Sunday, January 10, 2021

1 Epiphany, 2021-B: Struck by grace again

 Lectionary:  Genesis 1:1-5; Psalm 29; Acts 19:1-7; Mark 1:4-11

En el nombre del Dios, que es Trinidad en unidad. Amen. 

This is such a powerful story - the Baptism of Jesus. In Mark’s version, as Jesus comes up out of the water, he hears a voice from heaven speaking to him saying, YOU are my beloved and with you I am well pleased. Mark doesn’t tell us that anyone else heard the voice. 

In Matthew and Luke, everyone at the river heard the voice from heaven who addressed them all saying, THIS is my beloved, with whom I am well pleased, and Luke adds that the voice said, “listen to him.” 

This may cause us to wonder, which is the true account? My answer would be, they all are. Like most things human, there are various ways to experience and describe the same event. Each gospel writer faithfully described this event their way and because of their diverse perceptions, we are richer as a people in how we encounter God through the story.

In my years as a priest, I’ve had many people ask me why Jesus was baptized at all. Why would the one who was without sin need to be baptized by John who was offering a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin?

The answer is found in how we understand sin. Theologian Paul Tillich says that before sin is an act, it's a state… a state of separation from God, from self, and from others. Jesus’ choice to be baptized demonstrated the first act of reconciliation, of uniting what had been separated, and it would define his ministry of reconciling the whole world to God.

Also by his baptism Jesus, in the fullness of his humanity, overtly invited God to enter his life. He was not coerced into his ministry just as we are not coerced into ours. It is always a choice we make freely.

Mark tells us that when Jesus came up out of the water, the heavens were torn apart, and in the midst of that violent rupture the Spirit descended on Jesus softly, gently - the way a dove would. When the voice of the Spirit says to Jesus "You are my son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased" Mark is using language that echoes what is written about the Messiah, the Suffering Servant, in the prophet, Isaiah where God says: “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights.” (42:1)

Jesus and his cohorts knew full well that there would be suffering in Jesus’ ministry of reconciliation. So do we – when we let ourselves. 

The baptism of Jesus and his reception of the divine Spirit into his human body, changed not only the direction of his life, but the direction of all life. That's what being baptized in the Holy Spirit does, and that’s why we don’t take it lightly. We, like Jesus, have been transformed by our baptism into beloved daughters and sons of God - for a purpose - God’s purpose. 

For Episcopalians, the sacrament of baptism is an outward sign, just as Jesus’ baptism was an outward sign, of the inward and spiritual grace of our union with God in Christ. (BCP, 858) We don't understand Baptism as a form of ecclesiastical fire insurance, that is, as a go-straight-to-heaven card for when we die.

In fact, it isn’t about what happens after our death at all. It’s about how we live.

When we baptize, we are intentionally entering into the death of Jesus Christ so that we might live in the power of his resurrection. (BCP, 306) That’s why we renew our baptismal vows several times each liturgical year, so whether we were baptized as a baby by our parents’ choice or later by our own choice, we make the choice to live according to our baptismal covenant every day for the rest of our lives.

For us, the sacrament of Baptism also marks the moment of our full initiation into Christ’s body, the church. It’s why Episcopalians don’t do private baptisms. Instead, we baptize as part of our Sunday worship, in the presence of all our parish kin, then we parade the newest member of our family up and down the center isle while everyone cheers and welcomes them.

The ministry Jesus claimed at his baptism was characterized by humility. hospitality, mercy, forgiveness, and reconciliation. Jesus broke bread with Gentiles and sinners, women, and others who were outcast in his culture. Boldly proclaiming a new revelation of God’s mercy and forgiveness, Jesus freed people from the bondage of their sins, or from the bondage of those who sinned against them, and expanded the boundaries of God’s kingdom to include the least and the lost, the outcast and disrespected, and the outsider.

Jesus’ baptism in Mark is the first of those moments Tillich describes as being "struck by grace," that moment when we realize that God loves us with an incomprehensible love and suddenly "…a light breaks into our darkness and it is as though a voice were saying: 'You are accepted… accepted by that which is greater than you' …After such an experience [Tillich says]… everything is transformed."

Many of us were baptized as babies, so we don’t remember it. When we renew our Baptismal vows as we will today, we invite God into our bodies as Jesus did so that we can be struck by grace once again, further empowering us for our ministries.

Baptism transforms our relationships with God, with each other, and even with ourselves. Each time we renew our baptismal vows, we accept the call to be the suffering servants in our world today who commit to respect the dignity of every human being - even those we fear or despise, even those who desire to harm us or disrupt our peace.

We can count on being confronted by other “religious” people who will ridicule and condemn us for standing firm in the way of love while violence happens around us, calling us weak or apostate. They said the same about Jesus at his trial, and his faithfulness turned out to be anything but weak. Even as the violence directed at Jesus seemed to win, to destroy him, God redeemed it in a way no one could have seen coming.

The process is the same for us today. We stand firm in Jesus’ way of love, committed to living our baptismal vows every day, making space for the redeeming love of God to transform disaster, death, and despair into peace, new life, and hope.

I give thanks that, after the violent events in our nation’s capitol this week, our liturgical calendar offers us the baptism of Jesus to collect and occupy our thoughts. I’m also grateful that on this date, we typically renew our baptismal vows, which we will do right now as the part of the body of Christ known as Calvary Episcopal Church, in Columbia, MO.

Our hearts and bodies need what these words offer us. Let us pause, take a breath, and open ourselves to be struck by grace again today as we renew our Baptismal Covenant together.

Note: The Baptismal Covenant is found in the Book of Common Prayer on page 299. Choose "Holy Baptism" from the left-side menu.

Quotes above are taken from: Paul Tillich, The Shaking of the Foundations (Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, 1948), 154, 160, 161, 162.

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