11 January 2015
St. Augustine's Episcopal Parish
Ah, what a great Sunday to get to preach (especially if you happen to be a third-year seminarian)! This Sunday we have the symbolically rich intersection of liturgical time and Sacramental theology. In terms of the Church Year, this is the First Sunday after the Epiphany and the Feast of the Baptism of our Lord Jesus Christ. ‘Epiphany’ means “showing,” and it’s when we celebrate the manifestation, the showing-forth of Christ to the wide world. The Baptism of Jesus is the second in a series of showings celebrated by the Church from Epiphany until the beginning of Lent. The traditional set of ‘showings’ also includes the story of the Magi, the story of the wedding at Cana, and on the Last Sunday after the Epiphany before Ash Wednesday we always remember the Transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain. Each of these is a kind of showing-forth, an epiphany that gives us a different perspective on what Christ makes manifest to the world. So what is the epiphany behind the Baptism of Jesus? What does it show forth?
The baptism that Jesus underwent was what our lesson from Acts this morning calls “John’s baptism.” And John’s baptism, according to this morning’s Gospel, was “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” John the baptizer appears in the wilderness clothed like a wild man, a cultural outsider, proclaiming this baptism, and the text says that “the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.” If John’s baptism was the end of the story, there’s enough symbolism here to keep someone like me busy for a long time. Crossing the river Jordan and entering the Promised Land, this is the quintessential action that marks the fulfillment of God’s covenant with Abraham and defines membership among the people of Israel, God’s chosen nation. For a rough parallel to what John is doing out there at the symbolic threshold to covenantal relationship with the Divine, imagine with me a controversial prophetic figure from our culture’s recent past, someone like Martin Luther King, Jr., setting up an operation on Ellis Island. Imagine that through word of mouth, what seems like all of New York City makes its way out there to ritually reboot its American citizenship and live according to the set of values Martin Luther King, Jr. represents. John’s baptism was no small matter. It dealt with the root of people’s corporate identity and called them to a different way of being in the Promised Land.
So Jesus goes out to be baptized by John in the Jordan, to symbolically reboot his membership among the people of Israel, and something remarkable takes place. Listen again to the words of today’s Gospel: “And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.’” John Macquarrie, a Scottish Anglican priest and theologian, says that Jesus’ baptism is the prototype for Christian baptism1 because it goes beyond just the forgiveness of sins and the rebooting of tribal membership. It entails the rending of the veil between heaven and earth and the manifestation of the Holy Spirit, and it gives a testimony about God’s disposition towards humanity. When John’s baptism meets Jesus, the ritual is transformed, and the symbol becomes more than just a symbol; it becomes a Sacrament.
Holy Baptism is a Sacrament of the Church. It’s one of the “two great Sacraments” of the Gospel because it, along with Holy Eucharist, was given to and mandated for the Church directly by Jesus in the New Testament. Let’s refresh our memory a bit about what our Church teaches about Sacraments. Turn with me to page 857 in the Book of Common Prayer and find the section titled, “The Sacraments.” I’ll ask the questions, you speak the answers together like a good group of catechumens:
Q. What are the sacraments?
A. The sacraments are outward and visible signs of inward
and spiritual grace, given by Christ as sure and certain
means by which we receive that grace.
Q. What is grace?
A. Grace is God's favor toward us, unearned and
undeserved; by grace God forgives our sins, enlightens
our minds, stirs our hearts, and strengthens our wills.
Q. What are the two great sacraments of the Gospel?
A. The two great sacraments given by Christ to his Church
are Holy Baptism and the Holy Eucharist.
And let’s continue. Under “Holy Baptism”:
Q. What is Holy Baptism?
A. Holy Baptism is the sacrament by which God adopts us
as his children and makes us members of Christ's Body,
the Church, and inheritors of the kingdom of God.
Q. What is the outward and visible sign in Baptism?
A. The outward and visible sign in Baptism is water, in
which the person is baptized in the Name of the Father,
and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Q. What is the inward and spiritual grace in Baptism?
A. The inward and spiritual grace in Baptism is union with
Christ in his death and resurrection, birth into God's
family the Church, forgiveness of sins, and new life in
the Holy Spirit.
That’s enough for now, class, thank you.
So this is what The Episcopal Church has to say about the nature of Sacraments in general and about Holy Baptism in particular. There’s a lot of really good stuff here, but in true Anglican fashion, I’m not ready to just accept these answers wholesale because they’re printed in the back of the BCP. I’d like to push back a bit.
If the Sacrament of Holy Baptism has the Baptism of Jesus as its prototype, I think our Catechism is a bit misleading when it talks about Baptism’s role in God’s family matters. Notice with me the words “adopts” and “birth” in answers one and three under “Holy Baptism” used to describe a new relationship with God that Baptism is purported to inaugurate. This is where I’d like to push back, and for support in my dissenting opinion, I turn to another distinguished Oxford don, Anglican priest and theologian, Oliver C. Quick, who in his 1927 book The Christian Sacraments claims that Holy Baptism is essentially the Sacrament of humanity’s “filial relation” to God. Quick challenges the position presented in our BCP Catechism that our identity as God’s children begins at baptism. Rather, he argues, baptism is the point at which a child of God begins “to realize the meaning, powers and obligations, of that filial relation in which it already is.” In other words, Holy Baptism doesn’t make us God’s children; it is, rather, a showing-forth of our identity as such.
But this problem isn’t the fault of the Prayer Book alone. According to Quick, “New Testament teaching displays a real ambiguity as to what may be called the extent of God’s Fatherhood, and therefore as to the meaning of Baptism as the sacrament of that Fatherhood.” Professor Quick continues:
On the one hand the acceptance of the gospel, together with the sacrament which completed it, undoubtedly meant a really new life to the first Christians. They knew themselves to be born again through Jesus Christ. The new was as different from the old as life from death. But this was the language of devotion, not of metaphysical logic, and the very truth of it depended on the fact that it was not the whole truth. For the very newness of the new life was characterized in part by its apprehension of a relation of God toward all [people], which because it was universal, could not be newly brought into existence, though it was newly revealed. 2
This is Baptism’s Epiphany. It shows forth the truth of our identity as God’s beloved children and gives us the grace of that knowledge in the light of Jesus’ own baptism in the river Jordan when the heavens tore open, the Spirit descended, and the voice declared, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.”
1. Macquarrie, John. A Guide to the Sacraments. London: SCM, 1997.
2. Quick, Oliver C. The Christian Sacraments. London: Fontana, 1927.