11 January 2015
First Sunday after Epiphany
The Baptism of our Lord
Epiphany 1B (RCL)
In the old Episcopal lectionary, the first two readings and Psalm were the same for the First Sunday after Epiphany for all three years; only the Gospel reading changed. We had the accounts of Jesus’ baptism by John from Matthew in Year A; Mark in Year B and Luke in Year C. The OT was from Isaiah, the first of the Servant Songs (I have taken you by the hand and kept you) and Peter’s sermon to Cornelius from Acts was the second lesson (truly I know God shows no partiality). In the RCL for Year B, we have a snippet of the creation account in Genesis 1, and the story of Paul laying hands on the believers in Corinth, and the gift of the Holy Spirit, after they receive baptism in Jesus’ name.
I would guess that the Genesis is there because of the Spirit of God moving over the waters of chaos, and the voice of God bringing order out of chaos. In the thanksgiving over the water in Baptism, we thank God for the waters of creation (over it your spirit moved at the beginning of creation). In the Acts reading in the RCL, Luke is very concerned to draw a distinction between John’s baptism, and baptism in Jesus’ name. John’s baptism was for repentance and the forgiveness of sins. Baptism in Jesus’ name brings the gift of the Holy Spirit. This is something like the shift made from the understanding of baptism in the 1928 Prayer Book to the understanding of the 1979 Book. In the 28 Book and its predecessors, Baptism took away sin, so that the baptized might enter God’s kingdom. The 1662 English Book opens the service of baptism thus: “Dearly beloved, forasmuch as all men are conceived and born in sin: and that our Saviour Christ saith, None can enter into the kingdom of God, except he be regenerate and born anew of Water and the Holy Ghost . . . [ask God to] grant to this Child that thing which by nature he cannot have.”
The 1979 Book says precious little about Baptism having anything to do with the forgiveness of sin. Instead, it says that “Holy Baptism is full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ’s Body, the Church” (298). The Church is sent into the world as Christ. The questions of the baptismal covenant in 1979 have to do with the way the church carries out God’s mission in the world. This is not your “get out of hell free” card, but rather, your vocation to the ministry of the Church.
Interestingly, after Jesus is baptized by John (in Mark’s Gospel), he alone sees the heavens torn open and hears the voice proclaiming him God’s Son. The imagery is from Isaiah 63 (Would that you would tear open the heavens and come down), and Psalm 2, in addition to the servant imagery of Isaiah. Jesus is exactly God’s answer to Isaiah’s plea for God’s redeeming presence. And immediately after hearing this voice, the spirit drives Jesus into the desert. God’s redeeming presence in the world is found within the wilderness. When we are baptized, we are driven out of our comfortable and normal modes of self-definition into the wilderness where we are dependent on God, and require the ministration of angels. Baptism is the beginning of a journey, rather than the guarantee of its destination.