Baptism of Christ; Matthew 3:13-17
On this Feast of the Baptism of Christ we remember and commemorate that event by renewing our own baptismal vows. We are also coming out of a rare Christmas season where the Feast of the Holy Name took precedence over the usual First Sunday after Christmas. These two events, Holy Name and the Baptism of Our Lord, pair together really well, I think.
The Collect for Holy Name reads in part, “you gave to your incarnate Son the holy name of Jesus to be the sign of our salvation.”
The name Jesus isn't holy in and of itself, as it was the same name as Joshua, and means “God shall save.” It's not the name that saves, but the person behind the name that saves and makes the name holy. The name of Jesus is holy because it is the sign of our salvation. The name of Jesus is holy because of how he lived his life. The name of Jesus is holy because he lived in perfect harmony and unity with God's will. It is because he lived in accordance with God's will, it is because he knew God as love, it is because he submitted to the will of God (even to the point of death on a cross), that every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord.
In the baptism of Christ we see some of this holiness. There are multiple moving parts to this event which people have discussed, debated, and wrote about for centuries. There is the obvious confirmation of the Trinity with Jesus, the descending dove/Spirit, and the voice from heaven proclaiming Jesus as the beloved Son.
In Christ's baptism we have Jesus participating in the human condition. That is, while he himself was sinless, he was baptized in solidarity with all other humans who are baptized to be cleansed from sin. Jesus never shied away from being in contact with those people whom society labeled sinners, and this baptismal act reinforces his solidarity with all of us.
The baptism of Christ is certainly a special event. But in looking at this event, we must be careful not to see it as the moment when God adopted a man named Jesus as his son and conferred special divine powers upon him. Instead this should be seen as an Epiphany event. Like on January 6 when we not only commemorate the wise men arriving at the Holy Family's house in Bethlehem to offer gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, and we alternatively call that feast day “The Manifestation of Our Lord Jesus Christ to the Gentiles,” but we commemorate that these men were the first gentiles to recognize Jesus as king of the Jews. The Epiphany event here is that Jesus is proclaimed as Christ to the world.
These two events over the last two Sundays, Holy Name and the Baptism of Christ, remind us of why the name of Jesus is holy and they make known to us the revelation of Jesus as God's beloved Son with whom he is well-pleased.
Last week, and in my Soundings article, I reiterated why the name of Jesus is holy. As I said earlier, it is holy because of all Jesus stood for and accomplished. Today, with his baptism, we renew our vows to live as he lived. Will you continue in the life of the Church? Will you resist evil and repent? Will you proclaim by word and example the good news? Will you love your neighbor as yourself? Will you strive for justice?
These are not simply things we say in a Sunday liturgy, parroting words on a page. These are things we should strive to do in our lives each and every day. These are things we do that reflect the life of Christ. These are things we do that make holy the name of Jesus. If we promise to do these things and then don't – and I don't mean a slip up now and then, but actively not doing them after promising to do them – then it is by those non-actions, or contrary actions, that we defile the name of Jesus. It is by acting contrary to how Christ acted that we take his holy name in vain. And it is by acting contrary to how Christ acted that we ourselves become anti-Christ.
But this is not only about us. This is not only about our personal sins, our personal repentance, or our personal relationship with Jesus. This is also about corporate and systemic sins with which we live and with which we participate.
In the gospel of Luke, John's “Brood of Vipers” comment is directed to the crowd. “What then should we do?” they ask him. His response is telling.
If you have two coats, share with anyone who has none, and do likewise with food. Tax collectors are not to collect more than the prescribed amount. Soldiers are instructed to not extort money by threats or false accusations. Being baptized means that part of what we do is to work for justice, to level the playing field, and to treat all people with dignity and respect.
If this sounds familiar, think about the words of the Magnificat, or the words of Isaiah when he wrote, “Prepare the way of the Lord. Every valley shall be filled, every mountain made low.” Jesus himself said he came to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, and to let the oppressed go free.
Today this might look like providing adequate housing and healthcare to those on the margins. It might be to ensure justice for minorities by addressing racial profiling and policies of systemic racism. It might mean we work to end predatory loan practices and release people from the captivity of excessive debt.
As an example: we grocery shop at Martin's, like I'm sure a lot of you do. They have a program where you can round up your purchase and the extra change goes to school lunch programs or the Maryland Food Bank or other such programs. How many of you do this? It's an easy way to help out, an extra 87 cents won't break me, and it keeps my check book tidy. But every time I do that, I wonder why we as a society are battling hunger with extra change from our grocery bill instead of finding a way to budget for proper nutrition for all people in the US. We, as a country, will spend hundreds of millions of dollars, or billions of dollars, on police and military budgets, but next to nothing to help feed, clothe, and shelter people.
Being baptized in the name of Jesus is not only about dealing with our personal sins; it's also about how we as a body will address systemic issues that actively work to elevate a certain segment of our population while continually keeping others downtrodden.
“Your kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven” is a prayer that won't be answered until we ourselves begin to follow where the Holy Name of Jesus trod and live into the baptismal promises and vows we make. May we who celebrate these two Feast Days be worthy of proclaiming the Holy Name of Jesus and live lives that reflect the promises and vows of our baptism.