On this 1st Sunday of Epiphany we celebrate the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist.
St Luke in today’s Gospel reading (Luke: 3:15-17, 21-22) tells us what happened when John baptised Jesus: ‘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.” And the same event is described in slightly different words in the other three Gospels.
In this striking scene God reveals to us that this man Jesus is his Son, the Beloved. It is also the only scene in the Gospels where we find all three persons of the Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit - together at the same time. It is in fact an epiphany of the Trinity, so it is especially important for all of us Trinitarian Christians.
Luke tells us that John’s baptism was ‘a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’.
John baptised with water those who came to him to signify their repentance – that is, their personal commitment to live in future by God’s standards. God forgives their previous failures to live up to his standards – their sins – which are symbolically washed away in the water.
Since the earliest times, Christians have been puzzled that Jesus came to be baptised by John. After all, the argument goes, Jesus as the Son of God must be without sin, with nothing to repent, so a baptism for forgiveness of sins seems inappropriate. Matthew tells us that the Baptist himself was reluctant to baptise Jesus, but Jesus insisted, saying ‘it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness’.
For Jews, righteousness meant doing God’s will. Jesus clearly believed God willed him to be baptised by John. But for what purpose? Perhaps so that Jesus would be certain who he was before beginning his ministry. Or perhaps so that John could testify to his Trinitarian vision. But I like to think that God willed Jesus to be baptised in a stunning act of solidarity with sinful people – with you and with me – so that Jesus stands alongside us as we bare our souls in repentance, as our sins are washed away, and as we receive God’s forgiveness.
What about the Christian sacrament of baptism with water as we know it today?
None of the Gospels tell us that Jesus himself baptised anyone, but his disciples certainly did. They did so with his approval while he was alive, as John’s Gospel tells us. John also records Jesus teaching that ‘no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit’. And the disciples continued to baptise after his death, following his Great Commission, recorded in Matthew’s Gospel in these words: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” 3000 are said to be have been baptised on the day of Pentecost alone!
Those who came to Christian baptism in the earliest days would have made the same personal commitment to change, in expectation of God’s forgiveness, as those who John baptised. This baptism, like John’s, must surely have been ‘a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’.
But as time passed, baptism with water more and more came to be seen as a ceremony of initiation into the community of believers, the Church. Baptism was essential, Christians felt, because Jesus had said no one could enter the kingdom of God without being born of water. In times when many children died in childhood, Christian parents naturally wanted to make sure their children would join them in the kingdom of God, so they began to baptise infants too. Parents and friends sponsored the infant Christian, making personal commitments on their behalf. The original idea of a ‘baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’ began to fade into the background, perhaps because it is hard to see what sins infants need to repent.
So baptism evolved to become the sacrament of Christian initiation we know today, and the parents and friends became what we call sponsors and godparents.
But surely there is something missing in this baptism as Christian initiation?
In today’s Gospel John the Baptist says ‘I baptise you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming.’ That’s Jesus, of course. ‘He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire’. What has become of Jesus’s baptism with the Holy Spirit and fire?
The apostles were baptised with the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, just as Jesus had promised them before his ascension. They also experienced tongues of fire – and fire was certainly kindled in their hearts. They went out fired-up to preach the good news of Jesus Christ, which as the Book of Acts tells us spread like wild fire.
The embryonic Church spread despite – or rather because of – persecution. As it grew the apostles found it necessary to appoint assistants, called deacons, one of them a man called Philip. When persecution came the new Christians scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria, leaving the apostles in Jerusalem. Philip fled to the city of Samaria, where he in his turn preached the good news. Large numbers of people responded and Philip baptised them.
This is the background to today’s 2nd reading from Acts 8:14-17.
‘When the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them’. Peter and John were, of course, apostles. In Samaria, we are told, they discovered that the new Christians had not received the Holy Spirit, even though they had been baptised by Philip. Peter and John prayed for them, ‘laid their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit’ - in other words they received Jesus’s baptism of the Holy Spirit.
The apostles were faced with the problem of maintaining the unity of the church as it spread away from Jerusalem. Their solution seems to have been to insist that they alone could administer Jesus’s baptism of the Holy Spirit by laying on of hands. As a result Christians in faraway places maintained links with the apostles in Jerusalem.
As the church grew and the original apostles began to grow old and die, they consecrated others they trusted to carry on their work, which included administering the baptism of the Holy Spirit. These others in turn consecrated their successors to do the same, and so on to our own day.
Their successors are what we now call bishops. The line of succession we call apostolic succession. And the sacrament of confirmation is Jesus’s baptism with the Holy Spirit, administered by a bishop in apostolic succession laying his hands on a person seeking confirmation.
So to conclude, as we celebrate the baptism of Jesus:
First, let us give thanks for the insight we receive into the nature of God as Trinity from the epiphany of Father, Son and Holy Spirit at Jesus’s baptism by John.
Second, let us give thanks for the sacrament of baptism with water, which builds on John’s baptism, to mark our incorporation into Christ’s body the Church, whether as infants or adults.
And third, let us give thanks for the sacrament of confirmation, through which we are born again as we receive Jesus’s baptism of the Holy Spirit, to inspire us and put fire in our hearts to work for his kingdom.