Calvary Episcopal Church
Photo of Peggy Gunness
Memphis, Tennessee
January 7, 2001
The First Sunday After the Epiphany

Baptism: An Affirmation of Eternal Life
The Rev. Margaret B. Gunness

Gospel: Luke 3:15-16, 21-22
(This sermon is also available in audio.)

Hear again the remarkable declaration of this morning's Gospel. The scene is along the banks of the Jordan River. Great masses of people have been baptized in the river's muddy waters by a wild looking, rugged man named John. And this is what is recorded in scripture:

When Jesus had been baptized and was praying,
Heaven itself was opened,
and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in a visible, tangible form.
And a voice came from heaven and said
"You, Jesus, you are my Son, the Beloved; how pleased I am with you."

With this proclamation a change in history was wrought, and human self-understanding has never again been the same. For what we now know and honor as the Holy Trinity, God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit, has been recognized and proclaimed.

Today is one of the Sundays particularly recommended for the administration of the sacrament of Holy Baptism. So it's a good time to look closely at all that this sacrament means to us, and perhaps especially today, for this is nothing less than the Baptism Day of Jesus, the One whom we've come to know as the son of Mary and the Son of God.

I fear that, over the past decades, our understanding of Baptism has become somewhat domesticated - still respected as a sacrament of the Church, but with so much attention paid to the celebrations that surround it that we often fail to explore the deeper meanings of the sacrament which give both shape and substance to our life, our death and the very essence of our faith.

What I often refer to as the "body language" of our Episcopal Prayer Book shows the trend into the kind of understanding I'm inviting us to enter. Many of you will probably recall your earlier experiences of Baptism using the 1928 Book of Common Prayer. The Service for Holy Baptism was back in the section of the Prayer Book where the more personal, pastoral services were. And the baptisms themselves were usually private, family affairs without even the parish congregation being present or included. But look at where this sacrament is located now in the 1977 BCP. It's right between the celebration of the Great Vigil of Easter and the Celebration of Holy Eucharist. How right that is, and how powerful - for Easter proclaims resurrection, the triumph of life over the power of death, and through Baptism we remember and reenact this victory and are actually ourselves transformed by its power so that death no longer has dominion over us as well.

I once baptized a baby who'd been adopted from a Latin American country, and her parents had spent some time researching how this sacrament was understood and enacted in the rather primitive region that the child had come from. And one of the stories they'd heard was that oftentimes, particularly in the rural villages, a small wooden coffin was made and on the Sunday of the baptism was brought into the church and filled with water to become the baptismal font. And when the time came, the baby would be taken by the priest and slowly, gently lowered into the coffin, fully submerged in the water, and then triumphantly lifted out again - sputtering, crying, gasping for the breath of life - in a vivid reenactment of birth and death and rebirth through the sacramental waters of Baptism. In this custom, the full meaning of Baptism was startling and surely inescapable and unforgettable.

And that's the reason why we need to pay very close attention to the Gospel story read this morning, so that we too can begin to comprehend the significance of our own baptism, because our birth and our life and our death are all given the essence of their meaning only in and through this event.

So there are two things I want to say to you about my own theology, my own understanding of baptism. First of all, I believe that baptism - be it the baptism of Jesus by John in the Jordan River, or your baptism here at Calvary Church or wherever it may have been, or mine on St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans - I believe that Baptism is first and foremost our human response to the action of the living God, that just as it was God who called Jesus to baptism, so it was God who has reached out to you and to me, and called us to be baptized as well. Our baptism is a response to the initiative of God. It is God who has broken down the barriers of passivity in us and in our lives, and because of that, we can know beyond all doubt that we are God's beloved, called by him into a powerful, enduring, eternal relationship.

And that leads me to a second point, a second truth about Baptism that I want to talk about this morning. And this has to do with my understanding of eternal life. A few months ago, I received a response to something I'd written in an attempt to answer one of the questions on Calvary's explorefaith segment on our Web site. It was a question about the Resurrection of Christ, and somehow the questioner thought my answer implied that I didn't believe in the Resurrection. Well, I do believe in it, because I believe in eternal life. However, in my understanding, eternal life is more than simply life after death. I believe that we are always in eternal life, that we are a part of eternal life before we are born, and that we're a part of eternal life while we are living in these bodies and on this lovely earth, and that we are a part of eternal life when these bodies of ours die, because our soul and our essence lives on eternally within the heart and mind, the presence and the realm of God. Still I grieve the death of someone I love. Still I miss their presence here with me in this world and this life. But all the while I am confident of their life and of their presence in the universe of God and of life. And because of that, they are not gone or lost forever.

And finally, that brings me back to this morning's Gospel, for I think that this is precisely what was being proclaimed at the Baptism of Jesus. John recognized it immediately. "I'm only baptizing you with water," he said. "Someone much more powerful than I is coming after me. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire." And surely, when Jesus had been baptized by John, the voice of God himself came forth from heaven and said, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased." Can you see what is happening here? All of the strength and all of the power of the Trinity have come together in this one baptismal event - we hear the voice of the Creator God, we attend the baptism of the Redeeming God, we see the descent of the Spirit, the Sanctifying God. They all are present as One. And in them, through them, we can see the eternal nature of our human lives being affirmed as well. And it is this same affirmation of eternal life which is proclaimed again and again in your baptism and in mine.

So I ask you to take some of this home with you to pray it and consider it further. Look to see your life in this context of eternal life, your birth as a coming forth from the heart of God, your living as a tangible expression of God, and your death as a continuation deeper into the eternity of God. And then notice that in the life of Jesus, especially in the Baptism of Jesus, God has revealed to us this truth about ourselves as well. So don't be afraid. Be confident and trusting, so that you can reach out with no hesitation to grasp the hand of God which was extended to you from the beginning of life itself and which will continue to hold you throughout all time and even all eternity.

Copyright 2001 Calvary Episcopal Church

Gospel: Luke 3:15-16, 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."

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." NRSV

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