Old Testament: Isaiah (42:1-7)
Now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you. Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you, I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life. Do not fear, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you; I will say to the north, “Give them up,” and to the south, “Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth— everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.”
The Response: Psalm 29
1 Ascribe to the Lord, you gods, *
ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.
2 Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his Name; *
worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.
3 The voice of the Lord is upon the waters;
the God of glory thunders; *
the Lord is upon the mighty waters.
4 The voice of the Lord is a powerful voice; *
the voice of the Lord is a voice of splendor.
5 The voice of the Lord breaks the cedar trees; *
the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon;
6 He makes Lebanon skip like a calf, *
and Mount Hermon like a young wild ox.
7 The voice of the Lord splits the flames of fire;
the voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness; *
the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.
8 The voice of the Lord makes the oak trees writhe *
and strips the forests bare.
9 And in the temple of the Lord *
all are crying, “Glory!”
10 The Lord sits enthroned above the flood; *
the Lord sits enthroned as King for evermore.
11 The Lord shall give strength to his people; *
the Lord shall give his people the blessing of peace.
The Epistle: Acts (8:14-14)
Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them. The two went down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit (for as yet the Spirit had not come upon any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus). Then Peter and John laid their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.
The Gospel: Luke (3:15-17, 21-22)
As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
by the Rev. Mike Kreutzer
The new year which we recently began marks the fortieth anniversary of the adoption of the current edition of The Book of Common Prayer. The Episcopal Church will, I am sure, be noting that jubilee as the months go by.
The revisions that lay at the heart of the our Prayer Book’s creation were a continuation of the Reformation: an effort to return the church to a form of worship that was more in keeping with the faith and practice of the early church, correcting some of the distortions that had crept in over the preceding centuries.
Central to this effort was a renewed understanding of and focus on the two great sacraments of the gospel: Baptism and Eucharist. These were at the very heart of the life of the church in its early centuries, and they are once again at the very heart of the life of the church as it is envisioned in our current Prayer Book.
The Eucharist, as the book declares (p. 13), is “the principal act of Christian worship on the Lord’s Day and other major Feasts.” That was the long-term and authentic traditional practice of the church; and, for us, it is once again. Getting there was not always easy since people tend to equate the term “tradition” with a narrow sense of “what I grew up with,” rather than with the lasting and genuine heritage of the church over most of its 2000 years. But, as Thomas Paine once observed, “Time makes more converts than reason”; and, after 40 years, we’ve come a long way.
Reforming our understanding of Baptism, to bring it back into conformity with the authentic tradition of the church, has proven to be even more difficult. Old misunderstandings and attitudes die hard. Many of us, for example, grew up with a view of Baptism that saw it, first of all, as a more or less private event: it was something that was essentially between God and the individual. Baptisms commonly took place outside of Sunday worship and apart from a gathering of the entire church. Our current Prayer Book attempts to correct that notion and that practice.
Secondly, Baptism was thought of – and in the minds of many people is still thought of – as a stand-alone event in a person’s life. Apart from the rare incorporation of an adult into the church, Baptism was one of the things that every parent was supposed to do for a newborn child, along with making sure that they got their recommended immunizations. Those shots ensured that their little ones would be safe from hepatitis-B, polio, whooping cough, etc. Baptism ensured that the child would “go to heaven” if they died. Parents wanted to get their children baptized whether or not they had any sincere intention of bringing them up in the practice of their faith. It was just something that you did. That fundamental misunderstanding of the nature and purpose of the sacrament still lingers in the minds of many of us who are older members of the church. It is based on the image of a God who insists on Baptism as a prerequisite for a child to receive the fullness of God’s love and life, in this world and in the next. To put it in old terminology, you can’t go to heaven without it. But a god like that is not the infinitely loving God revealed to us in the Old and New Testaments, the God whom we encounter in Jesus: a God who deeply and passionately loves all people and who desires to share the divine life with all people.
Baptism is about life in the church. According to The Book of Common Prayer (p. 298), Baptism is “full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ’s Body the Church.” It does not bring us God’s love. God’s love is already and always a free gift for all people. Instead, Baptism is our response to the gift of God’s love. It is a solemn commitment on our part to commit our lives to living, as part of the church, a life of love and self-sacrifice in gratitude for and in imitation of that love. And, for a parent, Baptism is a solemn commitment to bring up a child, as part of the church, to know and experience God’s love in such a way that he or she will respond with a life of love and self-sacrifice for the sake of all God’s children.
Baptism, as the Prayer Book’s description puts it, is initiation into Christ’s Body the Church. “Initiation,” of course, means “a beginning,” “a start.” It has no meaning apart from what comes after it. To take baptismal vows without a sincere intention to follow up with a lifetime in accordance with those vows is a decision to lie to God and to make a sham of what we are saying and what we are doing. It is as though one were to take the vows of marriage – to love, honor, and be faithful to another – without intending to live in accordance with those vows. Solemnly making such promises to God and to the church is an extremely serious matter; and our Prayer Book, like the rites used in the early centuries of the church, take them very seriously.
Today’s first reading, taken from the second part of the book of Isaiah, presents us with a description of love that is analogous to the dynamic of love that leads people to Baptism. Love begins with God. In the passage that we heard, God declares, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.” It then goes on to present the reason for God’s love. It is not that we have deserved or earned it in any way, but simply: “Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.” God’s love is a gift, freely given.
But it is obvious from the prophet’s words that God does not intend the relationship to stop there, for it to be a one-way street. Instead, it is a love that calls Israel to reciprocity: to a response of love and commitment to God’s gift of love and commitment.
That is what Baptism is about: our solemn vow of love and commitment to God and to God’s people, made in response to the gift of life and love that God has already given to us. And today, as we recall Jesus’ baptism, I invite you to stand and join with me in renewing the vows of our own baptism: recommitting ourselves to responding in love and faithfulness to God’s gift of love and faithfulness, by living the life of service and self-giving to which God calls us.