Today is the first Sunday in probably the least known season in the Christian year. . . . [H]ardly anyone knows much about Epiphany.
If you have ever heard of Old Christmas or Twelfth Night, then you actually do know something about Epiphany. Epiphany falls on January 6, which if you count forward from December 25, adds up to twelve days.
The word Epiphany means manifestation or appearance. It is during this season that we celebrate the many manifestations of Jesus as Messiah. Clearly, what occurred at his baptism is one such manifestation. A voice from on high claiming him to be the Beloved could be inferred as proof positive. Yet the very fact that Jesus was baptized in the first place has perplexed many since the day of its occurrence.
. . . We may not want to think about it, but baptism is about sin. Even infant baptism is about sin. And even Jesus’s baptism was about sin, which brings me to the reason this event has caused me such theological angst for much of my ministry.
– Ruth Harper Stevens
Baptism is much confused in the minds of both church members and the society at large. It is not a naming ceremony, although the one who is baptized is named. It is not just a bath or a moment to be in the spotlight with family and friends gathered around. Notice I used the word “just” as in, it is not just one thing or another.
Baptism is a bath and a gathering-round, but it is also enlightenment, receipt of the Holy Spirit, forgiveness, entry into the body of Christ, becoming a member of the church, belonging to the ekklesia, the called-out-ones. Throughout the entire history of the Christian church, baptism has been the rite of initiation into the community of faith.
This Sunday is a preacher’s opportunity to give the assembly a much-needed glimpse of the depth of baptism.
In our time, baptism has received short shrift as more and more congregations welcome people to the meal of Jesus’ body and blood, whether or not they are baptized. In some churches, this issue is receiving needed discussion; in others, no one notices a question begging to be addressed.
Because Jesus was baptized, we might wish to notice why it is the sacrament he sent the disciples out to do. "Go... make disciples.. baptizing..."
One reason for baptism to have fallen out of favor as entry into the faith community (actually, the sign by which God gives faith!) may have to do with the imagery of dying and rising. Sin is death, and in our culture, sin is a downer. I know an Episcopal priest who has removed the renunciation of sin from the baptismal rite.
The relationship between our sin and our dying to rise again in Christ leads to questions about Jesus and sin.
What does the church do with the fact that Jesus, who was without sin, asked to receive ‘‘a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin’’ (Mk 1:4 NRSV)? In addition, what do we do with the fact that John baptized Jesus, who was far greater than John was? Matthew’s Gospel has John acknowledging that it should have been the other way around (Mt 3:14–15 NRSV). These issues have confounded believers since the church’s inception. . . .
Jesus had no sin that needed confessing. The apostle Paul wrote, ‘‘For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin’’ (2 Cor 5:21a, NRSV). When Jesus stepped into the baptismal waters, which were teeming with sin, Jesus took upon himself the sins of the whole world. He thereby took responsibility for our sins, both individual and corporate, and bore that responsibility all the way to the cross. . . .
Through his baptism, Jesus took responsibility upon himself for the sins of the world. Through our baptism, we also share in taking upon ourselves the sins of the world.
– Ruth Harper Steven
Think of the baptismal water as the “deep” covered by darkness before time began. Think of primordial wind and the “formless void” into which God spoke a word and created all things. All that the one being baptized is and will become are owing to that word from God. Baptism is the infusion of God’s word into that single human being.
The twelve who were baptized by Paul “in the name of the Lord Jesus” receive the Holy Spirit as a sign that this washing, this prayer over them, this laying-on of hands is deeper and richer than what they had understood. So it is with many of us.
Where there is no profundity to the baptismal rite – where it is perfunctory or slapdash – the message is that this is a fairly inconsequential moment.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Renew the baptismal mystery in the congregation you serve by asking:
[W]hen we baptize others, how do we celebrate that we are forgiven because we need God’s cleansing? How do we remember that we too, like Jesus, need God’s Holy Spirit to come into our lives to lead us on the mission that God has for us?
Ruth Harper Steven is retired after 30 years of ministry in the United Methodist North Carolina Conference.
Phyllis Vos Wezeman, a Presbyterian in the PCUSA, has long been involved in programs that nurture Christian faith through education and has published many books and articles.
Homily Service 42, no. 1 (2009): 87-96.