Sermon of Note
Rev’d Robyn Boyd
The Baptism of Our Lord, 8th January, 2012
Baptism: Get the Picture?
When I was at theological college, we had one lecturer who was passionate about the history of baptismal fonts. His lectures were full of images of fonts. It was actually wonderful learning –the size and shape and the position of fonts in our churches tell us a lot about the theology of the church in a particular place at a particular time. In my own wanderings in churches and cathedrals, I’ve seen everything from fonts smaller than bird-baths to waterfall-flowing full immersion fonts. I’ve seen them stuck away in a corner of the church, at the entrance to the church, in the middle and at the front of the church.
Questions for everyone: do you actually notice the font in our church –do you pay it any attention at all, or has it merged into the scenery and is invisible to you?
Why do we place our font at the entrance to the church? [Answer – through baptism we enter the life of Christ in the church, and so the font is there as we enter the church each week, to remind us of our initiation into life in Christ]
As an aside, for font and baptismal theology enthusiasts – the full immersion font, placed at the church’s entrance, is making a full comeback in the life of Anglican and Lutheran and Roman Catholic churches and cathedrals. This is indicative that baptism as a sacrament with life-long meaning is taking a more visible place in the everyday life of the church –for too long, baptism has been regarded as a ritual or ceremony that is done to babies or to initiate adults into the church’s life; or in some traditions it’s baptism as a response to belief and repentance.
Today we heard the story of Jesus’ baptism, according to Mark. All four Gospels record the baptism of Jesus, each account differing slightly. What they all tell in common is that Jesus is immersed in the River Jordan by John the Baptist, and that the heavens open and the Spirit descends on Jesus like a dove. All affirm Jesus as God’s Son, with Matthew, Mark and Luke recording a voice coming from heaven saying that this is “my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased”. Can you hear the echo of God's voice at creation, with each creative action, “God saw that it was good”
This is a very visual scene, packed full of imagery of rich theological symbolism, that extends the actual baptism story, bringing out the fullness of meaning contained in Jesus’ baptism that is relevant to all of us as we live out our everyday lives as baptised followers of Jesus Christ. These symbols and images of baptism open up a deep story of what this life contains.
So we’re going to read this scene visually, through the icon of Jesus’ baptism. Icons of the Baptism of Christ richly summon the many ways in which we are called to live our lives as Christians. Far from baptism being just a rite to initiate us into the Christian life, in the elements of the rite itself we are pointed to the corresponding elements of the ongoing journey of our baptisms.
Let’s look at some of these main features of the icon:
We see Jesus submitting to a scruffy looking John the Baptist, who has his hand on Jesus’ head in the manner of anointing; the greater one submitting to the lesser.
The water is swirling: meant to look dangerous – but this is water as symbolic of life and danger: a source of life and nourishment and cleansing, but with potential for destruction and drowning. And in the history of the Hebrew peoples, water is associated with the most significant pivotal points of the story of God’s interactions with humankind: the creation, the Spirit hovering over the waters and the creation of order and life from void and chaos; the experience of salvation from the flood; the Exodus and parting of the waters that led to freedom from bondage.
The shape of the water could be both tomb or womb – being buried in the waters of baptism and rising to new life. And womb – new life being birthed through the breaking of the waters.
Jesus immersed shows that entry into Christian life is not one where we put just a little bit of ourselves into the water – we are called into a total engagement in the life of Christ, giving ourselves completely to him and to each other as he did for us. I know we don’t fully immerse in our usual Anglican rite –perhaps more’s the pity. But yet the water poured over our heads contains all this spiritual significance.
The creative addition of the three figures on the right hand side, not found in the biblical text, are angels depicted in the role of giving service, reminding us that our lives as Christians are lived in the company of all creation, angels, and the great a cloud of witnesses - the baptised from all ages of time. Our baptism introduces us into a corporate or communal life, incorporates us into the body of Christ and into the eternal body of the church. In this adoption into God’s family, we are reminded of standing in solidarity with all human experience and all whom God cares for. And as Jesus himself in his baptism is depicted as Servant, so we too are called to be servants.
