with God's help...

First Sunday after the Epiphany

In the name of Christ.  Amen.

As much as Advent is the start of the new year in the Christian calendar, the Feast of the Epiphany and the Baptism of Jesus is the first light - the dawn, the first day.  After the world had grown darker and night seemed to overtake the day, now the day is making a comeback.  Even though we still have long winter months ahead - in many ways it’s really only just getting started - the days are already noticeably longer.  In the midst of winter, we get the first assurance that Spring will come.  It’s only a nod in that direction, to be sure, but it’s a nod, nonetheless.  Even now, the promise of brighter and warmer times to come is beginning to be shown.

But even beyond the physical changes in our environment that show this to be a season of light, the theological concepts inherent in the season after the Epiphany and the Feast of the Baptism of Jesus are a kind of new dawn for our faith because of how much they represent what is essential to our faith.

Here, in the Episcopal Church, as well as other churches of the catholic tradition, we hold the Holy Eucharist to be a central element of our practice of the faith; but, the primary element of our understanding of our faith is expressed through baptism.

Let me repeat that: the Eucharist is central - we celebrate it practically every week.  Some of us celebrate it more than once a week.  It’s what nourishes us in our common life as Christians.  But while Eucharist is central – at the center – Baptism is primary - it’s the door through which we enter the faith and the lens through which we understand it.

If you’ve ever wondered what it means to be a Christian in the Episcopal Church, the best place to start would be in reading the words of our Baptismal Covenant.  You can find the renewal of Baptismal vows in the Book of Common Prayer on page 292, and we’ll be saying those words together in just a little bit.

Much of the Baptismal Covenant is simply a conversational form of the Apostles’ Creed.  But the real heart of the Covenant is in those five questions that follow the creed.  The creed talks about what the church has historically believed and taught.  But the questions that follow spell out for us how we expect to put those beliefs and teachings into practice.  It’s about where the rubber meets the road.  It’s a measure by which we hold ourselves and each other accountable as practitioners of the faith.

In short, what it means to be a Christian in the Episcopal Church is that we believe it’s not just about getting together on Sundays.  Our faith intersects every aspect of our lives, and the Baptismal Covenant reminds us of that, and seeks to guide us in implementing our faith throughout our lives.

But the first question starts with what we all know: “will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?”  That’s the bit about coming to church - even though it’s not just about coming.  We promise to show up, but we also promise to be engaged - both in continuing to learn about our faith and in practicing faith through communal worship.

From there, we begin moving beyond the church - and we start within ourselves: “will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?”  There are times when our faith feels fresh - when we are full of zeal, and when it comes easily.  But then there are those other times…  Most times in our lives we have to work at being Christian.  It doesn’t always come naturally.  It isn’t always easy.  We have to persevere.  One of the things that I love about this question is that it doesn’t say, “IF you fall into sin…” it says, “WHENEVER you fall into sin…”  We know we will fall short at some point.  We know that our perseverance will falter.  It happens to all of us.  No one is immune.  No one is perfect.  But when we do fall, there’s a way out.  All we have to do is come back.  There are no special rituals, no magic words, no special sacrifices.  The only requirement is that we repent - which means to turn around - and return.

But it’s not enough to worship and to engage in the internal struggle to stay faithful.  Faith is like light.  It’s meant to shine beyond itself.  So our covenant also asks us, “Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?”  We promise to let our faith shine.  We promise to share the Good News not just in the words we say, but in our actions - in the way we live.

And part of how we live, sharing that Good News, is explored in the fourth question: “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?”  That’s a part of what it means to proclaim by our example the Good News of God in Christ.  We are people of the incarnation.  We believe that Christ is not just some historical figure to be studied, but a living part of our own lives to be sought out, and explored, and understood.  It’s not enough to say we love Jesus.  We also have to look for and love the Christ that’s still around us.  Not too many weeks ago we heard the teaching of Jesus that whatever we did to one of the “least of these” we did to him.  So another way of saying that we promise to love our neighbors as ourselves is to say that we love our neighbor as if she were Christ, because she just might be, if we’d only look for the Christ within her.

Finally, we’re asked, “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?”  This might be one of the hardest promises to keep, but it also might be one of the most important.

Throughout the story of the Christian journey, even back to the stories of our Jewish ancestors, even back to the scenes of the creation, which we heard a bit about today, the story of God’s involvement in our lives is one of moving ever closer.  God is always striving to be in deeper relationship with us, the created.  And, despite the many ways that we’ve strayed, God keeps being revealed to us.  God is trying to show us the way to justice and peace.  The truth is, we’re not good at it.  Injustice is too automatic.  Peace is too illusive.

But as Christians, and as Episcopalians, we promise to strive for justice and peace, nonetheless.  And it is a matter of striving.  It’s not as easy as deciding.  It’s not a simple decision that we can make to be people of justice and peace.  Life and relationships are too complex.  But even though it’s hard and we all fail in some ways, we strive, nonetheless.  And even though it may seem nearly impossible, we know that respecting the dignity of every human being - no matter who they are, no matter how close or how far, no matter how different or how similar - respect is a good first step on the road to justice and peace.

That’s the lens through which we understand our faith.  That’s what we, in the Episcopal Church, think that it means to be a Christian.  It’s a lot of work, but it’s fulfilling work.  It’s hard, but we’re never asked to do it alone.  We do it, always, “with God’s help”.  But even beyond that, we’re saying the response together.  We say, “I will, with God’s help” but we say it together.  We don’t say it alone.  We say it in a chorus of other faithful people on this same journey.

So today, as we celebrate the Baptism of Jesus, and the beginning of his ministry, and the beginning of this season of light for us, let’s remember our own baptism – our own commitment.  Let’s focus again on what it means to be practitioners of this faith.  And with that, let’s refocus ourselves for the year ahead.  God is calling us.  Amen.