Sunday 10 January 2015 - Epiphany 1: Baptism of the Lord
The baptism of Jesus and his baptism of us, with the Holy Spirit and fire
My people, I took you from the ends of the earth, from its farthest corners I called you. I said, 'You are my servant, I have chosen you and not rejected you.' (Isaiah 41:8, 9, NZPB p. 561)
Open the heavens, Holy Spirit,
for us to see Jesus interceding for us;
may we be strengthened to share his baptism,
strengthened to share his cup,
and ready to serve him forever. (NZPB p. 562)
There are many things to be said about baptism. One of them is the simple observation that in baptism, in the words of the prophet Isaiah, God says to the baptised, 'Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine' (43:1). Baptism joins us to God and God to us: each baptised individual is known to God and belongs to God.
All this, we might continue to read in the Isaiah passage, is the working out of God's universal vision for the increase of God's family. The depth of God's love is measured by its broad inclusiveness and its particularity: each individual is known to God by name. All this, 43:7 declares, is for the glory of God who says that we have been 'created for my glory.'
Jesus' own experience of baptism involves God voicing his approval, love and affirmation of Jesus as 'my Son, the Beloved' (Luke 3:22).
Obviously this is a special moment in the unfolding story of Jesus, both affirming Jesus in his relationship to God and confirming Jesus's relationship with God to those witnessing the baptism. But we should not neglect that the baptism of Jesus is also a model of our baptism in which God affirms us as his sons and daughters, as beloved ones who belong to God.
From this perspective, the voice of God declaring love for God's family is a powerful, transformative voice. We change people's lives when we tell them we love them (or, sadly, change lives in the opposite direction when we tell people we hate them). How much more powerful is the voice of God declaring God's love. Psalm 29 celebrates the mighty power of the voice of God.
Another of the many things to be said about baptism is that Christian baptism involves both water and the Holy Spirit. John prophesies of Jesus that he will baptise with the Holy Spirit and fire (Luke 3:16). The baptism itself of Jesus includes the coming of the Holy Spirit upon him (3:22). In Acts 8:4-17 a point being made is that full Christian baptism is baptism with water and the Holy Spirit - the latter was missing and Peter and John pray for the lack to be made up by laying hands on disciples in Samaria.
Christian baptism is not the splashing of water alone but the outward rite of washing with water and the inner filling of the baptised person with the Holy Spirit. That the Holy Spirit coming into our lives necessarily means God making us holy means, in turn, that John's prophecy referring to 'fire' alongside the Holy Spirit is effectively an underlining of the work which Holy Spirit does in our lives. The fire of the Holy Spirit is the Holy Spirit burning away all that is not holy.
The next verse in Luke after today's reading says that 'Jesus was about thirty years old when he began his work' (3:23). Baptism inaugurates the ministry or service of Jesus. It has both set him apart for serving God and empowered him for that work.
Similarly for each of us who are baptised. But there is one difference between Jesus and us: we never hear of Jesus being refilled with the Holy Spirit. By contrast St Paul urges us to be filled (i.e. continually filled) with the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 5:8). Today as we celebrate the baptism of Jesus, do we need a new filling of the Holy Spirit to empower us for our work for God?
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Postscript: our reading in Acts raises a tough question, sometimes coming up for debate in our day, Is the formula for baptism sufficient if the baptism is 'in the name of Jesus' only, or is sufficiency only when the baptism is 'in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit'?
Deliberately, causa brevitatis, I avoid this question here!
• The Rev Dr Peter Carrell is Director of Theology House in Christchurch.