Sermon on the Baptism of Jesus

Bishop Dominic, St Mary’s Church on January 19th

Every Jew and every Christian will know the Genesis story of Joseph and his coat.  The Authorised Version of the Bible and Andrew Lloyd-Webber tell us that it was a coat of many colours so I hope it won’t shock you too much if I tell you that the Hebrew (Kethoneth passim) is problematic and modern translations of the Bible translate it as a coat with long sleeves. And that highlights some of the problems that we have with translating the Bible into English or any other language.

A similar problem arises when we look at the accounts of John
the Baptist who we are told came with a message of ‘repentance’ and we have
tended to understand that in moral terms so that we must repent of our sins,
and that then leads to the thorny question that arises from today’s
gospel.  If Jesus was sinless, then why
did he need to undergo a baptism of repentance?

One suggestion which I quite like – although I think it is
totally wrong – is that he did it to please his mother who presumably said,
‘Don’t upset your Auntie Elizabeth and Cousin John and you go and get baptised
with the others’.

The real problem I think is one of translation. We have
tended to translate the Greek word metanoia (or metanoeite) as ‘repent’ when it
literally means to ‘change your mind’ or to ‘go beyond your mind’.
Unfortunately, when the NT was translated
by St Jerome from Greek into Latin the word ‘paenitentia’ was used which
means to ‘repent’ or ‘do penance’ – but the original Greek word means to have a
change of perspective, to change your world view and to find  new way of perceiving and understanding life.

Now I am not telling you this to give a lesson in biblical
languages but to show that the message of John the Baptist was about having a
change of heart and a change of mind – it wasn’t primarily about going to
confession and having a change of behaviour – that is secondary because a
change of behaviour will follow the change of heart.  There is no point in changing your behaviour
if you haven’t changed your heart and mind – that is hypocrisy.  There is no point in being loving, forgiving
and welcoming on the outside when inwardly your heart is still filled with
prejudice, hatred and anger.

At our last Group Service, Canon
David Osborn preached about the assassination of Thomas à  Becket in Canterbury Cathedral and we were
reminded of the words from T.S. Elliot’s play Murder in the Cathedral  where Thomas replies to his tempters by saying
‘The last temptation is the highest treason; to do the right deed for the wrong
reason’. Yes, true conversion takes place in the heart and is then expressed in

Jesus taught us to beware of outward
appearances which may be a sham.  He
says, don’t practice your piety before others..when you give alms do not
sound your trumpets before you…when you pray don’t do it on the street
corners…do those things in secret where your Father who sees in secret can
reward you.

Jesus constantly emphasises the
importance of inner motivation and intention and we find that most clearly in
the Sermon on the Mount and for example when Jesus said, ‘You have heard
that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’.  But I say to you, everyone who looks at a
woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart’.
was concerned with inner transformation and that inner transformation is linked
with baptism.

There is a story of a new vicar who
complained that the baptismal font leaked
and it no longer held the water for long enough and that it needed to be
repaired.  The churchwarden was reluctant
to go to such expense, so the vicar asked what he predecessor did at a baptism
and the churchwarden replied, ‘He did spit on his hand’.

And at a family service, I once asked
the children, ‘What is baptism’ and a little boy shouted back ‘drowning’ and
the people laughed, but he was right.
Not many people realise that according to the instructions in the 1662
Book of Common Prayer the Anglican way to baptise a baby  is to put the baby under the water unless the
child is sickly when the water may be poured.
Baptism is about drowning – about going under the water and dying with
Christ so that we may be raised to a new life with him and that involves a new
way of thinking.  St Paul urges us to
ADAPT our minds so that we have the same mind as Christ, so that we look at the
world through his eyes of love and compassion rather than judgement and

In baptism the first question we are
asked is, ‘Do you turn to Christ?’ and at Easter in the early Church the
candidates physically turned around to turn their backs on the world and its
false values to face the Easter candle and the Risen Christ.

So why was Jesus himself baptised if
he had no need of repentance and it wasn’t just to please his mother? Well,
Jesus himself tells us in Matthew’s account that it was ‘to fulfil all
righteousness’ and that again is problematic because we really don’t know what
that means but what we do know is that by being baptised Jesus identified
himself fully with the human race he came to save, and that his baptism [and
the voice from heaven showing his father’s approval] marked the beginning of
his ministry, and so it is that baptism marks the beginning of our ministry and
that life long spiritual journey to be inwardly transformed in heart and
mind.  Amen.