Preaching Notes for the First Sunday After the Epiphany/Baptism of the Lord (January 10, 2016)
Luke’s account of the baptism of Jesus begins with great expectations. Luke tells us that at first these expectations concern John the Baptist and whether he might be the promised Messiah. John the Baptist answers this by telling his followers that he is not the Messiah, but that the Messiah is coming soon. In contrast to John’s water baptism, this long-awaited Messiah will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire (echoing the elements— water and fire—found in the passage from Isaiah). In Luke’s story, the baptism of Jesus takes place along with the other people who have gathered to be baptized by John. Jesus is baptized in community with others. However, the baptism of Jesus stands out in two ways. First, Luke notes that after Jesus was baptized, Jesus was praying. Were others praying as well? The text doesn’t say. Second, after Jesus’ baptism, the heavens opened up, and the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus in the form of a dove. And a voice from heaven spoke: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Only a few short weeks ago we celebrated the birth story of Jesus at Christmas. The Advent season has a two-fold purpose: we prepare for his birth, but we also prepare for his coming again. Thus, the entirety of the season prepares us for the new birth of Resurrection. So it makes sense that between the birth story of Christmas and the second birth story of Resurrection on Easter, the church recalls the Baptism of the Lord.
At one level, then, the baptism of Jesus signals the start of Jesus’ public ministry—his birth into ministry in the public arena. But what is baptism about for Christians today? In some traditions of the Christian church today, baptism signals a public confession of Christ as Lord and Savior. In others, baptism marks a person as part of the body of Christ. It is, in a sense, the starting point for a life of discipleship. United Methodists ascribe to a need for both the acceptance of God’s unmerited grace, an adult conversion lived out through lifelong discipleship. In the words of our official statement on Baptism, By Water and the Spirit:
John Wesley retained the sacramental theology which he received from his Anglican heritage. He taught that in baptism a child was cleansed of the guilt of original sin, initiated into the covenant with God, admitted into the Church, made an heir of the divine kingdom, and spiritually born anew. He said that while baptism was neither essential to nor sufficient for salvation, it was the “ordinary means” that God designated for applying the benefits of the work of Christ in human lives. On the other hand, although he affirmed the regenerating grace of infant baptism, he also insisted upon the necessity of adult conversion for those who have fallen from grace. A person who matures into moral accountability must respond to God’s grace in repentance and faith. Without personal decision and commitment to Christ, the baptismal gift is rendered ineffective. Baptism for Wesley, therefore, was a part of the lifelong process of salvation. He saw spiritual rebirth as a twofold experience in the normal process of Christian development—to be received through baptism in infancy and through commitment to Christ later in life. Salvation included both God’s initiating activity of grace and a willing human response (“By Water and the Spirit,” see 2, 3 of the “Intro,”).
In the life of the church, this also makes a lot of sense, especially since the texts we will consider over the next few weeks of ordinary time (between Epiphany and the beginning of Lent) will focus on living as baptized disciples of Jesus Christ.
Over these weeks, how can you help the congregation understand what it means to live as baptized members of the body of Christ? How does being baptized affect their daily living? Do they even think about it? If they don’t, how can you help them be reminded of what it means to live baptismally?
The Lord created Jacob, the Lord formed the nation of Israel, and the Lord will redeem them. What does the Lord promise Israel? That “when you pass through the waters (the birth canal?), I will be with you.” And through the rivers (The Red Sea, the deep waters, the treacherous seas that toss and turn us), they shall not overwhelm you. And when you walk through fire you shall not be burned. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior…Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you…Do not fear, for I am with you…Everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.”
Even though this passage is not fundamentally about either an individual or about Christian baptism, one might draw a connection between the following: God’s creation of Israel and God’s creation of each one of us; God’s claim on Israel as God’s own, and God’s claim on each one of us as God’s own; God’s promise of redemption to the chosen nation and God’s promise of redemption to each one of us through Jesus Christ. Ultimately, baptism is a reminder of the interconnectedness of all Christians. Indeed, God has called each of us by name and claimed us as God’s own when we are baptized into the body of Christ.
It is important that this passage not be separated from its larger story of which it is a part. In the previous chapter, Stephen, who is described as “full of grace and power” and who “did great wonders and signs among the people,” (Acts 6:8) preached a powerful message of condemnation on the record of the Jewish people and their failure to be obedient to God. He then came down hard on the Jewish Council and the high priest, which led to his martyrdom by stoning. During his stoning, Stephen witnessed to a vision of Jesus Christ standing at the right hand of God. As Stephen lay dying, he prayed forgiveness for his persecutors. This event provoked even more widespread and severe persecution against the apostles who were preaching the good news of Jesus Christ, particularly by Saul.
In spite of this, Philip continued the work of proclaiming the good news by heading on to Samaria to proclaim Jesus as the Messiah and healing many in his name. Philip was so powerful in proclaiming his message that he was able to convince a local magician by the name of Simon that his power was of God. Simon, in turn, began to witness to others about how Philip was doing a new and powerful thing in Samaria. Simon believed Philip’s power to be of God. Simon became a convert, and so did many other people in Samaria. Philip apparently baptized these new Christians with water.
Word quickly got back to the apostles in Jerusalem that the Samaritans were accepting the Word of God and being baptized, so they sent Peter and John to pray for them. These folks had apparently already been baptized with water; but now, through the prayers of Peter and John, they received the power of the Holy Spirit. Luke does not explain why these two acts were separated in this situation; however, it is clear that the laying on of hands and the prayer for the Holy Spirit was integral to the early church’s understanding and practice of baptism. Christian baptism is by water and the Spirit.
In many congregations today, this second part of the baptismal act—the laying on of hands in prayer for the Holy Spirit—has been eliminated from the service. The current United Methodist Book of Worship seeks to bring these two parts of baptism back together (see UMC Book of Worship, Baptismal Covenant I, section 11 and 11a, pp 91). In the early church, the laying on of hands and praying for the Holy Spirit was often accompanied by anointing with oil. If it is not already a regular part of the baptismal service in your church, the prayer for baptism by the Holy Spirit with the laying on of hands and, if desired, anointing with oil, is a practice that United Methodists might consider reintroducing as part of regular baptismal services. This is especially important if we are to use oil to anoint in other contexts, such as in services for healing and reconciliation, or to anoint the sick and the dying. People will have difficulty understanding the role of anointing and the healing power of the Holy Spirit if they do not comprehend its ties to their basic baptismal identity.
This Scripture lesson provides an opportunity to preach on the laying on of hands, invoking the power of the Holy Spirit, and anointing with oil as integral to Christian baptism. How do the people in our congregations understand the role of the Holy Spirit in baptism? Does the Holy Spirit have a role, or do we understand baptism to be only about water? What does the passage from Luke and the baptism of Jesus teach us about the role of the Holy Spirit in baptism? What about anointing? Do we, as pastors, offer to anoint the sick and dying? What, if anything, is the role of anointing with oil in the context of Christian worship? Do our congregations offer services of healing and reconciliation and anointing? Is there a need for us to offer these types of services for our congregations?
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