Today we recall our baptism, whose grace derives from Christ’s own baptism, which we celebrate on this day. It is part of the Epiphany season which is all to do with Christ’s revealing Himself as Lord and God to both Jews and Gentiles. That first revealing was to the Gentile wise men, and, by using their initials, this itself is linked by the blessing of chalk so that we can take the Church’s blessing to our homes for the coming year. As we have a UPVC door, I had to mark the brickwork next to the door; this marking is a way of revealingChrist to the passing world, and thus links to the Epiphany theme.
Today’s readings bring out the meaning of Christ’s baptism. In the OT lesson, we hear how the Holy Spirit moved upon the face of the waters at creation; this was an essential preliminary to the bringing forth of all life. That same Lord and Giver of Life moves upon the water of baptism, and brings new life, a new birth, when we are baptised.
The second reading from Acts shows the connection between baptism and confirmation. We see that from the early days of the Church there was a distinction between the two sacraments of baptism and confirmation, and that at confirmation there was always apostolic ministry. In this instance Paul the apostle on a visit to the church in Ephesus first has the new believers validly baptised in water, then He lays hands on them to receive the Holy Spirit. To this day the minister of confirmation is always a bishop, a successor of the apostles. Many of us were baptised as infants, being claimed for Christ early on and brought up as Christians; later, when we came to believe for ourselves, we were confirmed, publicly affirming our allegiance to Christ, and opening ourselves to the power of the Holy Spirit to live the Christian life. This morning we renew all this, and can rejoice in the grace the Lord has given us afresh.
In the Gospel reading, we heard John the Baptist, who baptized in water, foretell the coming of the Messiah who would baptize us with the Holy Spirit and with fire. The fire is to empower and to refine us so we can live effectively as Christians and proclaim Him to the world. Jesus Himself was baptized with water and immediately afterwards the Holy Spirit came down upon Him and remained with Him. Why did Jesus, our Lord and God, need this? Because He is also fully human, and did not start His mission or perform any miracles except as a Spirit-filled man. He asks us to follow Him in carrying on His work, and He has cleansed us and filled us with the Holy Spirit so that we can do so. He never sends us to do anything for Him without equipping us fully for the task.
The baptism of Christ, which we celebrate today, is a Trinitarian moment, for Christians believe in the three Persons who are one divine Being. God the Holy Spirit descends on God the Son, and God the Father declares that Jesus is that Son, the Beloved. Here God is revealed – an Epiphany event – and revealed as Triune. It is in the name of that Holy Trinity that the Church acts today in all her rites and sacraments. It is in that name you were baptized and confirmed, the effects of which have this morning been renewed. It is in that name I invite you to receive the Lord sacramentally from this altar, or, if you are not a communicant, to receive a blessing, as you kneel in humble allegiance to Jesus your Lord and Saviour. If you are joining in at home via the Internet, words to help you make an act of Spiritual Communion will be displayed on the screen.
Don’t forget to use the Epiphany chalk! And may God bless you and your homes throughout this year that Christ may be revealed to the world.
I end this sermon with a meditation by a third-century Christian, written in the style of St Hippolytus from the same era.
“That Jesus should come and be baptized by John is surely cause for amazement. To think of (Him,) the infinite river that gladdens the city of God being bathed in a poor little stream; of the eternal and unfathomable fountainhead that gives life to all men being immersed in the shallow waters of this transient world!
“He who fills all creation, leaving no place devoid of his presence, he who is incomprehensible to the angels and hidden from the sight of man, came to be baptized because it was his will. And behold, the heavens opened and a voice said: This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.
“The beloved Father begets love, and the immaterial Light generates light inaccessible. This is he who was called the son of Joseph and in his divine nature is my only Son.
“This is my beloved Son. Though hungry himself, he feeds thousands; though weary, he refreshes those who labour. He has no place to lay his head yet he holds all creation in his hand. By his suffering he heals all sufferings; by receiving a blow on the cheek he gives the world its liberty; by being pierced in the side he heals the wound in Adam’s side.
“And now, please pay close attention, for I want to return to that fountain of life and contemplate its healing waters as they gush out.
“The Father of immortality sent his immortal Son and Word into the world, to come to us men and cleanse us with water and the Spirit. To give us a new birth that would make our bodies and souls immortal, he breathed into us the spirit of life and armed us with incorruptibility. Now if we become immortal, we shall also be divine; and if we become divine after rebirth in baptism through water and the Holy Spirit, we shall also be heirs along with Christ, after the resurrection of the dead.
“So I cry out, like a herald: Let peoples of every nation come and receive the immortality that flows from baptism. This is the water that is linked to the Spirit, the water that irrigates Paradise, makes the earth fertile, gives growth to plants, and brings forth living creatures. In short, this is the water by which a man receives new birth and life, the water in which even Christ was baptized, the water into which the Holy Spirit descended in the form of a dove.
“Whoever goes down into these waters of rebirth with faith renounces the devil and pledges himself to Christ. He repudiates the enemy and confesses that Christ is God, throws off his servitude and becomes an adopted son. He comes up from baptism resplendent as the sun and radiating purity and, above all, he comes as a son of God and a co-heir with Christ.
“To him be glory and power, to him and his most holy, good and life-giving Spirit, both now and for ever. Amen.”