8 January – The Wrong Baptism

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Epiphany: The Baptism of Jesus

Isaiah 42:1-9
Psalm 29
Matthew 3:13-17

Sermon preached by Matt Julius

God, may my words be loving and true, and may those who listen discern what is not. Amen.

My Dad had a cousin named Dawn Mount — she has now passed away. Dawn was so named because she was found abandoned at dawn at the base of a mountain. In lieu of family, or birth certificate, she was named by a police officer: Dawn Mount.

Dawn entered our family through my Great Aunt Biddy, one of the living saints of this world. Aunt Biddy has fostered dozens of young people — their photos cover the walls in the living room. Often her home provided respite for young people facing quite significant challenges. Young people the social service system in Aotearoa, New Zealand, has not always known how to cope with.

Dawn entered the house, I imagine, as everyone does: through the front gate, down the path to the door, to be greeted by Biddy’s unending kindness.

On occasion young people were accompanied inside by a social worker, who conveyed to Biddy the backstory, conducting the handover. On these occasions as soon as the social worker left it was back to the front gate, bags under arm, to come in again: through the gate, down the path, to be greeted, properly by Aunt Biddy and her unending kindness.

Biddy met no “cases” at the door, she took on no “problem children,” Biddy met children, young people: those who they were.

And they were all embraced as her own: expected to attend Church on Sundays, sent off to the same school adjacent the Church, and welcomed into a chaotic, and wonderful, and complicated, and generous home.

Dawn entered this home as a teenager. Years later she asked my Aunt, “how many people do you know who were born as teenagers?”
“None,” Biddy replied.
“Yes, you do … Me.”

What my Great Aunt Biddy knows in her bones, shaped by her Christian faith I’m sure, are the lessons of baptism.

Not baptism merely as a ritual avowal of our beliefs. Nor baptism as a routine rite of passage into one among many of the cultural and religious communities of the world. Nor baptism as the commitment of parents to induct and instruct their children in the ways of the tradition.

Aunt Biddy knows that new life must always begin at the beginning. Aunt Biddy knows that baptism is always the welcome home. Always meeting people as themselves, as those who they are.

It is the beginning of new life.
It is the welcome home.
Baptism is for the sake of the quiet, secret work in which love restores the world.

One of the things that’s interesting in the emphasis on baptism on this day of the Christian calendar, is that the text from the Gospel is actually the wrong baptism. Christians take our understanding of baptism not from Jesus’ own baptism in the Jordan, but from the baptism Jesus undergoes in his crucifixion.

So it is that The Basis of Union — the founding theological statement of this church — talks of, “[Christ’s] baptism, which was accomplished once on behalf of all in his death and burial…” (Basis, §7)

Of all the Gospels Matthew seems to recognise this awkwardness in the way Jesus comes to John at the Jordan to be baptised. Matthew — unlike Mark and Luke (the two other Gospels that seem to tell the story in similar ways) — makes a point of including the awkward conversation between Jesus and John. John refuses to baptise Jesus until Jesus argues him into it.

As a historic point, the commissioning at the end of Matthew’s Gospel — for the disciples to go and make disciples, baptising them in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit — likely reflects, and in turn reinforce some of the earliest baptismal liturgy and practice of the Church. For this reason one can understand why Matthew makes a point of telling the story of Jesus’ own baptism in the Jordan slightly awkward. To make clear that this baptism is not the primary source from which later baptismal liturgy and practice should take its lead.

Nevertheless, although today we have heard the story of the wrong baptism, Jesus’ baptism by John does teach us fundamental lessons about what baptism continues to mean for us.

John, perhaps taking the lead of my Aunt Biddy (although she’d probably resent the suggestion that she was quite that old), understood that baptism is for the healing of the world: turning from captivity to sin, and towards the restoration and freedom offered by God. If this is what baptism means, then what need does the Messiah have for baptism?

Jesus’ decision to be baptised reinforces that he too was on the journey towards the restoration and freedom offered by God. The journey begun at baptism is always a journey with others: the restoration of ourselves is always a restoration in relation with others. It is not first and foremost about what we do, but about the unending kindness we receive ultimately from God.

So it is that The Basis of Union speaks of baptism as being, “united in one fellowship of love, service, suffering and joy.” (Basis §7)

And above all, what Jesus’ baptism signifies is the declaration that Jesus is the beloved child of God. And this is the meaning that baptism must carry with it.

That each of us have become children of God. Not by virtue of the water, but by virtue of the work of love which is renewing the world. By virtue of the Spirit of love which emanates from the true site of baptism: the place where Jesus’ journey with others ends, and where only Christ can go. We have become children of God because of the true baptism of the cross.

In the river we see the glimpse, and at the cross we see in fullness, that God meets us at the front gate on our worst day, and walks us down the path to the doorway home. There we are met with unending kindness.

Baptism is the beginning of new life.
It is the welcome home.

Baptism is not our entryway into an exclusive club, but our witness to the whole world that each of us are embraced as divine children. For all the wrong baptisms, false starts, and fractured beginnings of our lives. Baptism is the renewal, the beginning again, always from the beginning. Baptism is the invitation to be the person who we are: who we truly are, in the love and restoration and freedom of God.

Baptism is good news.
This is good news:

You are a beloved child of the divine
You have a place in the chaotic, and wonderful, and complicated, and generous home of God

No matter the abandonment of your dawn, you are born again on this day
No matter how partial, fragile, or fleeting the love which formed you, you are met with the unending kindness of God

And friends, hear this the Good News:

Christ journeys with us, and before us, going to the cross.
God meets us at the front gate, walks us down the path, and welcomes us with unending kindness again, and again, and again, and again.

Through those we have met in this room, in our lives, as if by chance — and through the baptismal wisdom of the living saints of this world.

May the Spirit who hovered over the waters:
At creation, at your birth, at your baptism
Grant you the gift of the freedom of Christ:
in the name of God,
who created you,
who formed you,
who loves you.