Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Following Jesus in Baptism

This past Sunday's sermon.... a few days late!

Sunday: 11 January, 2015 –– The Baptism of the Lord
(Year B) Isaiah 55:1–11 / 1 John 5:1–9  / Mark 1:7–11
Following Jesus in Baptism

Catholic identity is grounded in Baptism. On this Sunday the Church celebrates the baptism of Jesus Christ. It's an event that is recorded in all four gospels, so we know it's important. But why was Jesus baptized?

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, baptismal grace means forgiveness of original sin and all personal sins, and birth into the new life by which a person becomes a temple of the Holy Spirit and incorporated into the Church, the Body of Christ....  [CCC 1279].

Jesus didn't need any of those things! So, again, why was he baptized?

The baptism of Jesus is part of his mission, and his mission is clearly stated in the Scriptures: The angel had told Joseph: he will save his people from their sins (Mtt 1:21).

How does Jesus save us? The Scriptures give more answers than I can put in one homily. One medium of salvation is preaching. Isaiah gives God’s promise that my word shall not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it. If we listen well, we know Scripture gives both stern warnings and comforting promises. The warnings are meant to direct us to the promises. Again looking at the Isaiah text we hear about our God who is generous in forgiving…. the God who invites us: come to the water.

In our physical world, water is life; we cannot live without it. And because our physical world is created by God and reveals something of who he is, water is used throughout Scripture with rich spiritual significance. As Jesus appears on the scene to initiate his saving work, he comes to the water to be baptized by John. So the question comes yet again: why did Jesus need to be baptized?

Here is the “heart” of the word for today: To save us, Jesus goes ahead of us and gives us a path to follow. Particularly, in his death he was taking upon himself our death. In his resurrection Jesus destroyed the power of death. When we follow Jesus, we too die to sin and thus have the hope of resurrection to eternal life.

This is the way we understand Baptism. To take our sins upon himself and die our death, Jesus submitted to baptism to take the initial step of identifying with sinners so he could take the path to the cross to be our Savior. It was one more way the Son of God humbled himself to do for us what we could never do for ourselves.

Hear what the Church says in the Catechism: “Baptism is the first and chief sacrament of forgiveness of sins because it unites us with Christ, who died for our sins and rose for our justification, so that we too might walk in newness of life” (CCC #977). Jesus became like us in every way but sin so that we could become like him. Baptism is the first step in the process of becoming a saint!

It is important to know, however, that Baptism is not an end in itself; it is the “gateway to life in the Spirit and the door which gives access to the other sacraments” (CCC #1214, emphasis added). Unfortunately, not all baptized people live up to their baptism––“the grace of Baptism delivers no one from all the weakness of nature” (CCC #978). But here is the issue for us on this day that we honor the baptism of the Lord: Am I living out of my Baptism?  

Being baptized into Jesus Christ is our highest calling. Nothing is greater than being identified with Jesus Christ. The implications are eternal.

As I progressed in my journey into the Church––as I began to understood more of the tangible things that mark Catholic life––I was pulled into the power of the Sacraments. I began to think more about my own Baptism (which, until then, had merely been some almost forgotten event in my past history).  I really started to take notice when I came to understand that when I come to church and make the sign of the cross with holy water it is a renewal of my Baptism.

I hope it is not redundant to repeat something I said two years ago. Maybe you will remember; perhaps some of you have been doing this. I want to challenge you to do something I try to do ever since I learned this lesson. I use the simple gesture of entering the church to renew my Baptism. I try to enter the church early enough not to be hurried, so that I can focus on what I am doing, and then as I dip my finger into the water, I offer a prayer that goes something like this:  I belong to you, my Lord. I give myself to you fresh and new. Let the power of your baptismal waters again make me clean and totally yours. In your grace, never let me make this a mindless, mechanical gesture.

Jesus Christ gave his life for your salvation. He suffered death for you. He rose from the dead for you. And he initiated it by being baptized for you. Christian Baptism marks who we are.

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