The Baptism of Our Lord
The Rev. Brian C. Taylor
Today we begin the season of Epiphany. This season starts with the baptism of Jesus, and ends with his transfiguration on the mountaintop. It is obviously one story, because the beginning and the end are in direct parallel.
When he is baptized, a voice from heaven speaks to Jesus - You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased. Later, at the transfiguration, when Jesus is gloriously changed into a being of light, the same voice says the same thing, this time to the disciples - This is my Son, the Beloved.
So the Epiphany season tells a story about Jesus’ self-understanding, and later, the disciples’ understanding, of who he is: God’s beloved, God’s own offspring. This is the foundation of all his teaching, healing, and working of miracles: he does what he does because knows who he is.
During this season, in between the beginning of this story and its fulfillment, we shall see Jesus calling disciples into that same self-understanding. They go out to heal, feed, teach, and love, because they now know who they are. And through the disciples’ ministry, the people then begin to understand that they, too, are beloved children of God.
So God extends the divine life into Jesus, Jesus extends it into his disciples, and the disciples extend it into the people. It is all one ever-expanding circle.
The Western Christian tradition, however, has largely ignored this message over the centuries. It has drawn back the circle of divine life, and limited it to Jesus alone. We have been told that he alone is the Son, and that we are sinners through and through, cut off from God. But if we attach ourselves to Jesus, he will take us by the hand, and grant us admission to the divine life.
In this version of the Christian story, we’re like unfashionable slobs standing in line at the most exclusive nightclub in town, with no hope of getting past the bouncer, until some supermodel comes along and sweeps us in the door along with her.
The Eastern Church, on the other hand, has always understood that the divine life is an ever-expanding circle. They speak of theosis, of being “deified,” and rely upon a number of New Testament texts which point to this.
In John, Jesus prays for his disciples: As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us...The glory that you have given me I have given them. Paul speaks of being baptized into Christ, and that It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. Paul has been deified. He goes on to say that We have the mind of Christ, that we will grow into the full stature of Christ, in whom the fulness of divinity dwells. He tells us that corporately, We are the body of Christ. And Peter, one of Jesus’ closest disciples, wrote that We are participants in the divine nature.
This is what we celebrate in baptism. In the waters of baptism, we accept our identity as participants in the divine nature, and we commit to a holy life, so that through us, others may also know themselves as part of God’s ever-expanding circle.
Now I suspect that you may not always feel glorious. You may not always feel deified. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. It only means that you don’t always feel what is true. So how can we claim this identity? How can it become a living reality for us, and not just a nice idea?
We learn through experience. And the experience that is relevant here is what sometimes happens in prayer, among people you love, in worship and friendship with one another here, through spiritual reading, in nature, in any situation in which you have known God’s presence. Those are the times when we know that all of life is an expression of God’s holiness, including us.
However we seek this experience, whenever we intentionally put ourselves in the kinds of situations where we might remember this, we are doing what is known as spiritual practice. I don’t care whether what you do is formal prayer or not. What matters is that we are intentional about it. For those who knock, the door will be opened.
As you experience this from time to time, I want to encourage you to believe in it. Have confidence in who you really are - you are already connected with God. You are beloved, just as you are, a manifestation of God’s life. It is your true nature. You don’t have to strive to get there; you’re already fully there.
And every time you do some form of spiritual grounding, you reinforce your awareness of who you are. You touch base with reality, and over time, like Jesus, like the disciples, this deepest reality becomes the foundation of your daily life. Because you know who you are, as you go about your business, as you interact with others, you are more likely to love, to heal, to be patient, grateful, and self-giving.
We are certainly not perfect. We sin, we become unhappy and self-centered, and we cause harm. But this is only the small self, the part of us that can be put in perspective, the part that can, over time, become weaker, losing its grip over us. Place your trust instead in your true nature. You were assured of this nature at baptism, when a voice from heaven said to you,You are my beloved; with you I am well-pleased.
I also want to encourage you to have the very same confidence in the community of faith. We are not just an ecclesiastical institution. We are the Body of Christ, an embodiment of the divine life. You can experience this if you just look around with the eyes of faith.
We are not a perfect community. But together, every day, we express God’s own love and holiness to one another, to perfect strangers who come across our doorstep. God is manifested when we celebrate the sacraments, when we share our struggles with one another and encourage one another in faith, when we serve and pray for others. Together we invoke the saints and angels and the glory of God in this holy place of worship. We truly are, as Jesus said, the light of the world.
When we have confidence in who we are, when we reinforce this experience through spiritual practice, alone or together, it changes us. We live as if we are an extension of the divine life. We act as if this is true. As St. Paul said in a letter to the Colossians:
If you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is...Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God...As God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience...Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body.
We are God’s beloved, whose divine life extends through us, through our community, in an ever-widening circle, touching others who need it as much as we do. And then they, by the grace of God, also know themselves to be a part of this vast theosis, this redemption of the world, where all things are being brought to their fulfillment.
Today, you will be invited to take a small stone from the baptismal font, and carry it with you in the weeks ahead. Use it as a touchstone, to remember who you are, who we are, and the life to which we are called. Have confidence. For we are the light of the world.