The Beginning and the End

A sermon preached at St. Francis by the Lake Episcopal Church, Canyon Lake, Texas.
The lectionary readings for the first Sunday after the Epiphany are here.

Have y’all made resolutions for this new year? Have you considered what you want to focus on, what you want to eliminate, how you want to grow in the coming year? I’ve never been a fan of New Year’s Resolutions because I think mostly they set us up for failure and making resolutions to be a better person once a year doesn’t take into account that every day, every moment even, is a new beginning in God’s Kingdom on earth as in heaven. However, this time of year is as good a time as any to reflect and self-examine and make choices and changes that will better center our lives on Jesus.

Personally this year, I want to read more fiction, to better balance both learning and relaxing in my reading time. I enjoy reading theology and spiritual growth books but I’ve lost balance in my reading choices and that’s not good for anyone. Balance helps us all be who God created us to be. I also want to learn to make really yummy bonbons and truffles … I’m still working out how this will help my walk with Jesus but I’m sure it has something to do with hospitality and caring for others.

What choices and changes have you considered for this coming year?

Whatever choices and changes we’ve each decided to make this year, together, we also need to reflect on how we continue to center all that we do as St. Francis by the Lake on Jesus.

How can we focus on growing together this year for the benefit of God’s Kingdom on earth as in heaven? I really want to know. If you can, in just a couple of words or a sentence, what do you want us, as the parish of St. Francis by the Lake, as a committed group of Jesus Followers within the community of Canyon Lake, as a part of the Episcopal Branch of the Jesus Movement, what do you want us to focus on this coming year?

Ponder this in your hearts and we’ll pick it back up at our All Parish Meeting on January 29.

So, you may be asking yourself, what on earth does any of this have to do with our Gospel reading for today? I’m so glad you asked. Baptism and New Beginnings are all about each other. Baptism isn’t just some theological ideal, it’s the beginning of our whole and holy life following Jesus. Our baptism is a practical thing; it is our life’s practice.

In this very short reading we get so much about who Jesus is and who he wants us to be. As Jesus comes to John to be baptized, John didn’t feel right about it, he knows who Jesus is and is quite confused that Jesus is submitting to him. Jesus tells John that it is ‘proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness”. Jesus is showing us, in flesh and blood, what it is to be a child of God. Being a part of God’s plan of redemption for this world isn’t about political power or social prestige or hierarchical ranking but about giving ourselves over to each other, trusting we will each and collectively seek the greater good of all as we follow Jesus.

Jesus didn’t need to be baptized, he had nothing to repent for, nothing to be washed clean of. But he got in line with everyone else as an act of humility and solidarity and love so that we, too, can claim God’s words “this is my child, my beloved.” This is the Good News.

Baptism marks the beginning of Jesus’ flesh and blood ministry here on earth and it is the last command he gives to us. After his arrest, crucifixion, and resurrection, he tells us to go into the world to make disciples, baptize them, and teach them to obey all that Jesus commanded us. And what did Jesus command us? To love God with our whole being and to love our neighbor as ourselves. This is the practicality of our baptism.

Our baptism isn’t for us individually in isolation but the initiation into a way of living that looks like Jesus. Our baptism is our continuously renewing life here and now.

Would you do something with me? Would you take the Book of Common Prayer from the pew rack and turn to page 299. Did you know that even the format of our prayer book is to teach us something? If you turn back a couple of pages you’ll see that the service for Holy Baptism follows immediately after the Easter Vigil and if you were to look ahead you’ll see it precedes Holy Eucharist, the service we participate in every week. Our baptism is the bridge from Jesus’ resurrection to our life in Jesus.

Holy Baptism, holy, meaning set apart for God. Turn to the bottom of page 303. After the candidates are presented and make their vows, the whole congregation witnessing the baptism makes a vow to support those who are baptized in their life in Jesus. It is a communal thing, and then together we all renew our baptismal vows. Each time someone new is baptized we reaffirm our own.

The first bit of the Covenant we make together is a recitation of our regularly spoken creeds. I want us to look specifically at the second part, beginning toward the bottom of page 304 where the celebrant asks “will you continue in the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread and in the prayers?” See it? Baptism is the beginning of a life centered in community and the teachings of Jesus.

Next we vow to persevere in resisting evil and when we trip up to return. Continuous new beginnings. God’s forgiveness is guaranteed.

Then we vow to proclaim by word and example the Good News of Jesus. Baptism is about our whole life, all that we do in this place AND in our homes, our workplaces, our community, our world.

And we promise to seek and serve Christ in all person, loving our neighbor as ourself, to strive for justice and peace and respect the dignity of everyone. We don’t follow Jesus to exclude anyone but to draw everyone into the kingdom by the way we live.

In our baptism, we are following Jesus into the life that we are created for. Let me take a quick side note here for those who are asking – But what about baptizing babies? Babies don’t have the capacity to choose. When babies and small children are baptized the parents and godparents make the commitment on their behalf, grounded in the understanding that our faith is lived out in a community, within our village of folks as we all follow Jesus together. Baptizing babies and small children brings to life, makes practical, the intellectual theology of community.

What Baptism does is a mystery; the Holy Spirit of God is at work and no one, no matter how much theology they say they’ve read, really understands. As a priest, I do the manual work of baptizing another by pouring the water but the true work, the work that transforms us into the beloved children of God is God’s work. That’s why when making our vows we say “we will with God’s help.”

Baptism is a practical thing, the first new beginning of our life on earth as in heaven. It is the beginning and end of all we do, of all that we are, as we follow Jesus in the Way of Life we are created for.

So, back to the question I asked earlier: How do we, together and with God’s help, continue to practice our Baptism better in this year to come, proclaiming the Good News, loving God, our neighbors, and ourselves better? Ponder this in your hearts. Amen.

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