Sermon Preached on January 13, 2008
First Sunday after the Epiphany - Year A

The first Sunday after Epiphany traditionally includes the story of Jesus’ baptism at the Jordan. All four Gospels include the story. And, here in Year A of the three year lectionary cycle, we read the account from Matthew. Because of this reading, our prayer book indicates that this Sunday is one of five days in the year “especially appropriate” for Holy Baptism.[1] So, while we do not have any candidates for baptism to present today, I want, nonetheless, to focus on the significance of baptism in our life and ministry. But first, I want to talk about fondue.

Fondue pots were very trendy in the 70s and 80s. I remember fondue night in my home as a child – we’d all have our own skewer and a bowl of shrimp or steak cubes in front of us. Listening to the sizzle as the cold shrimp hit the hot oil at the bottom of the fondue pot, the sweet smell of cooked shrimp - and the taste. All gone as quickly as it arrived. But it’s still a nice memory. And, perhaps some of you are familiar with that restaurant franchise – The Melting Pot which celebrated the opening of its 100th location in 2006 and now has 129 locations open in 35 states with another 42 in development.[2] Four courses of fondue delight. But, like the experience of my youth, as quickly as the experience begins it ends. Once you’ve popped that last chocolate dipped strawberry or banana into your mouth, the experience is done.

Whenever I meet with parents who want their child baptized, I ask them, “Why do you want your child baptized?” And invariably I get one of two answers. Either they feel it is the right thing to do – in other words, doesn’t everybody get their child baptized? - or, they want to be sure that their child is “right with God.” And, in keeping with both of these understandings, we baptize the child, the family returns home and, more often than not, we don’t see the family again until the next rite of passage in their life – perhaps the baptism of another child, maybe the confirmation of a child, or a funeral or wedding. Too often our understanding of baptism parallels our experience of fondue. Imagine the holy water as a vat of warm chocolate. Sprinkle a little bit on us – or, in some traditions, fully immerse yourself in it – and presto the baptism is complete. We’ve been dipped and done. And, as a church, we reinforce this “dipped and done” understanding of baptism by allowing it to happen. To be sure, there are exceptions to this rule and, most of you sitting here today are one of those exceptions. And I thank God for each and every exception among us. But, as a church, we have gotten a bit sloppy – the clergy and laity alike – because we allow baptisms to be “done” without any real expectation or hope that something more will follow.

Today, I would like to invite each one of you to join me in thinking differently about baptism. In the first place, when we baptize our children because we believe that it is the right thing to do – that it is simply what everybody does, we are missing a major point. While it is true that the majority of Christians – or certainly the majority of Episcopalians, Roman Catholics, and mainline Protestants – baptize infant children, the reason we do so is not because everyone is doing it. It’s not about popularity. In fact, baptism, by its very nature, is baptism out of popularity. When we take seriously the demands made of us at baptism, we must realize that baptism is about living life out of popularity into the challenge of the gospel - a gospel that demands something of us. By choosing baptism, we are choosing not to be like everybody else, we are choosing not to fit in. We are choosing to live in this world, but not to consent to the way life is lived in this world. No, baptism is not done because it’s the right thing to do.

Well, what about that second claim, that baptism is about being made right with God. My friends, each and everyone one of us – is right with God long before we are baptized. Scripture teaches us that we are loved by God even before we are baptized – even before we are born. There is a beautiful verse in Psalm 139 that says of God, “For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.”[3] That, my friends, is God’s love for us, God’s acceptance of us from the beginning. The early church understood this as well. Peter’s speech in the Acts of the Apostles from which we read this morning says that “God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”[4] God loves us, God accepts us. Then, there is baptism. Peter tells us that God was with Jesus and for this reason “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth.”[5] Jesus is a grown man when he is baptized at the Jordan; but we know from the stories read at Christmas that God was present in his life from the beginning. So, baptism is not about being made right with God.

So, what then is baptism? Baptism is our response to God’s love. And the response we give at baptism is meant only as a beginning. Peter says, in baptism “God anointed Jesus with the Holy Spirit and with power” and then Jesus’ ministry began. Jesus is baptized and then he “went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed.” Baptism is a beginning. In baptism we receive God’s power through the Holy Spirit to fulfill the promises we make in the Baptismal Covenant, a covenant we renew each time a baptism takes place in this church. The promises – there are five of them – are about a life of action. We promise:
  • To continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers;
  • To persevere in resisting evil, and whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord;
  • To proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ;
  • To seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself; and
  • To strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being

No, my friends, baptism is not about being dipped and done, it is about being dipped and begun!

In November, you may recall that we had baptisms two Sundays in a row. On those two Sundays a young family was worshipping with us for the first time. And one of the children commented to his mother that it was cool that this church has baptisms every Sunday. When the mother shared his comment with me, we laughed at how adorable children can be. But, this week, as I reread the account of Jesus’ baptism, that child’s comment returned to me – they do baptisms every week at that church. We begin each week at church to gather strength for the work we have to do. In the post-communion prayer we offer thanks to God "for feeding us with the spiritual food of the most precious Body and Blood of your Son our Savior Jesus Christ” and then we ask God to “send us out to do the work you have given us to do, to love and serve you as faithful witnesses of Christ our Lord.”[6] In other words, to continue the work that we promised to do at the time of our baptism and each time when we stand up and renew our baptismal covenant. They do baptisms every week at that church.

Baptism is about our response to God’s love for us. It is a choice we make for ourselves or for our children to live our lives out of step with the ways of this world and in step with the ways of God for the world. And it is a choice for action. At the beginning of this New Year, I invite each of you to join me in asking for God’s guidance as we seek – both as individuals and as a community of Christ – to actively live out our baptismal covenant in our families, in our church, in our communities, and in the world. Because, baptism was only a beginning. We weren’t dipped and done, we’re dipped and begun.

[1] BCP, 312.
[2] The Melting Pot, Inc. history accessed online on January 11, 2008 (Copyright 2007).
[3] Psalm 139:13.
[4] Acts 10:34-5.
[5] Acts 10:38.
[6] BCP, 366.