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THE BAPTISM OF JESUS Acts 19:1-7 & Mark 1:4-11

We were going to be having a baptism today but sadly, the baby’s grandfather died at Christmas after a long illness and understandably her parents decided to postpone the ceremony to the Spring. Today’s readings would have been appropriate for the occasion. But we can still take a cue from them to consider the meaning of baptism, and especially, of Jesus’ baptism.

Why do they do it?
As with couples who come to me to be married, I talk through with baptism parents why they want the ceremony. Somewhere buried in other reasons there is usually a sense, however vague, of wanting God involved. It is easy to be cynical about the many other reasons. Couples sometimes want their baby 'done' so that they can invite their friends for a drink 'to wet the baby's head'. It has been increasingly observed with unmarried parents, that their first child’s baptism is a kind of substitute wedding – a time to gather family and friends together for a special occasion. Maybe they believe, quite wrongly, that the godparents will adopt the baby if the parents die. Or they want a ceremony to give the child a name even though that's already happened when you register the birth. Some parents may say that they want their child to be able to marry in church later in life or even that he or she would go straight to hell if they died unbaptized. Now that's absolute nonsense. Babies can be pretty naughty at times, but nobody would call them sinners. The church is partly to blame for this misunderstanding: we used to teach that baptism washes away something called 'original sin'. The truth which that phrase conveys is that ever since human beings appeared on earth they've been making wrong choices, and as a consequence of this we all suffer from living in a sinful society. But God isn't going to blame or punish us for the effects of other people's sins, nor does he regard water as a magic that will cancel guilt.

Ecumenical Agreement
In our particular situation we also have to include the understandings of baptism from different Christian traditions as part of our ecumenical life in this parish. While some believe it is okay to baptise a baby or young child, others convinced that only believers baptism is right – that baptism should be administered to someone who understands and accepts the faith for themselves. (This is often, incorrectly called “adult baptism”). As with other aspects of different church traditions, we agree to accept each other’s firmly held convictions and do all we can to accommodate both versions. That is why it is a joy to have full immersion baptisms from time to time, especially in the context of a confirmation service.

There is one sticky problem which must be mentioned, too. What do we do when someone who has been baptised as an infant, wants to receive baptism as a believer? If we say we believe in one baptism, isn’t re-baptising someone inappropriate. But if that person says their infant baptism didn’t mean anything to them and they now have a strong conviction that they should be baptised as a believer, how do you respond? The answer we keep to in this parish is to say that that person may receive believer’s baptism, but be regarded from that point on as being a Baptist, because it is the Baptist doctrine that they are aligning themselves with. Ironically enough, I feel that if someone comes to their own conscious faith later in life having been baptised as an infant, it just shows the efficacy of that original baptismal sacrament! As happened when Paul prayed with the people in our first reading, those who had received the baptism of John then baptism in the Spirit, or formal prayer for the Holy Spirit which we now call confirmation. Talking of which, I know that a number of our congregation who are long-standing regulars only receive a blessing at the rail. If you have not been confirmed or would like to renew your confirmation, have a word with me, as a confirmation service is coming up this March.

But what was the original idea of baptism and why was Jesus baptised? The Jews went in for washing in a big way. Yet they knew that washing was symbolic, not magical. What we need when we approach God is not just germ-free hands, but purity in heart and single-mindedness. Baptism was the Greek word for washing and literally means soaking or dunking. In Greek you'd ask your family, 'Have you baptized the dishes?' When non-Jews wanted to enter the Jewish religion, they had to symbolically wash away all their pagan wrong beliefs and deeds; they called it 'proselyte baptism'.

John the Baptist
What was novel about John the Baptist was he said even Jews must be washed, or baptized. 'Don't rely on having the right parents, to be part of the Chosen People', is what he meant. 'You have to show you want to change from the inside, you have to enter the family of God with no rights or privileges, but on the same basis as everyone else: as sinners needing forgiveness and responding to the call to believe.'

The baptism of Christ
Then Jesus came and asked John to baptize him. John had a problem with this: what was he washing away? John said to Jesus: ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?' Jesus answered John, 'Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness.' In other words, 'This is how God has planned for us to be members of the Chosen People - so that's how we'll do it.' The emphasis has switched from washing away sins, to joining the family of God. The sinless Jesus came down to earth, on the same level as the rest of us, and joined the family of God as our elder brother in the same way as any sinner.

An approachable God
I think that shows us that Jesus doesn't want us to put him on a pedestal, but to love him as a friend - there's no 'side' to Jesus. In that way he makes the unapproachable God approachable. 'Why does your teacher eat with tax-collectors and sinners?' asked the Pharisees. You and I are the family of God gathered round his table - all equal, because we're all sinners. Although Jesus never disobeyed his father or rebelled, which is what sin really means, he chose to come down to earth, be baptized like us, and then share the table with us as a friend. There may not be any tax-collectors here, but there's an awful lot of us sinners, and Jesus is about to share a table with us.

How to be sinless
Sinlessness isn't achieved by baptism, but by what baptism symbolizes. When you get home, and chat with Jesus, will you thank him for sharing baptism with you, and sharing his table with you? Though we can never make ourselves equal with Jesus, he's made himself equal with us, so that he can be our friend. Will you thank him for being your friend, and tell him that you want to be his friend, and that you love him? Then you'll have taken a long step along the road to becoming as sinless as he is. Before we all go home, we share around the Lord’s Table in this service. As we come forward, we accept that invitation to be at one with the Lord, to recognise that he came down to our level.

Copyright © Rev Paul Smith




Heavenly Father,
at the Jordan you revealed Jesus as your Son:
may we recognize him as our Lord
and know ourselves to be your beloved children;
through Jesus Christ our Saviour.