Here’s a question for you to ponder: Why did Jesus get baptized?
If we look in the Book of Common Prayer (page 858), at the Outline of the Faith, there is a question: “What is the inward and spiritual grace in Baptism?” Or, to put it bluntly, “What do we get out of being baptized?” Here is the answer that the prayer book gives:
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.
So, to break that down:
- Union with Christ in his death and resurrection
- Birth into God’s family, which is the Church
- Forgiveness of sins
- New life in the Holy Spirit
Now, let’s see how that applies to Jesus:
- Union with Christ – Jesus is already the Christ.
- Birth into the Church – Jesus is already the head of the Church.
- Forgiveness of sins – Jesus had committed no sins.
- New life in the Holy Spirit – Jesus is already in union with the Holy Spirit, and the Father: the Holy Trinity.
So, if Jesus didn’t get anything out of baptism, why did he do it? Even John the Baptist himself recognized that he, John, was “not worthy to untie the thong of [Jesus’] sandals.” So what was the point of receiving John’s baptism?
Baptism as a Choice and a Sign
The answer – or at least, an answer – is that Jesus didn’t need to be baptized, but he chose to be baptized. In other words, his baptism was a sign to his followers – those who walked with Jesus then, and those who follow them now. Jesus chose to go to John the Baptist and accept John’s baptism.
It’s important to remember that John the Baptist wasn’t the only option for folks who were looking for a religious experience in Jesus’ day. Just like now, there were a variety of choices available.
- There was the path of political quietism. The Pharisees were the Jewish religious leaders of the day, and they practiced a fairly pragmatic kind of politics. Knowing that the Romans would brutally crush any sign of rebellion, they focused on keeping peace with the Romans whenever possible, while still maintaining and promoting their own views of proper religious worship. And if the religious views of the Pharisees were not tolerable, there was the Sadducees, who held opposing views on questions like life after death, the centrality of Temple worship, etc.
- There was the path of political violence. Jesus could have joined up with violent revolutionaries, or even raised his own army to fight off the Romans.
- There was the path of withdrawal. Jesus could have joined a community like the Essenes, who lived communally under strict ascetic rules and who avoided contact with the broader culture as much as possible.
- Or, Jesus could have kept to himself. He could have followed the law and been a righteous person and a hard worker, and kept his religious views pretty much to himself. (Basically, an Episcopalian.)
But instead, he made the choice to accept John’s baptism. John, a man who was crying out in the wilderness and calling the people to repent – to turn away from their sinful lives. A man who taught that the time to accept God and start changing your life was right now, because time was running out. A man who understood that the Kingdom of God had drawn near. This was a path that would inevitably lead to conflict with everyone — the religious authorities, the Romans, the violent revolutionaries, and the people who just wanted to keep their heads down and live their lives. Jesus chose to be drawn directly into the conflict and chaos, and also to take an approach that was at once radically confrontational and nonviolent.
We can look at Jesus’ acceptance of John’s baptism as a sign that John’s message was important and relevant for Jesus’ followers – then, and now. Jesus didn’t hedge his bets and he didn’t hold back.
The Meaning of Baptism For Us
Most of us here (maybe all of us) have already been baptized. That means, at some point in our lives, we made those baptismal promises: to renounce Satan, to turn away from our sins, to accept Jesus Christ as our savior. Or, more likely, those promises were made on our behalf because we were too young to understand them at the time. Some of us were later confirmed in our faith, making a mature commitment to follow the course we were set upon as infants.
So, if we have already been baptized, what should our response to the story of Jesus’ baptism be?
In my opinion, the best response we can make is to remind ourselves of our baptismal promises, and to do that frequently. Because, although it is true that when we accept Christ, we become “a new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17), as the Apostle Paul puts it. But we are still living in the world, and it is so easy to fall short of our commitment to live a Christian life. We are in need of frequent reminders about our baptismal promises. And we are always in need of God’s grace to actually follow through on those promises.
In a few moments, our clergy will lead us in the renewal of our baptismal promises. We will once again profess our belief in the faith of the church. We will once again promise to continue in prayer and fellowship. We will once again promise to resist evil – and, knowing that we will fail, we will promise to return to the Lord when we do fail. We will promise to proclaim the Gospel, to seek and serve Christ, to strive for justice and peace. And we will recognize, with each of these promises, that we will need God’s help to do these things. And then, together, we will partake in Holy Communion, which will strengthen our union with God and with one another.
My hope, and my prayer, is that when we leave this building tonight and go out into the world, we will remember that our baptism and our faith is a matter of choice. We can remember the sign of Jesus’ radical choice to accept John’s baptism. And we can remember that we have the same choices that Jesus did. We can acquiesce to the world as it is; we can withdraw from the challenges and chaos of the world; we can respond with violence and discord; and we can also do nothing at all.
Or, we can hear the voice of John the Baptist, still crying out to us from the wilderness. We can recognize that now, this moment, this day, is the “acceptable time of the Lord.” We can recognize that the Kingdom of God has drawn near to us, and that it is time to begin changing ourselves and the world. We can answer God’s call to pray, to preach, to serve and to strive with a heartfelt assent: “I will, with God’s help.”
This sermon was preached by the Mr. Ryan Tobin at St. Stephen’s Cathedral on January 12, 2019 for the Celtic Eucharist. The text for the day, which can be found at this link, is: Luke 3:15-17, 21-22.