Parish Eucharist 13th January 2019
Jesus' Baptism and Ours
If I were called in
To construct a religion
I should make use of water.
My liturgy would employ
Images of sousing,
A furious devout drench
In Philip Larkin’s poem ‘Water’, there is a superabundance of liquid flowing, sousing, drenching. There is drama and delight in this imagined possibility of a new religion fuelled by this seemingly ordinary substance. Water, in ritual, is not ordinary at all, but a profound symbol of new life.
Water and its powerful imagery is common to every religion. Whether it’s thirst, washing, agriculture, biodiversity, or communicating with the divine, we need water to live. When I visited Nicaragua last February, access to clean water was so scarce that in some villages, virtually everyone was malnourished with toxins and pollutants in their bodies. Without clean water, we die. With water, we live. That’s a stark and powerful reality about our planet, as well as our human rituals and needs.
John the Baptist makes use of water for a ritual that cleansed people’s bodies and souls. He did not invent baptism, though. In the book of Leviticus, God instructed the people of Israel to cleanse themselves from impurities, especially before sacrificing in the temple. Ritual cleansing before approaching God was a part of Jewish life. Special pools called mikvehs were constructed for the purpose. Immersion in flowing water was also part of purification rituals. Archaeological remains of mikvehs from the time of John and Jesus have been uncovered in Israel and in other ancient Jewish communities. John’s form of holy cleansing would have been familiar to Jewish people who gathered around him.
Jesus’ baptism by John created a new way of experiencing baptism as union with God in a shared way of life. Through Jesus, in the presence of the Holy Spirit and God the Father, water itself became not just symbolic, but truly holy. The life we share when we’re baptised is the life that Jesus lived: caring for the poor, praying to God, encouraging each other, seeking justice. To put it another way, when Jesus was baptised by John along with a big crowd of followers, Jesus was saying to everyone: ‘Come on in! The water’s fine!’
The Baptism of Jesus is known as the first ‘Luminous Mystery’. The symbolism of water is at the heart of this, and there is dazzling light too as the clouds open and the Holy Spirit descends with a radiance to accompany the voice of Jesus’ Father. And God the Father offers one of the finest sentences in the whole Bible. In this moment of tender initiation, God declares: ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’
The voice of God at Jesus’ baptism is the same voice of the Lord we hear about in today’s psalm. The same voice ‘divideth the flames of fire’ and ‘shaketh the wilderness’. The powerful voice of creation is also tender: the voice of the Lord ‘maketh the hinds to bring forth young’. God’s voice is not just the ruler over life, but the source of life. And God’s voice speaks at Jesus’ baptism.
Indeed, God’s voice speaks at every baptism. Something precious and unique happens every time someone is baptised. At a baptism, the fullness of God’s Holy Spirit rests upon and within the person receiving this holy sacrament. At every Baptism, God speaks to us and calls us by name. To each baptised person, to you, to me, and to all who have received this sacrament of love, God says: ‘You are my beloved. With you I am well pleased.’ This echoes what we hear in Isaiah today when God says to his beloved people: ‘I have called you by name. You are mine.’ God forms us in our mother’s womb. God knows us. Not only in what we’re like or what we do, but at the cellular level. Every hair, every toe, every nose. The God of eternity is the God of our unique fingerprints.
Those who are baptised, as Jesus was, are embraced by the everlasting arms of God our creator and held close within the heart of Jesus. At baptism, the Spirit that hovered over the waters at the beginning of the world itself, hovers over and within us, as we welcome a new member of God’s family. Baptism is not just about an individual who is named and welcomed by God. Baptism is social. It’s about all of us, together. That’s why it’s so wonderful when baptisms happen within our parish Eucharist on a Sunday morning. We have one next week, when Jonathan Harper will be baptised here and we will celebrate his baptism and everyone’s baptism together as a Christian community. He will be named, loved by God and welcomed as his beloved. As God delights in Jonathan and all baptised here, God delights in every single human being and every creature.
Every person bonded together in baptism is bonded within the Body of Christ. So every person who is baptised is our brother and our sister in God’s sacred family. We worship the Trinitarian God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. All are present and participating in this profound act of baptism, through which God abides in us. And baptism happens once, whether someone is 18 months old or 80 years old; what it means to be baptised into God’s love unfolds throughout our whole lives. Through water that cleanses and in the power of Spirit at work in us, we walk in the light of Christ. We are Christians – that is our new name given to us in baptism – and when we are compassionate, serve the poor, and seek the common good in our actions (especially when it’s uncomfortable or risky to do so), we are reviving and remembering our baptism.
Every sacrament – baptism, the Eucharist, ordination too – brings us closer to God, by enhancing rather than diminishing or erasing who we really are. We are all unique individuals. God created us that way. We are all united in one family. In the Eucharistic prayer, just before Communion, the priest says: ‘We break this bread to share in the body of Christ.’ We respond: ‘Though we are many, we are one body, because we all share in one bread.’ At the altar in the Eucharist, and at the font in baptism, we affirm that we belong to each other and we belong to God. Our ability to build relationships, live well, and seek the common good, flows directly from God as a divine gift. As the Early Christian theologian John of Damascus explained, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit ‘dwell in one another…without coalescing or mingling, but cleaving to each other.’ The mutual love between the Holy Spirit, the Father, and the Son, distinctive from each other and united as one God, is the source of Life itself.
Today we give thanks for our life together in Christ through baptism. This prayer’s imagery is powerful: water flows from the holy origin of God. It is lively, fresh, and invites us into its flow. As the anthropologist Mercia Eliade wrote, water is fons et origo, the ‘spring and origin’ of all our human potential. When you come up for Communion, go to the font at the back of the church today too. There you will find holy water, blessed by Jeremy this morning. Run your fingers through it, feel its flow, and make the sign of the cross with it if you wish. Remember that you are loved by God, and that baptism unites us with God and with each other. And if you are not baptised and would like to be, feel free to speak to any of us after the service. As we celebrate the Baptism of Christ together today, let us celebrate God’s gift of baptism, uniting our diversity within God’s family, together in our holy Mother Church. Amen.
Response to the sermon:
I saw water flowing from the threshold of the temple.
Wherever the river flows
everything will spring to life. Alleluia.
On the banks of the river grow trees bearing every kind of fruit.
Their leaves will not wither nor their fruit fail.
Their fruit will serve for food,
their leaves for the healing of the nations.
For the river of the water of life
flows from the throne of God and of the Lamb.
God in Christ gives us water welling up for eternal life.
With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.
Lord, give us this water and we shall thirst no more.
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
It is right to give thanks and praise.
Blessed are you, sovereign God of all,
to you be glory and praise for ever.
You are our light and our salvation.
From the deep waters of death
you have raised your Son to life in triumph.
Grant that all who have been born anew by water and the Spirit
may daily be renewed in your image,
walk by the light of faith,
and serve you in newness of life;
through your anointed Son, Jesus Christ,
to whom with you and the Holy Spirit
we lift our voices of praise.
Blessed be God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Blessed be God for ever.
in our baptism you have consecrated us
to be temples of your Holy Spirit.
May we, whom you have counted worthy,
nurture this gift of your indwelling Spirit with a lively faith
and worship you with upright lives;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
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