of the churches with issues of justice in public affairs by suggesting that they are avoiding their true vocation, that they really ought to be back in the sanctuary, irrelevantly concerned with spiritual things -- thus confirming the prejudice with which such commentators turned away from the church years ago. If only it were so simple! But the gift of the spirit in the message of those ancient "irrelevant" old prophets brought a very strong concern with justice, just as it did with John the Baptist. Consider the words of Isaiah that we read today:

The one on whom the Spirit comes will bring justice: see his gentleness and quiet strength in seeking justice. Isaiah continues:

And this is the work of the Lord God, the great God, the king of the universe who breaths life into people for the sake of others:-

You will see that Jesus picked up these themes in his own teaching and healing. His mission, which began with his baptism, was to do the very things which the old prophets said came with the gift of the Spirit. So the baptism of Jesus, when he received the gift of the Spirit, is directly related to the search for justice on the earth. We will come back to this in moment, but first note one other thing: what is this about being a light to the nations? [See also the sermon for the day of Epiphany Many nations, one light ]

The inclusion of foreigners

The servant of God and the people of the covenant were to be a light to the nations. In the church year we have now entered the season "after Epiphany", in which the main theme follows that of Epiphany: the showing of Christ to all the different peoples of the world. That is why we sing As with gladness, men of old -- about the three wise men. They came to Bethlehem from a distant land, and traditionally they represent the foreign gentile world. On the first Sunday after Epiphany we recognize Jesus at his baptism as a light to the nations. It was through the gift of the Holy Spirit, which came to him at his baptism and to his followers later, that barriers between people of different races and languages were broken down. At Pentecost [Acts 2] they each heard the message in their own language; and as we read [Acts 10] in the story of Peter's meeting with Cornelius, when the Spirit came upon the Gentile group to whom Peter was speaking about Jesus, the apostles discovered how the Holy Spirit led them to recognize foreigners as members of the same fellowship.

Peter spoke of how the gift of the Spirit bridged the gap with outsiders in his message to the household of Cornelius that we read today:

Note again the social relevance of the gift of the Spirit: doing good and healing the oppressed. What really struck Peter was that Spirit came upon his gentile Roman listeners while he was speaking to them [Acts 10:44] and he realized that they too should be recognized as belonging to Christ and be baptised.

Through the Holy Spirit the apostles were led to see that God desires all nations on earth to be one family:

Need we ask again about relevance to the world today of a clear understanding that God has no favourites among the nations of the world? There is nothing more relevant to a shrinking world and to this nation of immigrants, when people of many nations and cultures are being brought together in unavoidable daily contact. It was, as Peter said to the crowd on the Day of Pentecost, on all mankind that the prophets promised the Spirit would be poured out, not only on those of a particular race, tradition, age or status, and Peter drew attention to the prophecy of Joel then being fulfilled:

The representative of sinful humanity

So the gift of the Spirit which came upon Jesus was for the benefit of all mankind. Let us look again the baptism of Jesus when that gift was given to him. It happened as a consequence of something Jesus chose to do, and that was done against the wishes of John the Baptist whose call to repentance he answered. You might ask why Jesus needed to be baptised as a sign of repentance when we believe he did not sin, and what that could have had to do with justice. John objected:

We understand that Jesus was identifying himself with humanity in general, by taking a sign of repentance when he had no personal sin of which to repent. It prefigured his death in which he accepted another kind of baptism on behalf of others [cf Mark 10:37-40, and see Romans 6]. As Paul said:

It is possible for people, even such us, to accept responsibility for what others do wrong. We sometimes do it in our daily work, for example, when a secretary covers up for the boss, or the boss takes the knock for what his subordinates have done. As members of a society which has treated others badly, for example in the treatment of Aboriginal people, we who might not have done anything directly ourselves in that history can still accept some responsibility for putting it right. We might even expect our representatives to put things right on our behalf. Jesus was that kind of representative of humanity in our relations with God and with one another. The social relevance of Jesus identifying himself with sinful humanity comes from the cleansing power of removing guilt.

Fire and water: cleansing agents

John the Baptist said of Jesus:

Fire and water have something in common. They are both cleansing agents. When new converts were baptised with water they were washed clean. The dirt of their past lives was washed away. That was the meaning of the symbol used by John and it was still there in the practice of the early church when people were baptised to become Christians.

[In one of the earliest historical records of Christian Baptism, in about the year 160, Justin Martyr wrote to the Emperor Antonius Pius in defence of the Christian faith,

There is more detail on the washing and then Justin Martyr writes:

As to the amount and kind of water that was used for the washing, that was not critical. In another ancient document, the Didache, dating from about the beginning of the second century, we have instructions on how to baptize:

Christian baptism is a means of sharing the fire which transforms human lives. It is a fire that began to be shared with the baptism of Jesus. It continues in the fellowship of the church.

[In a Church in which we practice infant baptism, we have a separate sign of sharing the Spirit known as Confirmation, but we also believe that by the grace of God children who are made members of the fellowship begin to share in the gift of the Spirit as they grow in faith and take their place in the congregation. That is a place already given to them in their baptism and no second act is necessary although confirmation helps to affirm what God has done. It is because they are already members of the body of Christ that we do not permit any re-baptism. It is a once for all initiation into the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, in whose power members of the church, old and young, meet with Christ, especially in the Holy Communion, and serve him in the world. The cleansing renewing work of the fire that is shared goes on throughout our lives.

At one time Paul found at Ephesus a group of believers in Jesus who had been taught before he arrived by a Jew named Apollos who knew only John's baptism [Acts 18:24 - 19:7]. Paul said to them,

When they were then baptised in the name of the Lord Jesus and Paul laid his hands upon them they received the Holy Spirit and began to speak in tongues and prophesy.]

It was the name Jesus and the gift of the Holy Spirit that made the difference. The new life of Christians came sacramentally from both the water and the fire.

The renewal of life

That was the difference that appeared to Jesus himself when he was baptised by John. It was for him a moment of enlightenment, surge of certainty and self understanding that came to Jesus, a spiritual experience that words cannot adequately describe:

This self consciousness of Jesus as one anointed by the Spirit of God stayed with him throughout his ministry. It is clearly seen in the passage of the book of Isaiah that he chose to read and speak about on his return visit to his home town of Nazareth emphasising both the gift of the Spirit and serving humanity:

It was on the Day of Pentecost that the Spirit came with the appearance of tongues of fire -- as we have it in the Uniting Church logo where the wings of the dove appear as flames. The baptism of Jesus then marks him as one who would bring the transforming power of the Spirit, like a cleansing fire, to burn up the rubbish, the selfishness, prejudice and corruption of human life and transform it to bring the fruit of the Spirit:

To share the cleansing fire, the Spirit that came to Jesus at his baptism, is to take part in the renewal of human life, for which we give glory to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

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