A Homily for the First Sunday after Epiphany, 2014
Last Sunday we celebrated the Feast of the Epiphany. For us the Feast centers on the revelation of Jesus Christ to the gentiles, as personified by the three magi who visit the infant Jesus, and bring him gifts that are tokens of his kingship, divinity, and death. Tradition has emphasized the universality of the revelation by making of the magi kings, coming from different parts of the gentile world. Sometimes one is black, one Asiatic and one white. They ride horses, one humped camels or two humped camels. Sometimes one is on a horse, one on a camel, and one on an elephant. The metaphors are clear-Jesus is a universal king, and as such garners the fealty of the gentile kings to whom he is revealed.
Our Gospel reading for this first Sunday after Epiphany is the account of Jesus’ baptism from the Gospel according to Saint Matthew. From all of the Gospel accounts, it is clear that at the beginning of his ministry Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist. Jesus spent a good deal of time with the first disciples by the river Jordan, near to John, and his disciples also baptized people. Now why was Jesus baptized?
All four Gospels coincide in showing that Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist marks the beginning of Jesus’ ministry on earth. Why would a man who was also God, like us in every aspect except without sin, undergo a baptism which was meant for the remission of sin of those who were repentant? We believe that Jesus was without sin. Therefore he could not repent because there were no sins to repent from. So why does this baptism take place?
A good question…but we have to ask ourselves whether Jesus, prior to his baptism, was aware of his special relationship with God, and whether he had received the Spirit prior to his baptism. This is a very delicate theological question, because I might be seen to be teetering on the brink of an ancient heresy known as “adoptionism”, which held that Jesus was not the Word incarnate, but was adopted as God’s son at his baptism. Orthodox (non-heretical) Christians affirm rather that Jesus was indeed born God incarnate, but that his Godhood was veiled or attenuated by a self-emptying we call kenosis. The concept is best set forth in an early Christian hymn which Paul quotes in Philippians 2, 6-8 regarding Christ Jesus:
Who being in very nature God
did not consider equality with God
something to be grasped,
but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death-
even death on a cross.
What is clear from three of the four Gospel accounts (Matthew, Mark, Luke) is that upon emerging from the waters of the Jordan “…just as he came up from the water suddenly 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”.
In Saint Mark’s account “… he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased." Mark 1, 10-11
Luke 3, 21-22 tells of the baptism as follows: “When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too, and as he was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son whom I love; with you I am well pleased”.
The Gospel according to Saint John gives another version. In the three preceding Gospels, it is Jesus who sees and hears. It is he who has this tremendous epiphany, in which the Holy Spirit descends on him, and in which God the Father proclaims his love for and pleasure in his Son. This is without question an overwhelming experience for Jesus. It marks the beginning of his ministry, which he sets out on, knowing that the Spirit of the Lord is upon him, and that he has a special relationship with the Father.
In the Gospel according to Saint John’s version, it is John the Baptist who witnesses and testifies to what is said in the three preceding accounts:
“I myself did not know him, but the reason I came baptizing with water was that he might be revealed to Israel….I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him. I would not have known him, except that the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, “The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is he who will baptize with the Holy Spirit”. I have seen and I testify that this is the Son of God.” John 1, 32-34.
There can be no doubt that the baptism of our Lord is a powerful and transcendent experience for him, for the Holy Spirit descends on him, and he becomes aware that he has a special relationship with the Father. His experience is sometimes called an epiphany, but the Eastern Churches term it a theophany, or an experience of God. And yes, this is what our human Jesus undergoes when he is baptized. His son-ship is revealed to us and to him, and the Holy Spirit descends on him and will guide him now in his ministry
I think we can safely say that all four of the gospel accounts of the relationship between John the Baptist and Jesus the Christ seek to show John as the precursor to the true Messiah, Jesus. After the death of both John and Jesus, John’s followers also continued their missionary work. As with the Christians, the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. scattered them. But they did not disappear. Up until 2003, when President Bush democratized Iraq, about 60,000 Mandeans who consider John the Baptist their main prophet and who practice baptism for the repentance of sins lived in Southern Iraq. Imagine how strong they may have been in the decades and first centuries after Christ’s death to have survived in largely hostile
environments into the 21stcentury.
environments into the 21stcentury.
Let us return to our main theme this morning, which is our Lord’s baptism, and the theophany that ensues for him, and for us. For Jesus, fully human, and emptied of his divine attributes, the baptism may be the first realization as a human that he has a mission, that he has the powers of the Spirit, and that he has a special relationship with God, who expresses his love and pleasure in him, and calls him his Son. His ministry begins shortly after.
As Christians, the event holds a special significance for us as well, since it reveals Jesus as the Son of God, it shows the Holy Spirit descending on Jesus, and it reveals God the Father as loving father of His Son, and well pleased in Him. For us, it is the first revelation in Scripture of the Holy Trinity. All three elements of the Godhead are present in the four accounts of the baptism of Jesus: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And that, for us, should be our epiphany: the realization that there is one God, in three persons, and they all converge at Jesus’ baptism, as they do at ours.
At Jesus’ baptism God declared him His Beloved Son. When we are baptized, God adopts us as his children, making us part of the body of Christ, which is the Church, and heirs to God’s kingdom. We are baptized in the name of the three persons of our one God-Father, Son and Holy Spirit. On a spiritual level Baptism is union with Christ in his death and resurrection. As he rose, so we also are born again, into God’s family the universal church. Our sins are forgiven, we are re-born, and we have new life in the Holy Spirit. In water we are cleansed and forgiven. In the sealing with chrism, or marking with the sign of the cross we are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever.
We are baptized because God wants us to be His beloved sons and daughters. Our Baptisms are an everlasting sign of his love for us. Now let us please turn to page 304 of our Prayer Books, and renew our own Baptismal Covenant.¨ The Reverend Ricardo Frohmader, Associate Minister, St. Alban Mission, Antigua, Guatemala, The Episcopal Diocese of Guatemala. sermon for January 12, 2014, 12:00, NOON, Casa Convento Concepcion, Antigua, Guatemala.