Costly Grace

St. Catherine’s Episcopal Church
Chelsea, Alabama
Sunday, January 13, 2019

The First Sunday after the Epiphany: The Baptism of our Lord
First Lesson: Isaiah 43:1-7
Psalm 29
Second Lesson: Acts 8:14-17
Gospel: Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Now, O Lord, take my lips and speak with them. Take our minds and think through them. Take our hearts and set them on fire for your Gospel. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

why-was-jesus-baptizedToday is the first Sunday after the Epiphany. The seasons of Advent and Christmas have passed. We have the Feast of the Epiphany and once again heard the magnificent story of the three wise men from the East who travel to Bethlehem to pay homage to the newborn King. Now the church is ready to once again hear the miraculous stories in which God’s grace was revealed to the world through his beloved son, Jesus Christ. This will be the focus of our lectionary readings from now until the end of this liturgical season, leading up to Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent.

In all three years of our Sunday lectionary, the first Sunday after the Epiphany is when we remember the Baptism of our Lord by John the Baptizer at the River Jordan.  As we heard in today’s lesson from the Gospel of Luke, John says to crowd gathered at the river, “I baptize 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 baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”The baptismal narrative in Luke’s Gospel concludes with a voice from heaven proclaiming to Jesus after his baptism, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

I think it’s especially fitting that today’s Old Testament lesson comes from the forty-third chapter of Isaiah. Although the text was written several centuries before the birth of Jesus, it speaks of the same close, intimate, relationship that the Father has for the Son in our Gospel lesson. Notice the similarity in tone between the first couple of verses from our passage from Isaiah and the words spoken by the voice from heaven in our passage from Luke.  “But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.” When God calls us, he calls us by name and claims us as his own. This is foundational in our understanding of baptism and why baptism such a significant moment in our walk with Christ.

The story of Jesus’ baptism reminds me of my own baptism, which took place several years ago at the beginning of my senior year at Auburn University. Father Wells Warren, the Episcopal priest at St. Dunstan’s at the time, discovered that I had never been baptized. He asked me if I would be interested in being baptized at the annual beach retreat in September, and I quickly responded by saying, “yes.” For years, I had felt that there was something incredibly important missing from my life, and when I discovered St. Dunstan’s and the Episcopal Church, that emptiness began to disappear. As soon as I walked through those tall, red doors of the church, I knew that I had found something special at St. Dunstan’s. I had found a home and group of people who truly accepted me for who I was. No questions asked.

Finally, the time for the beach retreat came. We drove to Fort Morgan, Alabama, and spent the entire weekend playing games, having dance parties, participating in deep, meaningful conversation, and simply enjoying the company of one another. The morning came when I was to be baptized. It was a beautiful day. The sun was shining, and the emerald green waters of the Gulf of Mexico were particularly clear. We gathered together on the gulf coast beach for worship, and when the time came for the baptism portion of the service, we waded into the gulf. Immediately, I was surrounded by my friends and loved ones. I felt protected, and most importantly, I felt loved. For the first time in my life, I felt as though I had been lifted up and called to fulfill a greater purpose in my life. During the baptism, we all reaffirmed our baptismal vows and afterward returned to the beach for the rest of the service.  It was truly, as St. Paul might say, a “fullness of time” moment- a moment when time seemed to stand still, a moment when all who were there were fully aware of the presence of the Holy Spirit at work in our lives. There are moments such as these that we’ve all experienced at one point or another, whether it’s a baptism, or a particularly moving sermon, or coming to the table to receive Christ’s body and blood, or a marriage, or perhaps simply being still in complete silence before the Lord. It’s important that we recognize those grace-filled moments for what they are and hold onto them. They help sustain us in the journey that lies ahead.

As you’ll recall, earlier in Luke’s Gospel, before the arrival of Jesus, John the Baptizer prepares those who have come to be baptized by giving them a warning: “Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” John understood that God’s grace is freely given, but he also understood that in order to receive that grace, one must first ask for it. The people responded to John’s warning by asking, “What then should we do?”  He replied, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do so likewise.” To the tax collectors he said, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you,” and to the soldiers he said, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”

Holy Baptism, in the Episcopal Church, is a sacrament- an “outward and visible sign of God’s inward and spiritual grace.” As we say in the words of the Nicene Creed, “We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.” “One Lord, one faith, one baptism.” During the sacrament, those who are baptized are buried with Christ in his death and raised to new life through his resurrection. A new creation is made, and we welcome the newly baptized into the Christian community- the Body of Christ. Holy Baptism is a precious gift, a blessing, given freely by God to those who say “yes” to God’s call. But, we also have to be responsible for the grace that we’ve been given. Grace that is received without cost is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer refers to as “cheap grace.” In his book, The Cost of Discipleship,Bonhoeffer writes “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.” “Costly grace,” writes Bonhoeffer, “is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock.” Although the sacrament of Holy Baptism is God’s grace given freely, we’re asked of something in return. We’re asked to make a covenant with God, a promise that we make with our creator at our baptism. During this covenant, we promise to live a life of faith according to the ancient creeds of the church. We promise to continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers. We promise to persevere in resisting evil and to repent when we’ve turned away from God. We promise to proclaim by word and deed the Good News of God in Christ. We promise to seek and serve all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves. And finally, we promise to strive for justice and peace among all people and to respect the dignity of every human being.

My brothers and sisters in Christ, as we turn now to reaffirm our faith and recommit our lives to the work Christ, as we offer our prayers and thanksgivings to Almighty God, and finally, as we depart this place, let us always remember the vows that we’ve made in our Baptism and pray for God’s wisdom and strength to uphold them. Amen.

Click here to listen to an audio recording of this sermon.

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