Isaiah 42:1-4, 6-7, Acts 10:34-38, Matthew 3:13-17
On the Gospel, The RITE of Baptism
In Nigeria the baptism of a child is usually followed by a happy reception where children are sure to eat one thing, rice. As a result, the baptism dress is sometimes referred to as your rice dress. Thinking of baptism easily makes people think of rice. And sometimes when you are talking of the rites of baptism, all they hear is the rice of baptism. Though the connection between baptism and rice is altogether accidental, one can utilise it as a memory aid for the meaning of baptism.
What does baptism mean? The meaning of baptism can be found in the four letters of the word RICE. R stands for Rebirth. In baptism we are born again by water and the Holy Spirit. We are cleansed from original sin and become sons and daughters of God in a special way. I stands for Initiation. At baptism we are initiated or admitted into full membership in the church, the community of the children of God in the world. C is for Consecration. In baptism we consecrate and dedicate ourselves to seek and to spread the kingdom of God. We commit ourselves to be servants of God, to do God’s will and serve God with our whole lives. And E is for Empowerment. At baptism the Holy Spirit comes into our lives and empowers us, equips us, gives us the moral strength to say no to evil and to live as God’s children that we have become.
These four effects of baptism can be divided into two categories, the passive effects (what we receive from God and the people of God), namely, rebirth, initiation, and empowerment; and the active effect (what we give to God and the people of God), namely, our commitment and dedication to a cause, to spread the kingdom of God. One problem people have with today’s gospel is to understand why Jesus needed to be baptized. An understanding of the “rice” of baptism as we have tried to explain can help.
Looking at the baptism of Jesus by John in the Jordan, we find that Jesus did not need a rebirth since he was from all eternity the only begotten child of God. He had no original sin to be cleansed from. Did Jesus need initiation? Yes. Being human, Jesus needed to associate and to identify with the community of men and women who were dedicated to promoting the cause of the kingdom of God. When it comes to serving God, no one is an island. We need to interact with other children of God. We need the community of faith just as Jesus did. We need the church. Empowerment: the Holy Spirit is the power of the Most High. The Spirit that descended on Jesus at his baptism strengthened and empowered him. As we read in the second reading, it was at his baptism that “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; [and] he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil” (Acts 10:37-38). Consecration: Baptism for Jesus was a moment of self-consecration, a moment of self-dedication. For him it was a commitment to do whatever was necessary to promote the cause of the kingdom of God on earth.
We read that soon after Jesus’ baptism, John was arrested and the Kingdom of God movement needed a new leadership. When Jesus heard it he went up and took on the task, in this way implementing the commitment he made at his baptism to promote the kingdom of God. We can see that for Jesus baptism was not just a question of what he could receive but very much a question of what he could contribute to the cause of the kingdom of God on earth. John F. Kennedy’s saying, “Ask not what your country can do for you, rather ask what you can do for your country” can also be applied to our relationship with God and the Church.
What are we doing, each one of us, to promote the kingdom of God? Are we ready to consecrate and dedicate ourselves wholly to the service of the kingdom of God just as Jesus did? If not, what are we doing to support those who have consecrated themselves to doing this work in the name of us all? Let us today with Jesus renew our baptismal commitment to bear witness to the Good News of the kingdom of God in word and in deed.
On the Epistle, Believe, Belong, and Behave
A certain Bostonian was seeking employment in a Chicago bank. The bank asked him to get a letter of recommendation from the Boston investment house. The Boston investment house could not praise the young man enough. His father was a knighted gentleman, his mother was a distinguished lady. His grandparents and great-grandparents were a blend of Boston’s first families. The recommendation was given without hesitation. A few days later, the Chicago bank sent a note saying the information supplied was altogether inadequate. It read: “We are not contemplating using the young man for breeding purposes. Just for work.” Neither is God a respecter of persons but accepts anyone from any family, nation, and race who fears God and does what is right (Acts 10:35).
Today’s second reading from the Acts of the Apostles is a sermon delivered by Peter in the house of the Roman centurion Cornelius just before baptizing him and his companions. It is an appropriate reading for the Baptism of the Lord, which for us is a model of the baptism of every Christian. This short reading touches on what we may call the three Bs of Christian baptism: belief, belonging, and behaviour.
Then Peter began to speak to them: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him (Acts 10:34-35).
The first part of the reading deals with belonging. Baptism is an admission into the covenant household of God. In the Old Dispensation, God chose the Jews. Once born a Jew, one belonged automatically to the covenant people of God. Non-Jews, Gentiles, were automatically excluded from God’s covenant blessings. The criterion for belonging to God’s people was natural birth. In the New Dispensation in Christ all that changed. Now God has no preference for one nation over others. As Peter came to realize, “God has no favourites, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him (Acts 10:34-35). Jesus levels the playing field of salvation. In baptism we choose to become people of God, children of God, equally loved by God as were the covenant children of God of old, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. What happens after that, whether we turn out to become saints or sinners, depends not on the presence or absence of God’s love for us but on how much we love God and do what is right.
You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ– he is Lord of all. 37 That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced (Acts 10:36-37).
The second part of the reading deals with belief. Baptism is an acceptance of the message sent by God to the people of Israel, the same message announced by Jesus Christ throughout Judea, beginning from Galilee. It is the message of peace between disobedient humanity and God, between Jews and Gentiles, between any opposing segments of the human family. As those to whom this message of God is addressed, we should be glad ever more and more to know this message, to understand its practical implications, and to live it out in our daily lives. It is not enough simply to count ourselves as children of God, we should also endeavour to know and live by the message that God addresses to His children.
God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; … he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him (Acts 10:38).
The last part of the reading deals with behaviour. Like Jesus, we are anointed in baptism with the Holy Spirit and with power so that we can go about doing good and healing all who are oppressed by the devil. Our anointing is not a decoration or a reward, it is a commission. In baptism we are commissioned to be members of Christ, that is, Christ’s arms, feet, ears and mouth. We become other Christs. That is a daunting task. But God empowers us with His Holy Spirit as we go about our Christian duties. God himself is with us as He was with Jesus, so we need not fear the enormity of the challenge before us, for with God all things are possible.