Sermon for the Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

After years and years of preaching on this text I feel I’ve become a broken record–regularly trying to explain why Jesus was Baptized since he obviously did not require remission of sins. I recently discovered a new way of understanding what is happening in this reading. I say “new” but its really only new to me, and dates back to at least the Fourth Century. St. Ambrose of Milan, one of the most important theologians of his era, said, essentially, that in his Baptism, Christ is not cleansed and purified (being perfect and sinless and God himself he didn’t need that) but rather that he cleanses and purifies water, imbuing it with the power to cleanse and purify us.

I love this reading, because it gets to a truth about the Sacraments– namely, that they use ordinary things which have been transformed into the means of extraordinary grace by the power of the Holy Spirit.

This, I think, is something unique and wonderful about the Christian faith. It’s not all about some mental or spiritual transcendence whereby we leave the world and live on some different plane of existence. Rather, God is made known in ordinary, tangible stuff.

The mystery of the Trinity is made manifest when Jesus, a man, stepped into regular old water and revealing to John the Baptist and the assembled crowd, through the descent of the Holy Spirit as a dove and the voice of God the Father, that Jesus was part of the Godhead. Our relationship with the Trinity is effected with regular old water which, by the Grace of God, becomes something extraordinary. The Mystery of Salvation, of Christ’s death and resurrection, is made known to us not through mental gymnastics, but through ordinary water and ordinary bread and ordinary wine which by the Grace of God becomes something extraordinary.

We learn from this morning’s lesson from Acts that the presence of the Holy Spirit is effected not by some sort of transcendental meditation, but through the laying on of physical apostolic hands onto a flesh and blood person, just as today, the Grace of the Holy Spirit is made real when the successors of those first apostles (our bishops) lay their hands, ordinary old hands, onto an ordinary head to confirm or ordain someone. (One of the effects of having an ecumenical lectionary, as I’ve mentioned before, is that sometimes we get lessons that don’t necessarily comport with what we believe the thematic “through-line” of a particular day is; I don’t think this reading from Acts is about Baptism, but rather about Confirmation, though it does relate to this larger point about sacramental theology.)

Anyway, Baptism is about more than just the remission of sins, though for us sinners that’s part of the story. Baptism is also about the ability of God to create a relationship with flesh-and-blood people in the material world, the washing away of the stain of original sin being the first step. It’s about Christ being known not primarily by spiritual athletes who stay in their studies or their cells and just think a lot (as edifying and gratifying as that practice can be from time to time). Nor is it about having some grand “spiritual” experience (again, not a bad thing, but not the point). Rather, the power and glory of God is made present in the midst of remarkably ordinary things: water, bread, wine, flesh, and blood. The Grace of God is made present in the gathering of flesh-and-blood people, who’ve been regenerated by the Holy Spirit and maintain holy relationships with God and each other.

We as Anglican Christians are said to have a particularly Incarnational view of the faith, which is to say that the reality of God becoming human in Christ Jesus makes all the difference for how we view the world. The world is no longer just a place for “stumbling blocks”, but has become the very locus of God’s saving work. Christ’s Incarnation, His Baptism at the Jordan, His whole life of woe, and his physical, bodily Resurrection all point to the fact that the way to holiness is not by some kind of world-denying levitation, but by being Christians in the material world, among ordinary stuff, acknowledging reality, and watching God make his presence known around us in the midst of that which is commonplace, whether it be ordinary water, ordinary bread and wine, or ordinary people. It is ordinary things that serve as the vessels God uses to make His Grace known and felt. God does this for us all the time, but how much more wonderful it is when we recognize it: in plain old water, in tasteless bread, and cheap wine, in that person sitting next to you, in the midst of ordinary stuff. It takes a great God to forgo thunderbolts and a booming voice and the like to make Himself known in the ordinary; it takes a God who values us, who values our experience, who wants to be in a relationship with us all the time.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.