January 12, 2014: Matthew 3:13-17

January 13, 2014

Year A, Epiphany 1                                                              

           Whenever I teach a class on the Book of Common Prayer, I like to poke fun at the Church of England because they have not formally revised their Book of Common Prayer since 1662.  The reason they have not done so is because any revision to the Book of Common Prayer in England has to be approved by parliament. Can you imagine if the Episcopal Church had to go through congress to make changes to our liturgy?  We would still be using the one from 1789.  The way the Church of England has gotten around this is by creating alternate texts, supplemental texts.  Those texts still need to be approved by the leadership of the church, but the church (thankfully) is less bureaucratic than the government.   In the 1970’s (about the same time we were revising our Book of Common Prayer) the Church of England decided that they should look into revisions and created their first supplemental liturgical book in 1980.  Since then, there have been three more revisions and all revisions have changed something in the Baptismal liturgy.  Just a couple of days ago the Church of England sent out an experimental baptismal liturgy which will have trial use in 400 churches.[1] 

This liturgy has made waves because it softened the language around evil.  All references to the devil were removed. But the big news was that the parents and god parents are no longer asked to repent from sin.  In fact, the church essentially removed every reference to sin, except for one optional reference.  Some of you might be thinking, “What’s the big deal? It’s usually babies or small children who are being baptized.  They haven’t sinned.  Why should parents need to repent from sin on their behalf?”  That is a valid question.

            There has been confusion over the years of the purpose of baptism, the theology of baptism.  Some of that comes from the different accounts of Jesus’ baptism in the Gospels.   I believe at the heart of the confusion is the question of why Jesus needed to be baptized in the first place.   When John the Baptist was proclaiming baptism, he described it as a baptism of repentance.  To receive a baptism of repentance, one would assume that you would have some sins to repent from.   Yet we are taught that Jesus was perfect and without sin.  Some rather huge pieces of Christian theology are constructed around the fact that Jesus is sinless.  If this is true, why would he need to be baptized?

            That’s the thing.  He didn’t need to be baptized.  He chose to be baptized so that he could follow the will of God, so that he could show submission not to a man, but to the God who had the power to divide the heavens and send the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove.  In a sense that was a moment when Jesus was displaying his power over sin.  It did not matter to Jesus how it looked.  He was not worried whether this might lead people to think that he was sinful and in need to repentance.  He was not worried that John the Baptist might get the wrong idea and assume that he had more power than Jesus.  Jesus was not concerned about how things appeared or how the story would be retold by the Gospel writers.  His only concern was following the will of God, submitting to the will of God. 

             Our mother church, the Church of England, wants to remove sin from their baptismal liturgy because they don’t want to scare potential newcomers away.  They are worried that if we talk about sin and the devil, then all those people who come to church only for baptisms will be offended or confused.   And perhaps that is true.  I am sure that even to regular church goers the frequent references to sin and the devil in our baptismal liturgy is a little unsettling.   Yet I fear that when we relegate talk of sin to the sidelines of our faith, we are giving the power back to sin. 

Jesus conquered sin so that we would never be defeated by it, so that we would always have the option of repenting from sin, turning from sin and giving ourselves the opportunity to experience God’s saving grace.  We can only really experience grace when we have asked for forgiveness.  And we can only ask for forgiveness when we are able to admit that we have sinned.  In admitting that, we are not wallowing in guilt, beating our breast and scaring all those potential Christians away.  No, we are standing up and proclaiming that we are disciples of Jesus; the one who defeated sin by taking it on, by kneeling in water and then lying on a cross.  Ours is a victory cry that looks different from the typical cry of victory that we are accustomed to seeing in the sports arena or on an award’s show.  Because the source of our victory cry was actually a cry from a crucified man; a cry that was heard by few but remembered by many.

            Unfortunately for much of the history of the church, shame and guilt were used to manipulate people and make them feel as though they were unworthy of God’s unconditional love.   Sin became associated with shame and guilt.  It became a vehicle for those emotions.   In doing so, we gave sin the power to beat us down.  So I understand why the Church of England is trying so hard to show people that we are not dwelling on sin anymore but emphasizing the love of Christ.  When Jesus came out of those waters God proclaimed to all who were present, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”  When we are baptized, we cease to be identified by our sins.  Instead we become identified with the Beloved.  Actually, we become the beloved sons and daughters of God.

            There is a quote we often hear, a misquote really.  The quote is: “Sin Boldly.”  People often use it to justify sin, like if you are going to sin (and we all are) you might as well do it up big.  More accurately, the quote goes like this: “Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong , but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world.”[2]  The quote comes from the great church reformer Martin Luther and comes in the context of a long paragraph about mercy, sin and forgiveness.  My interpretation of it in the context of the whole letter is that if you want to talk about mercy, if you even want to say that mercy exists, you must first talk about sin and be ready and willing to confess your sin.  And if you are going to sin (which we all are), make sure that your trust in Christ is always stronger than your sin.  Instead of saying “sin boldly,” it might be better to say that we should talk about sin boldly so that it never again claims power over us, so that it never defines us. And then let us even more boldly proclaim the love of God in Christ Jesus so that if we are sinners, we may also be beloved children of God whose mercy and forgiveness is without limit.   If we sin boldly, let us be forgiven and loved even more boldly.

[2] http://www.projectwittenberg.org/pub/resources/text/wittenberg/luther/letsinsbe.txt  Let Your Sins Be Strong: A Letter From Luther to Melanchthon

Letter no. 99, 1 August 1521,