Sunday, January 12, 2020

Year A 1st Epiphany 2020 Because He First Loved Me

Year A 1st Sunday after Epiphany, 12 January 2020
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“Because God First Loved Me”

Collect: Father in heaven, who at the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan proclaimed him your beloved Son and anointed him with the Holy Spirit: Grant that all who are baptized into his Name may keep the covenant they have made, and boldly confess him as Lord and Savior; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

Matthew 3:13-17
Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

We come today to the Baptism of our Lord, the first Sunday of the Epiphany.  We remember the arrival of Jesus to the Jordan River to be baptized by his cousin John.  I have often heard the question asked, “Why did Jesus need to be baptized?”  

I find this question to be like, “Why did the chicken cross the road?” or “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” Both are unanswerable. Even worse, both are moot. The whys in most situations are not knowable, as some of you have heard me speak about before. I like to look at what is. Almost to say, “Why did Jesus need to be baptized?” In response, “Because he was baptized.” It does not answer the why, but Jesus’ need to do so was apparent because he did it. There is something intrinsic that is happening. But what?

And that begs the question, “Why do any of us need to be baptized?” Why do we undergo this strange and bizarre ritual? An easy answer, because Jesus told us to go and be baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. (Matthew 28:19)

But what is the role of ritual? What is the role of doing what we do at this font? At that altar? How come?

I have used this quote often, usually at marriages.  “A ritual is an enactment of a myth.”-Joseph Campbell  (Hear the word myth in this context as a group-shaping story, not a lie or fiction.)

We go through the motions of a story, to make that formative story not just a part of our story, but our actual story. Last week the children were darling in the Epiphany play. They could not have been more cute. And as they dressed as shepherds and sheep, as angels and kings, as Joseph and Mary even, they made the story their own. Any time we go through a rite, we take on the story it represents.

When we take on the story of baptism we become the stories of Scripture. In baptism, we wash away the old like in Noah’s Flood to bring about a new beginning. In baptism, we are ritually cleansed like in the laws of the Tabernacle and the Temple. In baptism, we follow Christ into the Jordan. In baptism, we are laid in the tomb of Christ’s sepulcher to rise to new life. All these stories become our story. We are invited into this newness of life.

Looking at the Catechism in our Prayer Book we see these answers (pp. 858):
Q.      What is Holy Baptism?A.      Holy Baptism is the sacrament by which God adopts us as his children and makes us members of Christ's Body,the Church, and inheritors of the kingdom of God.           Q.      What is the outward and visible sign in Baptism?A.      The outward and visible sign in Baptism is water, inwhich the person is baptized in the Name of the Father,and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.           Q.      What is the inward and spiritual grace in Baptism?A.      The inward and spiritual grace in Baptism is union with Christ in his death and resurrection, birth into God'sfamily the Church, forgiveness of sins, and new life inthe Holy Spirit.

Looking at all these questions, we are baptized not to receive God’s Grace, but because we have received God’s Grace.  It is an outward sign of an inward Grace.  We are Baptized because God first loved us.  Do not put the cart before the horse!  Christ did not need to be baptized to receive God’s love and forgiveness.  Christ was baptized because he resided in God’s love and Grace.

When we have the rituals of the Church, we often want to equate it to cause and effect.  Except we reverse the reality.  Our effect is the cause, and our cause is the effect.  We get married because of the love and the union that already is, not that we get married to have love and a union.  The wedding is an outward sign of that already received inward reality and Grace.

I got ordained by the Bishop not to make me a priest, but because God’s call and the response on my life led me to kneel before Bishop Shannon where it was outwardly recognized that I was a priest in the Church. The Church was catching up to what God had already done. Marriage is the same way. It is the Church solemnizing the Union that already exists.

Now we look at our Sacraments, Holy Baptism and Holy Eucharist.  Are they any different?  We are baptized to get into God’s Grace?  No.

In fact, let’s look at Christ’s story and see what we can learn.  We need to just look at the last two verses.
Matthew 3:16-17
And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
If we go with our usual, cause and effect approach, then Jesus getting baptized triggers him being God’s Son, God’s Beloved, with whom God is pleased.  Now, did Jesus become God’s Son at this moment?  No.  That reality already was.  Did Jesus become God’s Beloved at this point?  No.  God already loved him.  There are those that argued that Jesus became God’s Son at Baptism, or at the Transfiguration, or at the Ascension.  These ideas are called Adoptionism.  Adoptionism is a heresy.  It is why we say in the creeds, I believe in Jesus, “begotten, not made, of one being with the Father.”  Jesus was not adopted.  He was born the Son of God.

Think of it this way.  I love my daughters.  I love them when they are cute.  I love them when they are cranky.  I love them no matter what.  But there are times when they make wonderful choices or do something that is so great that I am about to burst.  In moments like that I might burst out, “That’s my girl!  I love you so much!  I am so proud of you!”  That’s what rang out from heaven.  “That’s my boy!  I love him so much!  I am so proud of you!”

For me, the word that encapsulates all of this is idea for me is Beloved.  Agapetos in the Greek.  The object of God’s love.  Jesus is called The Agapetos (ho’ Agapetos) by the Divine voice.  This object of God’s divine love is what comes to us.  In this season of Epiphany, may our eyes be opened to this reality like the Wise Ones who went home by another road.

Now, it is Sunday morning.  We are in church.  I can assume that most of you agree with the idea of Jesus being the Agapetos, the object of God’s divine love or you probably would not be here.  The thing I love about this word, though, is there is something else which the New Testament uses this word to describe.  In Paul’s letter in speaking to the Churches in various cities, he writes to his beloved.  Now it is not human love we are talking about here.  It is that agape, that divine love, that we are talking about.

Jesus is not only the Beloved.  You are, too.  You are the Agapetos.  You are the object of God’s divine love.  In my wallet I carry a picture of my daughters.  They are smiling.  They are loving each other.  This picture makes me so happy every time I see it flop out.  How much more do you think God loves you?

In fact, think of how we would look at ourselves in the mirror if we started that way every morning.  “Good morning, beloved of God!”  Even more, what if we came up EVERY ONE that we meet and in our minds declare them the Beloved of God.  Think of how our church, our neighborhood, or city would change.

We come to the Baptismal sacramental waters not for God, but for us.  It is our way of saying to ourselves lest we forget and to everyone that knows us, “I see, I see. I am the Beloved of God. God made me. God claims me. God loves me. God is pleased with me.  I am baptized and there is nothing that can ever take that away.  It surrounds and binds and seals us as God’s own, and Christ’s own, forever.

This year, as we continue to explore the depths of God, it is not a scary and foreboding place with some monster lurking within. It is a spectacular cavern, filled with sights and wonders. And we are invited in. We are welcome because we are the Agapetos. We are welcome as the Beloved. And we know this because of Jesus. He said it; he modeled it; and, he showed us how to live with everyone beloved.

Beloved of God. Just simmer in that for a while. No ifs, ands, or buts. As Peter said in Acts, “I truly understand God shows no partiality…” You are Beloved. Amen.

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Blessings, Rock