The backdrop of the jagged, rocky mountains recalls several significant themes in Jesus’ life and in the journeys we embark on as baptised Christians. We are reminded of the starkness and barrenness of the wilderness, or even of life itself in our complex world, where Christ, and we, experience temptation, and where we are confronted with opportunities to satisfy our lives through acquisition of power and of more than we need. These rocky mountains also speak of the forces of nature, and can call us to the reminder that we are dependent on God. Our prayer life and lives of service, too, can be that of climbing through and over rough terrain, particularly as we respond to the call to enter into the chaos and darkness of the world and to stand with and for people around us affected by this darkness.
Most significantly, we see in the icon a half circle at the top signifying the opening of the heavens from which the Holy Spirit like a dove descends and from which the voice of God is heard. Together with the central figure of Jesus, here is God the Trinity. And to focus on the Spirit – this is the same Spirit we met in the first sentence of Genesis, brooding over the formless earth, cherishing it and willing it to life. The same spirit who broods over each one of us, cherishing us and willing us to fullness of life. The same spirit who is the active creative power of God in the world, who calls and guides us into our fulfilling all righteousness – into our doing what God wants. We receive this same Spirit through our baptisms.
The depiction of the heavens opening and the downward shaft of light speaks of God’s action and initiative. In Jesus’ baptism , the action shifts from that of being the action of a man – John’s baptism – to it being an act of God: the heavens open, the Spirit descends, God’s voice speaks. It is God who seeks us out, who values us, and brings us into the sphere of his grace. Baptism is a gift, and underlines the entry into Christian life as an entry whereby it has been a matter of God’s action and God’s love, with ourselves as recipients.
The story of the Baptism of Christ, as we see in image or icon form, richly summons the many ways in which we are called to live our lives as Christians. We are baptised into Christ’s body, and so take on his identification with our burdened world, and take on his embodied involvement with all about whom he cares. Similarly, as our life begins with the three-fold name of the Trinity, we are baptised into community and called to live an interdependent and mutually caring Trinitarian life in that community. We are washed by and plunged into the waters, dying to sin and rising to new life, and we continue to do this. Our journey takes us into engagement with struggle, with wilderness, with living with all the realities of earth and body-boundedness, with rocky climbs and the heights and depths of prayer and service.
Today we renew our baptismal vows. As we reflect in the silence that follows, be open to what God shows us about your own baptismal life in this icon. And each week, as you face the font coming into church, don’t ignore it –put your hands into the water, make the sign of the cross if you’re so inclined, and remember your baptisms.
Some other aspects depicted in some variations of the icon
Jesus “did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness, and being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death” (Phil 2:6-8) Jesus naked emphasises this kenosis, that is a model for humility and obedience that is part of our Christian life. Nakedness is also symbolic of our coming into our Christian life with nothing except our selves, taking nothing from our old life. The early church demanded that the person wishing to be baptised make a decisive break with the pagan world before being admitted to the catechumenate process.
Another aspect of nakedness is that in nakedness, we are confronted with a corporate equality of status – we as children of God do not begin or bring into this new life any of the common status markers that would otherwise mark out our identity according to things valued by or in the world – that is, we come unencumbered by designer labels or op-shop clothing, and come with a potential to see ourselves and each other as God sees us. In reality, this may mean standing in solidarity with those we otherwise may not have not chosen to be identified with, and learning to leave behind competitive rivalries.
Appearance of movement
Jesus’ feet are sometimes shown as turning towards John the Baptist, as if walking or ready to walk. There is something here that speaks of a readiness to begin journey, to go forward into ministry. Whilst the empowerment for ministry is another part of this baptismal icon, there is here a recognition that we must also begin to take action ourselves, including repentance. Jesus sought out John to baptise him, as a mark of obedience. Whilst our baptismal stories might have begun with our parents making that movement and bringing us for baptism, there is action we must continually take throughout our lives as Christians, in our responding to his call on and in our lives.
As an “outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace, given to us by Christ himself”
1, our response of faith throughout our life journey of faith continues, together with God’s continuing activity, the work begun at baptism. Wherever we are on our faith journeys at our baptisms, our faith is always preceded by God’s grace. Article XXV of the (Anglican) Articles of Religion, talks of Sacraments as being about “God’s good will towards us, by the which he doth work invisibly in us, and doth not only quicken, but also strengthen and confirm our faith in him”
1 A Prayer Book for Australia p.817, part of the questions and answers of The Catechism regarding the Sacraments.
2 The Articles of Religion Agreed on by the Archbishops, Bishops and the whole clergy of the Provinces of Canterbury and York, London, 1562, from A Prayer Book for Australia (Article XXV p.830)