This is the first Sunday of Epiphany. We celebrate the Baptism of our Lord. This is one of the Sundays of the year that we explicitly focus on baptism. This is one of the Sundays of the year when I hope the preacher will talk about baptism, our baptismal covenant and how to prepare to live that covenant more fully. This is one of the Sundays of the year that I hope the preacher will talk about the catechumenate and its power for our entire community. But unfortunately it is surprisingly rare that the preacher takes this opportunity in its fullness.
Often we will baptize infants on this day. Often we will say the Baptismal Covenant rather than the Nicene Creed. But often the preacher puts neither of these in the context of the formation and preparation that should take place prior to the celebration and prior to our proclamation of the Covenant.
The Collect and Scripture passages are ripe for such teachings!
The Collect: “Father in Heaven, who at the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan proclaimed him your beloved Son and anointed him with the Holy Spirit: Grant that all who are baptized into his Name may keep the Covenant they have made and boldly confess him as Lord and Savior; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.” This prayer, in and of itself, has sufficient material for a sermon!
The readings — Genesis 1: 1-5 “in the beginning…” that tells us of the beginning of new life; new life created and sustained by God; new holy life; Acts 10: 1-7 that tells of Paul’s visit to Corinth where he makes the distinction of John’s baptism of repentance and the Christian baptism into the Body of Christ through the Holy Spirit; Mark 1: 4-11 that gives us Mark’s account of John baptizing in the wilderness “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” and the difference in John’s baptism of Jesus in which the Holy Spirit is a visible part of the baptism. “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
What does it mean to be baptized with the Holy Spirit? How does it differ from a baptism of repentance? Both involve water. Both involve repentance, conversion, transformation (three different words to name the same miracle, the radical change of one’s life). Acts gives us a hint of the distinction. Those baptized with the Holy Spirit “spoke in tongues and prophesied.”
We expect to see, yes, actually see, the transformative power of the Holy Spirit witnessed to in the change of the newly baptized behavior. We can expect this. We need to expect this because they witness to us that we too can be transformed. We can continue to be transformed. The new behavior may not involve literally speaking in tongues but it will involve living an entirely new way, it will be prophesying through one’s new life of service and prayer and worship.
To say we expect to see this change is not overstating the requirement. The bar is raised for all of us as we participate in a new baptism. It is raised for all Christians as we join those to be baptized in donning the Baptismal Covenant and adjusting it once again for our new growth. For those being baptized the bar is high but attainable because the Holy Spirit makes it high and attainable in the formation process that is the Catechumenate.
All of this needs to be taught in the sermon for The Baptism of our Lord. It can be said in many ways. But it needs to be preached in order to teach those to be baptized and us baptized the context for our baptism and renewal of baptism. Otherwise we need to join with Paul in asking, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit where you were baptized?” “Into what were you baptized?” And the opportunity to preach about what the meaning and act of baptizing comes around once more.