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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Baptism of Our Lord 1/12/2014

Back in 1982 a document titled Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry was released by the World Council of Churches.  The intent of this document was to express and define agreement as well as remaining differences in sacramental meaning and practice among various church bodies.  It’s a document that’s been around for awhile but it still gets referenced among those who are concerned about such things; I remember it was required reading when I was in seminary and it probably still is. 

I think you’re probably aware that there was and continues be significant disagreement on both the meaning and practice of Holy Communion, the Eucharist which is why some churches are more open than others regarding who can and cannot receive communion.  We’re still a long way from communion fellowship with the Catholic Church, for example, and the distance is just as great between us and some other Lutheran groups.  On baptism though, there is perhaps surprising agreement on what it means even among groups that often don’t agree on much.  Baptismal practice still varies widely, but there is considerable agreement on meaning. 

In Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry they identified five aspects of meaning for baptism some of which you’ll recognize because they are pretty much part of the common understanding of baptism, others may be less familiar.  I’m not going to go into any great detail, but here’s the five.  The first thing is that baptism involves participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus.  That’s kind of a complicated theological statement, a statement of faith really, but what it says is that in baptism the boundaries of life are changed; because we share in the life of Christ, we also share in his resurrection so that death isn’t the last word for us just as it wasn’t the last word for him. 

Second, Baptism cleanses us from sin.  The symbolism of water as a cleansing agent is a part of all traditions and I think most of us associate baptism with cleansing, with forgiveness, it’s a familiar concept.  Third, in Baptism we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.  That’s another theological assertion that we accept on faith.  Fourth, Baptism is a symbol of inclusion in the church and its ministry, something of a rite of initiation and that too I think is quite commonly understood, and finally Baptism is a symbol of the future and present reign of God; we become part of God’s kingdom as it is revealed now, if only in part, but we’re also pointed toward the time when the kingdom will be revealed in full.  That’s another kind of dense theological statement but it’s one that most Christian church bodies agree on.

That’s a short summary of the five aspects of baptismal meaning from Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry but my intent isn’t to give you a tutorial on baptism this morning, there’s no test at the end of worship but today we celebrate the Baptism of our Lord as we do every year on the first Sunday after Epiphany.  A question that often comes up regarding Jesus’ baptism is “Why was he baptized?  Was it necessary?”  If we look back at those five aspects of meaning identified in Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry it’s easy to see why the question comes up. 

If we say that baptism involves participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus well, Jesus didn’t need to be baptized to participate in his own death and resurrection.  Baptism cleanses us from sin; we say that Jesus was without sin so he didn’t need cleansing from it and that is probably the biggest reason his need for baptism is questioned.  With Baptism comes the Holy Spirit:  our Trinitarian theology would say that Jesus is already one with the Father and the Holy Spirit so again he didn’t have to be baptized to receive the Holy Spirit, it was already part of who he was. 

Baptism has to do with entry into the church: that one we could at least talk about.  It doesn’t really apply to Jesus although I suppose you could say that his baptism marked the beginning of a community that would form around him, the body of Christ as it is sometime called, but still it’s a bit of a reach to say that was reason for Jesus to be baptized.  Finally, baptism is a symbol of the future and present reign of God:  the reign of God was alredy present in all aspects of Jesus’ life;  again, no need for baptism.

So, according to the ways we define baptism one would have to conclude that Jesus did not have to be baptized, but he was even if John the Baptist raised objection.  All four gospels record his baptism as the beginning of his ministry, it was an event that was apparently remembered by many.  So the question is, why? 

For me, the short answer to that is that he was baptized not for him, but for us.  Epiphany is the season when we talk about Jesus’ identity being revealed.  In being baptized what is shown to be central to Jesus’ identity is that he exists for us, that God became human for us; it’s appropriate that this follows so closely after Christmas which is about God with us and for us.  That’s not all that’s going on though; the Spirit descending like a dove and the voice from heaven declaring Jesus “My son, the Beloved” is also central to his divine identity as part of the Trinity but Jesus’ humanity and his full identification with humanity is also a key part of the baptism story.

When Jesus waded into the waters of the Jordan he took his place beside others who had gone out to see and hear John the Baptist, he was with them.  One would assume that these crowds were not the elite of society, but would have included people who were broken and hurting, people hoping for something different, something better.  Jesus didn’t need to be there, except that it was important for him to identify with people who were in need, people who were searching because in doing so, he identifies with all of us because all of us at some time are broken and hurting, in need and searching.

We talk about Jesus with us and for us but one of the questions that came up as the gospels were written and one that continues to come up is exactly who is Jesus with and for?  Some want to put limits on it, but by chapter 3 of Matthew, which is where the account of Jesus’ baptism is recorded, Matthew has already established the idea that Jesus is with and for everyone, including those one might not have expected.  In Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus in chapter 1, if you look at all the names it’s kind of a motley crew that includes many flawed and some downright disreputable characters.  In chapter 2 you have the Epiphany visit of the Wise Men, Wise Men who were foreigners with foreigners viewed by many as outsiders, not part of God’s chosen people.  In these initial stories Matthew is already establishing his understanding of Jesus’ being identified with all kinds of people so his baptism with and among ordinary people follows logically.

One of the earliest heresies regarding Jesus was that he wasn’t really human but only appeared to be human but you can see that especially in these early stories, Matthew is quite deliberately emphasizing Jesus’ humanity, identifying Jesus as being fully human, in solidarity with those who are far from perfect in their humanity.

In the text, regarding his baptism, Jesus says, “It is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”  This too follows on where Matthew has already taken us.  With the character of Joseph Matthew has begun to redefine righteousness.  As a righteous man, Joseph should have put Mary on trial when she was found to be pregnant, but through the word of the angel, Joseph responded with a different kind of righteousness.  Being baptized with others in the Jordan, Jesus too was acting according to a different kind of righteousness, one that was outside the boundaries of what would have been expected, not a rejection of the call for repentance that John was preaching, but moving beyond it.

For himself Jesus did not have to be baptized, but for us he did.  In his baptism he shows that he takes his place with us and for us.  He stands beside each of us in our fears and anxieties, despite our flaws and sinfulness.  In his baptism he blesses the water and fills it with his divine presence so that in our own baptism we are blessed and washed and made part of his life and death and resurrection.  He didn’t do it for him, he did it for us, and by his baptism, we are blessed. 

Rev. Warren Geier

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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