Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Mark of Identification

The Baptism of Christ
Epiphany 2
January 13, 2013
Fr. Philip Eberhart


The Mark of Identification

Have you ever noticed that people who divorce or who are being unfaithful often take their wedding rings off?  Why is that?  What is it about a wedding ring that is so special?  I mean it’s not like the ring of Bilbo Baggins – “one ring, to rule them all” – a ring really doesn’t have magical powers for evil or for good, for that matter.  So what is it about the ring that is so special?

Obviously I’m fascinated with rings these days, as is my daughter and her new fiancé.  But today is the Sunday when we commemorate and remember The Baptism of Jesus Christ. 

Those words themselves ought to make you sit up and take notice.  Baptism was, in Jesus’ day, a sign of repentance.  His cousin, John the Baptizer, made it abundantly clear that what he was doing was bringing masses to repentance as a forerunner to the Messiah, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  Baptism was that cleansing bath from sin – a kind of first-fruit of real repentance and a transition point into a new life.

So why was Jesus baptized?  He had nothing to repent of.  John even points this fact out to him as he is coming down into the water!!  “I should be baptized by you!!” John whispered to Jesus.  In Matthew’s account we hear the conversation between Jesus and John:   Jesus answer, “it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.”

Sacramental Power

In our theology as Anglicans – our Sacramental Theology – we use a phrase in the Prayer Book that these things that we do are “means of grace.”  We acknowledge that they have actual power, not just attributed power.  But not a power that is like what we see in the fantasy world – say in the Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit, recently released – this is a different kind of power.

In Sacramental Theology there is a differentiation between the sign of the sacrament and the grace of the sacrament, if you will.  The grace of God is the effectual working of God’s power in our lives, that we access through the means that He has appointed.

In our theology there are two primary “means” by which grace is communicated to us:  through the water of baptism for salvation and through the elements of bread and wine for “our daily bread.”  As Sacramental Christians we seek to have an understanding of these realities, as points of contact between heaven and earth.

We access the power and presence of God by faith.  And when faith meets one of these points of contact, grace is released.  Now I have to add the caveat that I don’t think God the Omnipotent is limited to giving us His powerful grace in only these ways, but they are commanded by Him and we need to pay more close attention to why!!

Jesus himself, as I indicated earlier, was baptized.  Was he accessing grace as we do through baptism?  Probably not.  He WAS grace.  John knew that and said it to him, but Jesus pressed him to “fulfill all righteousness.”

Jesus was under orders!  As the baptism of Jesus unfolded an extraordinary thing happened – The Whole Trinity became visible and audible and John witnessed this fact in his testimony.  It was in fact, the “sign” he had been told to wait for and it was after that that he pointed to Jesus on the shore, in the hearing of his disciples and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”  John was sure of it.  He was there and saw the dove of the Spirit and heard the voice of the Almighty Father affirm his love and blessing of His one and only Son.

Jesus was baptized as his willful entry into the obedience of full identification with us in our humanity.  He had been born of a virgin mother, a baby in Bethlehem;  he had grown up in a carpenter’s home and shop, learning the trade of his earthly father, Joseph;  he had learned the scriptures in the synagogue in Nazareth at the knee of the local rabbi; he engaged the teachers in the temple in Jerusalem, His Father’s House, when he was 12, the age of accountability.  But here Jesus comes to his purpose, out and away from that of his earthly family, and owns his own destiny and ministry as the Lamb.

Here Jesus is, as we are, filled to the fullness of God with the presence of the Holy Spirit – “without measure” one writer exclaims.  Jesus entered into the life that we have available to us, by the Power of the Spirit!  Jesus in fact, is now the baptizer, as John foretold just before His baptism!  “One is coming who is mightier than I, and I am not fit to untie the thong of His sandals;  He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” 

Jesus baptism was one of IDENTIFICATION.  And this is a piece of the puzzle that I want to explore in my remaining minutes.

In the book of Revelation we are told of the Mark on those who believe.  Likewise we are told of the mark of the beast – and we love to speculate about its meaning, especially as we encounter various new technologies for numbering things and people in our culture.  But this mark is not one that is visible to the naked eye, not a tattoo or a chip.  Both marks are sacramental marks -  outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace.

So when do we receive this mark and what does it mean?

How many here have been baptized or confirmed in the Anglican / Episcopal church?

Do you remember what happens right after the baptism?

The Bishop or priest, standing for the Bishop, takes a bit of holy oil, called Chrism, and marks it on the head of the newly baptized.  Each of you, who raised your hand a moment ago, had that happen.  And with that action, the celebrant says these words:  “N, you are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever.  Amen”

Chrism is specially consecrated oil, by a Bishop, for this act.  It is not the usual anointing oil, and there is a specific prayer of consecration that goes with this oil:
Eternal Father, whose blessed Son was anointed by the Holy Spirit to be the Savior and servant of all, we pray you to consecrate this oil, that those who are sealed with it may share in the royal priesthood of Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, for ever and ever.  Amen.

“That those who are sealed, may share in the royal priesthood of Jesus Christ.”

Here is the power and the purpose of the sacramental sign.  In Baptism, we come to share – to identify with and take our place in – the actual position and ministry of Jesus in the world and in the heavens.  Paul tells us we are “seated with Him in heavenly places.”  John tells us that we have been given only one power or right as Christians who believe in Jesus:  the power to become!  Paul talks of the great exchange in 2 Cor 5:21:   For God made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.”

Baptism, Eucharist and to a lesser degree the other sacraments identified by the church:  Marriage, Reconciliation, Anointing of the sick or Holy Unction, and finally Confirmation and Ordination – all of these carry with them a part of this power of identification and they all transfer the power through simple signs of identification.  No magic involved, but the power of God, granted to be both with us and in us, as partners with Him now, just as He partnered with us at His baptism by John.

So what’s so special about a wedding ring, a dob of oil on a forehead, a piece of bread and a drink of wine?

God is so special!  God is willing to communicate Himself to us humans in such human terms and in such simple, every day ways!  If nothing else we see in the sacraments the extent and simplicity of the love of God our Father!  We see how God is willing to be “made available and accessible” to us.  At the death of Jesus the curtain was torn from top to bottom, because His obedience unto death had finished the work of redemption and opened a way for us to come back to His Father from our own far country!

Sacraments remind us of that truth, in every day ways, and invite us to come in. Come into relationship with the Living and powerful, all knowing and all loving God – the true God, not made with hands;  very God of very God!  Sacraments are for our sake, not His!  Because we are weak and we need these earthly, earthy signs to remind us of who we are and of whose we are:

So remember:   You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.  Amen.


Let us pray:

I want to pray the prayer that each of us had prayed over us at our baptism:

Heavenly Father, we thank you that by water and the Holy Spirit you have bestowed upon these your servants the forgiveness of sins, and have raised them to the new life of grace.  Sustain them, O Lord, in your Holy Spirit.  Give them an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works.


Also the prayer for those who are “confirmed:”

Almighty God, we thank you that by the death and resurrection of your Son Jesus Christ you have overcome sin and brought us to yourself, and that by the sealing of your Holy Spirit you have bound us to your service.  Renew in these your servants the covenant you made with them at their Baptism.  Send them forth in the power of that Spirit to perform the service you set before them; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, now and for ever.


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