A Sermon for the First Sunday after the Epiphany: The Baptism of Our Lord
St Mary the Virgin, Primrose Hill, London
January 13, 2019
Thank you so much Marjorie for inviting me to preach today. It means a tremendous amount to me and brings back a host of rich and happy memories of this place: its clergy and people; of marriages, funerals, baptisms, high days and holy days, as well theatrical performances and many social occasions over the two and a half years I spent here from 1973. You may be curious to know how I as a young Australian landed here at Primrose Hill. The fact of the matter is that our English born Archbishop, Frank Woods, was keen that some of us should have “English experience”. We referred to it as “finishing school”. The process of how I came here is almost laughable by today’s standards. There was no application or interview process as such. I was summoned to meet Father Hollis, the then Vicar, at the Melbourne Club, that bastion of establishment, one Saturday morning. The first question he asked me was whether I could begin at Pentecost, 1973? I said I thought I could but did he not wish to know a little about me first? He replied: “you would be surprised what I know about you.” And so I arrived in London in May 1973 as a twenty something year old Australian, ordained for two years, leaving my homeland for the first time. Looking back on those years, 1973-1975 they were such important years for beginning to truly discover my identity as a human being and as a priest. Just being away from Australia I learnt a lot about what it is to be an Australian abroad. My mother was born and schooled in this country so I had a strong sense of Englishness in my heritage. But my father’s family were from Cork in Ireland (they were of Protestant Huegenot stock). I did not identify much with the latter in those years given that the IRA’s bombing campaign here was just beginning. But as English as I thought I was nevertheless the colonial connection was often mentioned and then there was the accent! But more importantly I began to discover my identity as a priest through the wonderful support and counsel of Father Hollis; the wise guidance of Canon Douglas Webster at St Paul’s Cathedral and Father Michael Marshall at All Saints, Margaret Street; and the wonderful friendship and encouragement of this community at Primrose Hill. This time enhanced and affirmed my love of liturgy; of worship well done; of the important place of music in the church; and of the recognition of the relationship of liturgy and theatre. Through the parish Drama Guild I got to perform in a number of dramatic readings and to be a singing dancing shepherd in Amahl and Night Visitors performed here in this sanctuary alongside Father Francis Stephens. And through Francis, an artist in his own right, and people like Mary Whitely, I was able to bring my love of art into the context of faith and worship. And as we all discover slowly but surely I began to be more confident in who I was as an individual person away from the constraints and expectations of family and home. Given the times I became more comfortable with being a single man, indeed as a gay man not that that language was used at that time. Perhaps I did a good deal of growing up here at Primrose Hill. But these issues of our identity continue to be important to us at different stages of life and through different circumstances. In the past several years I have been coming to terms with being a retired (or at least semi-retired) person; with the issues of ageing and income security and the prospects of future limitations. Some of you will remember the film “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” which was all about the issues of ageing and identity. So we come to today’s readings for the Baptism of Our Lord of which the issue of identity is central, as it has been throughout our celebrations of Christmas and Epiphany. The identity of who Jesus is really begins at the Annunciation of his birth to Mary when the angel speaks of Jesus as Son of God. And then on Christmas Eve we heard the angelic annunciation to the Shepherds of “a Savior who is Christ the Lord”. In the angelic annunciation to Joseph in Matthew’s gospel Jesus is spoken of as “Emmanuel that is ‘God is with us’.” These appellations are all within the realm of Jewish prophecy and expectation. But then on Christmas Day the gospel was from the first chapter of John: “In the beginning was the Word. And the Word was with God and the Word was God…And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” Jesus’ identity is placed on a cosmic level rather than simply on the particular, Jewish one. And then last Sunday on the Feast of the Epiphany we witnessed the coming of the Magi, those mysterious characters from the East who followed a star to Bethlehem. We were told they worshipped the child and gave precious gifts, gold, frankincense and myrrh. These foreigners, practitioners of the magic arts, recognized Jesus as universal savior, the one who even astrology and other magical arts recognize. Those gifts they brought were entirely inappropriate for a child born in humble circumstances but entirely appropriate for the Savior of the World. All these annunciations and recognitions which have been part of our scriptures throughout Christmas and Epiphany are focused on the identity of the child Jesus. Beginning with a small canvas at the Bethlehem Nativity we have gradually embraced a larger and larger canvas with universal and cosmic dimensions.
So today we come to the Baptism of Jesus by John in the Jordan. It is part of the Epiphany cycle of manifestations of who Jesus is, of the identity of Jesus. They began with the visit of the Magi; they continue today with the baptism; and traditionally continue with various miracles of Jesus, starting with the Wedding at Cana when water was turned into wine. The Baptism of Jesus is referred to in all four gospels. But it is not really the baptism that is the focus in Luke but what occurs afterwards. But even before we get to the baptism Luke sort of “photoshops” the scene by eliminating any reference to John the Baptist’s participation as in Matthew and Mark. In the verses immediately preceding the baptism Luke makes reference to Herod’s jailing of John the Baptist so that he is conveniently out of the picture. And then with regard to the baptism itself Luke is almost perfunctory: “Now when all the people were baptized and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened.” Sometimes at parish baptisms in my experience you do wonder which is more important, the baptism or the photo opportunity! But it is what happened next which is so important to Luke: “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’.” So is fulfilled John the Baptist’s prophecy that the one who is to come will baptize not simply with water but with Holy Spirit. Jesus is the Spirit-bearer, in whom the Trinitarian God is present in all God’s fullness. His divine Sonship, his divine identity, is clearly proclaimed from on high.
But what is our identity in light of all this? Who are we? As I said earlier most of us strive to find our true human identity over the course of our lives. It is often a process of discovery, of learning and relearning who we really are. And that is what we are concerned with today as we celebrate the Baptism of Jesus and in light of that our own baptism. At every baptism we are reminded of our baptismal identity. The first reading today from Isaiah 43 is largely about the identity of God’s people. “Now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.” Those words apply to us in baptism. At every baptism we celebrate our true identity: that God made us; that God loves us; that God redeems us by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, his Son; and that God calls us into his heart of love. We are created, loved, redeemed and called by name. What extraordinary claims! But how important that we hear those words and take them to heart. Because no matter what else may happen or occur to us; no matter what we discover about ourselves; those are the things that really matter; those are the identifying attributes that will abide throughout our lives and indeed into and through death itself. Isaiah continues in that marvelous passage: “you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.” Wow! What a comfort when we are down or feeling sorry for ourselves! “Do not fear for I am with you” says the Lord. And the passage ends with the promise to all who have been scattered abroad that they will be called home: “everyone who is called by name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.” It is those marvelous claims that we affirm in baptism. St Paul writes in like manner in Galatians, chapter 4: “And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit into our hearts, crying ‘Abba!’, ‘Father!’ So you are no longer a slave, but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.” That is really big stuff. But it gets to the heart of the matter of our baptismal identity.
Each time we witness a baptism, especially one of an adult, we are reminded that our baptismal identity which we celebrate brings with it consequences. For as we affirm God as Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier; as we claim to be children of God, created, redeemed, loved and called; so we are reminded that that affects how we treat the world around us and the rest of humanity. For God has called us into our full identity as human beings that we may be reminders to the whole human family, of its true identity as God’s creation and as the object of God’s loving and saving purposes. Amen