Sermons That Work

Last Week We Celebrated…, Epiphany 1 (A) – 2002

January 13, 2002


Last week we celebrated the Feast of the Epiphany, the manifestation of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles. In these Sundays following the Epiphany you will hear a series of stories and teachings that carry out the theme of God made manifest to us in Christ. Each year on the first Sunday after the Epiphany we celebrate the feast of the Baptism of Our Lord.

Today we have heard the story from the Gospel according to Matthew. Jesus comes to the River Jordan to be baptized by John. This seems strange in itself — what need would there be for Jesus, the sinless one, to be ritually cleansed? And, in fact, John the Baptist tried to argue just that point with him — but to no avail. When the Son of God became incarnate, became flesh, became one of us, he held back nothing. His identification with humankind was complete.

And so Jesus came on that day and entered the water. And the Gospel says that the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” There is also an echo here of the opening words of today’s reading from the prophet Isaiah: “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him.”

The Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord, this first Sunday after the Epiphany, is one of the four Sundays in the church year that are especially recommended for Baptisms. [If a Baptism is taking place in the speaker’s church today, a reference to it would be appropriate here.] Even when there is no one to be baptized, the Prayer Book recommends that the people of the congregation renew their vows. So let us think a little about the sacrament of Baptism today, and how we do that which Jesus commanded us to do: to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Down through the centuries, Christians have been obeying that command. We baptize children and we baptize adults. Baptisms have taken place on riverbanks, in churches, in hospitals, in kitchen sinks, and in swimming pools. Some happen at the beginning of life and some on deathbeds. Baptisms may be surrounded by great pomp and circumstance, or with great secrecy in places where to be a Christian is a punishable offense. We pour, we sprinkle, we immerse, we dunk. The details are not important; what is important is that we baptize with water in the name of the Trinity.

We’ve all probably been at lots of Baptisms. We know how it goes. Let’s say the Baptism we’re imagining is for a baby. He or she is probably dressed in white. That’s a good baptismal color. And present are the happy parents and the friends or relatives they have chosen to be the godparents. Probably there are other friends and family members present for this special occasion. They’re all gathered at the baptismal font, which in most Episcopal churches nowadays is located near the entryway; after all, Baptism is the means by which we are welcomed into the household of God.

There is a very rich symbolism about it all: the cleansing water of baptism; the Paschal candle representing the light of Christ; the oil of chrism that marks the newly baptized as Christ’s own forever. And when it is done, the congregation has its part: “We received you into the household of God. Confess the faith of Christ crucified, proclaim his resurrection, and share with us in his eternal priesthood.” A Baptism, whether of a child or an adult, is always a happy occasion — not only for the person being baptized and their family, but for the whole Body of Christ.

Here is a story about another Baptism, a different kind of Baptism than what we are used to. It happened in a little town in rural southwest Missouri. The Baptism took place not in a church but in the county jail, because Jose, the young man being baptized was, although only 19 years old, a convicted felon. He hadn’t intended to be a criminal. He had a job, and a wife, and a baby girl. But Jose made a big mistake. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time — with people he called friends. But his friends, one night, had robbery in mind. Jose could have walked away from them and the situation, but he didn’t. Now he was going to have time to regret it.

While he was in jail awaiting his sentencing, Jose had been attending the weekly Communion services celebrated by priests from the local Episcopal church. He had never received Communion. “I can’t eat that food,” he said, “I haven’t been baptized.” So the priests talked with him about what baptism meant, and what it meant to be a Christian. He began reading his Bible. Sentencing day was fast approaching, and Jose wanted to be baptized before he was sent away to prison. The sheriff, a good Methodist, was agreeable, and so the date for Jose’s baptism was set.

Four of Jose’s fellow inmates were there to witness the Baptism. Two of them were pleased to act as padrinos, or sponsors. Jose’s “baptismal garment” was just the green coverall worn by all the prisoners. There was no baptismal font, of course, but just a small bowl, a towel, a soft drink bottle full of water, and a small container of chrism that had been blessed by the bishop during Holy Week. You could even say the Baptism happened near the “entrance,” for the room where it took place was the prison intake room — the place not only where new inmates were initially received but also the passageway by which inmates were taken in and out of the building.

“Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?” the priest asked — and just then two guards came through with two men in handcuffs on their way to court. The service went on. “Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior?” “Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love?” “I do,” Jose responded.

And so Jose was baptized. Then it was time for Jose to make his Communion. Three of his fellow inmates, Juan, Pedro, and Enrique, received with him. His friend Jack, who was also there, declined. “No thanks,” he said, “I’m Assembly of God. I just came to watch Jose.” By this time one of the prisoners who had been to court returned — to change out of his jailhouse uniform. “They dropped the charges,” he said, and everyone cheered.

It wasn’t your regular kind of Baptism at all. There were no hymns and no happy relatives. Doors clanged, orders were yelled outside the room. The prison routines went on just as usual. But for Jose, everything had changed forever. The Paschal Candle wasn’t there, but you can be sure that the light of Christ was present. It was indeed an Epiphany experience, for the presence of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, could not have been more palpable. Jose was on his way to prison, but he was a new person, having been born anew in Christ.

“Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights.” These words are true for Jose; they are true for every newly baptized Christian; and thanks be to God, they are true for each of us. AMEN.

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