Sermon given at Matins on The Baptism of Christ 2013
13 January 2013 at 10:00 am
The Reverend Andrew Tremlett, Canon in Residence
In the summer it really must be very pleasant; a broad and gracious river running for about 500 miles; a place to go on your fishing holiday, if that takes your fancy.
Meandering through the Stara Planina, the Tundzha river passes through Kalofer, a town in central Bulgaria, before heading south across the border into Turkey and discharging into the Thracian Sea.
But in the depths of winter things look a little different. At this time of year the snows have come, the ground is covered in a thick blanket, and ice is being chipped off the river Tundzha.
And decidedly different if, like this time last week, you were an adult male inhabitant of Kalofer, where some 350 men out of a total population of just 3,500 men, women, and children, took part in an ancient and traditional Bulgarian dance or horo.
Imagine the scene if you will: thousands of your townsfolk line the river bank, stomping their feet in time to a folk orchestra playing a kind of bagpipes. Led by their national flag, the 350 make their way into the icy waters in the hope of retrieving an ornate cross which the local Orthodox priest – elderly and suspiciously non-participant – has tossed into the river. The lucky individual who retrieves it is guaranteed good health and long life, if he recovers from the pneumonia he is likely to have contracted in the effort! Pity, too, the unfortunate baby who is honoured by being baptised in the ice-cold river.
So, what on earth is going on? In scenes repeated across the Orthodox churches of Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, Poland, and Ukraine, the Feast of the Epiphany of Christ is marked by the blessing of rivers, lakes, and watercourses, recalling the baptism of Jesus by St John the Baptist. In last week’s sermon in this series on St John the Baptist, I described how Eastern and Western Christianity has developed this festival in different directions, the East looking to the Christ’s baptism, while West initially looks to the arrival of the Magi and only now a week on turns to his baptism.
And today I want to look a bit closer at the interplay between Jesus and St John, at how the Bible describes their relationship, and to think about the significance of the scripture we have just heard read, from the Acts of the Apostles, which describes people in the early Church – decades after Christ’s death – who knew only the baptism of St John.
The New Testament portrayal of the relationship between Jesus and St John the Baptist is most clearly set out in St Luke’s Gospel. You will remember the long description of Zechariah, St John’s father, the priest chosen by lot to enter into the sanctuary of the Lord to offer incense.
St Elizabeth, Zechariah’s wife, is portrayed as the kinswoman of Mary, the mother of Jesus. It is Mary’s visit to Zechariah’s house that prompts Elizabeth’s unborn child to leap in her womb: ‘Blessed are you among women’, she cries, ‘and blessed is the fruit of your womb’.
And when the child arrives, instead of being called Zechariah like his father, the angel’s bidding is recalled and ‘his name is John’. St Luke’s words of blessing have become for Anglicans the glorious Benedicite which we say each morning.
But the sense of the priority of Jesus over St John is signalled early in St Luke’s gospel. Chapter three has him saying, ‘I baptise you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire’.
St John’s baptism of Jesus looks more and more like an Old Testament kingly anointing – like Samuel pouring the horn of oil over the head of David in 1 Samuel 16. In fact, of course, the word Messiah means just that – the anointed one.
The brief mention in the gospel of St John’s beheading by Herod only serves to point up the fact that Jesus time had come. This is implied in his question to the disciples: ‘Who do the crowds say that I am?’ They answered, John the Baptist, but others, Elijah; and still others, that one of the ancient prophets has arisen’. He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered, ‘The Messiah, the anointed one of God’.
He must increase, but I must decrease.
This is the picture we have all become accustomed to, which is what makes today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles slightly puzzling. Let me remind you:
Paul passed through the inland regions and came to Ephesus, where he found some disciples. He said to them, ‘Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?’ They replied, ‘No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.’ Then he said, ‘Into what then were you baptised?’ They answered, ‘Into John’s baptism.’
Early disciples, followers of the Way – as the first Christians were known – in one of the great centres of Mediterranean culture and a hub of the early Church, but baptised in the name of St John and not that of Jesus.
Nor were they alone: the previous chapter, Acts 18, tells a similar story about Apollos, an Alexandrian Jew.
St Paul’s response – like that of Priscilla and Aquila to Apollos – was two-fold. Firstly, he explained the significance of Jesus as the Messiah, the anointed one. But secondly St Paul took these proto-disciples beyond a simple baptism of repentance and onto a baptism in the name of Jesus, to receive the anointing of the Holy Spirit.
So to conclude, I want to draw out three simple points from these episodes.
First of all, the course of Christian history is not necessarily a simple linear development from A to B. Different communities at different times develop local practices. This is messy. It’s not how we like our Church history. But it is of comfort to those of us in churches which seek radical and fundamental change.
Secondly, God was already at work preparing the ground: this was true in the ministry of St John the Baptist, preparing for Jesus. And it was true in the lives of those who had been baptised in John’s name, and were then prepared for the baptism of Jesus. The Church’s mission can never go where God has not already been before.
But lastly, repentance is crucial, it is the cornerstone of the godly life, it is the realisation of our need for God, but it is not enough in itself. St John’s baptism of repentance could only ever been the precursor to a richer, deeper, more enlivened experience of God, our baptism in the name of Jesus and in the power of the Holy Spirit.