The First Sunday after the Epiphany/The Baptism of Our Lord
Text: Matthew 3:13-17
Sean C. Kim
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
8 January 2023
Do you remember when you were baptized? If you were baptized as an infant, you may have photos of the event, but I can’t imagine you remembering something that happened when you were just a baby. But for those of us baptized at an older age, we have our memories. I fall in this second group. When I was born, my parents were not regular churchgoers, so I didn’t receive infant baptism. It wasn’t until I was a sophomore in college that I finally received this sacrament. At the time, I was attending a nondenominational church in Ithaca, New York, Bethel Grove Bible Church. I was baptized by immersion. I put on a white shirt and white pants and was dunked by the minister, Pastor Stern, in a small cement pool at the front of the church. I’m sure some of you here were also baptized by immersion. Anyone here dunked? Others had water sprinkled or poured on you.
There are many different ways to be baptized. In the early church, the candidate stripped naked and entered a large pool at one end, went under the water and then emerged to walk out at the other end to be clothed in a new white robe – pretty dramatic. I don’t think there are any churches today that have maintained this practice of baptism in the nude.
Whatever the manner in which we are baptized, it is the same sacrament. There are seven sacraments of the Church: Baptism, Confirmation, Holy Communion, Confession, Marriage, Holy Orders, and Anointing of the Sick. Of the seven, baptism is one of the two so-called Dominical Sacraments, that is, Sacraments instituted by Our Lord. The other Dominical Sacrament is Holy Communion. These are the two most distinctive practices in Christianity, common to almost all believers; they define who we are.
On today’s Gospel from Matthew, we read about the origins of baptism: “Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him” (Matthew 3:13). At this time, baptism was a form of ritual cleansing and purification in Judaism. Thus, John the Baptist preached repentance and forgiveness of sin to the people whom he baptized. But since Jesus had no sin, he was baptized to set an example for us for follow, a sign of solidarity with sinful humanity.
Likewise, when we enter into the waters of baptism, we become one with Jesus. In Romans, the Apostle Paul puts it this way: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore, we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:3-5). In baptism, we die to our old selves and rise to new life in Jesus.
For Episcopalians, we have a list that describes what this new life entails. During the service of baptism, we make a series of vows in what we call the Baptismal Covenant. For instance, we commit to observe the doctrines of the church, receive Holy Communion, lead a life of prayer, repent when we sin, and so on.
Among these various vows in the Baptismal Covenant, one of the most difficult for me is this one: seeking and serving Christ in all persons, loving my neighbor as myself (p.305). This is, of course, rooted in Christ’s command to love. At the Last Supper, he told his disciples: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35). Sometimes, I wonder why Jesus had to add love to the requirements for following him. I can discipline myself to prayer and worship and an occasional good deed, but loving all persons? Loving my neighbor as myself?
When I was in graduate school, I remember a conversation I had with an undergraduate friend of mine. He was very shy and quiet. He shared with me that what really drew him to Christianity was his inability to love. Christian faith, for him, held the promise of moving and expanding his heart to love more. At the time, I thought it was a rather odd comment. But as I have gotten older, I think it is quite profound.
It's not hard to love those who love us – our family, our friends. But our love often stops there. It’s difficult to love those whom we don’t know well - and perhaps even more difficult, if not impossible, to love those whom we know too well and hate. It’s often those closest to us, with whom we live and work and play, who are the most difficult to love – the family member with whom we have been estranged, the annoying colleague at work, the mean neighbor. Think of all the things that get in the way of loving those around us: grudges, slights, biases, prejudices, greed, envy, pride. To put it another way, our ego puts up many barriers to love.
At times we may be able to fake nice for the sake of maintaining cordial relations and call it love. But I don’t think that’s what Christ is talking about. It’s much more radical. He calls us to a self-sacrificing love, putting the needs and concerns of others above our own. And he calls us to love everyone, not just our friends but strangers and enemies. Jesus not only preached this; he set the supreme example. He died on the cross to save the whole world.
Christ’s command to love lies at the heart of our faith, but I need help carrying out it out. In the Baptismal Covenant, each vow is framed in the form of a question. So, we have: “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?” And the response to every question is “I will, with God’s help.” I will, with God’s help. I can’t do it alone.
One of the acts of personal piety that helps me with my baptismal vows is the practice of dipping our fingers into the holy water in the font or stoup. Each time we dip our fingers into the holy water and cross ourselves, we remind ourselves of our baptism and the covenant that we made. We remember that we have died to ourselves and risen to new life in Christ.
We’ve just begun the new year, 2023, and some of us are still drawing up New Year’s Resolutions – exercising more, losing weight, getting more organized, saving money, and so on. Perhaps some of us have given up already. Or perhaps you don’t even bother anymore. But today as we celebrate the the Baptism of Our Lord, might I suggest that you add one more to your list of New Year’s Resolutions: seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself.
 Diane G. Chen, “Commentary on Matthew 3:13-17,” Working Preacher.
The sermons preached at St. Mary's Episcopal Church, Kansas City, are posted here!