So Christmas is over. The Wise Men have found the Christ Child. The season of Epiphany has begun. Jesus has been baptized. And now it’s time to think about the Eagles.
Yes, those Eagles—the green Eagles.
Big game today if you’re an Eagles fan. Which I’m not really, to be honest–but I do like to see the local teams win.
Philadelphia sports fans? They’re a breed apart, aren’t they? I mean, where else would you find a team mascot like the Flyers’ Gritty, with his wild orange hair, and so much attitude. He’s a little grungy, he’s loyal to the team, but he’s not exactly welcoming to the Flyers’ opponents.
And I’ve never seen anything like the wave of red that swept the city back in October when the Phillies made it to the World Series. Pretty much everyone was wearing something red, and there were plenty of team jerseys with the names and numbers of individual players—especially Bryce Harper.
And that, oddly enough, brings me to the subject of today’s Gospel.
The story takes place on the banks of the Jordan River, where John the Baptist has been preaching a message of repentance and renewal, and baptizing people who were ready to commit to it.
John understood how far the people of Israel had strayed from their central values. He had the vision to see what was wrong with the way things were going—how people were living—and he had the courage to step up and speak out about it.
Poor John—his preaching turns out to be both appealing and also dangerous. Even Herod was attracted to it, but it also made Herod afraid. He was afraid of John’s power over the crowds and he had him put in prison. And then of course the end of the story was, he had him killed.
As a preacher, John comes across in the Gospels as a bit of a wild man—maybe not quite as wild as the Flyers’ Gritty—but people were obviously hungry to hear what he had to say. They came out to the Jordan River in crowds. He was reaching them, he was touching something deep inside them, which really is what every preacher wishes they could do.
He was inspiring those people to turn their lives around, and being baptized was a way of making a public statement that they were making a new beginning in their lives.
And baptism was a new beginning for Jesus, too, actually. He comes to the Jordan ready to change his life, to step out and begin preaching himself.
And I can’t help wondering how Jesus must have felt as he stood there beside the Jordan in the moments before he approached John.. How long had he been thinking about this? How long had he been trying to make up his mind about whether to take this step?
I wonder if he was nervous, and maybe even a little lonely. Because we don’t see anyone else standing up with him and encouraging him to go ahead with this baptism.
He hasn’t yet gathered his circle of close followers. So he’s alone in this moment. And there’s no sign in the story that anyone else at the Jordan other than John knows exactly who Jesus really was. He’s just another man in the crowd at that point.
But with the benefit of hindsight we know he will rise from the water, and go forward from this moment to change the world forever. So this is a very decisive moment in his life.
So he’s baptized, and he comes up from the water, and the spirit of God descends on him like a dove—it says in the Gospel—and a voice from heaven calls him “the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
So at baptism, Jesus is not only given courage, it would seem, but he’s given a new identity: He is the Beloved.
And while we know that our Christian baptism isn’t the same as what he experienced at the Jordan, in baptism we also receive a new identity.[i]
In baptism, we also are marked as God’s Beloved. Think about what that means, to be God’s Beloved.
But there’s even more to our new identity. In baptism we also say that we “put on Christ.” And when we put on Christ, it’s not quite the same think as putting on a Phillies or an Eagles team jersey. It’s not quite the same as putting on Bryce Harper—although as surprising as it might seem, I do actually see some similarities.
Because I think we all want to be part of something that’s bigger than ourselves. We want to belong to aa community, a team, you could call it. We want to belong to a team that we can believe in.
It’s great to be part of a winning team, of course, but maybe even more important is just that sense of belonging to something that gives us hope.
Something that lifts us from our everyday worries and concerns—all those things which we fret about, which in the end really don’t matter all that much—belong to something that joins us to something that do seem important in an everlasting sort of way.
So one interesting thing that I observed about the long red season of 2022 in Philadelphia was the way it seemed to open people up.
People in the city—and I talk about the city because it’s a place where I spend a lot of time because my family is there, but it’s also a place where strangers bump up against each other on a day-to-day basis, maybe more than they do out here in Bucks County. They walk more than they drive. Those people in the city found they had something in common with other people who might otherwise seem rather different from themselves. You could spot a fellow in that community by the red they were wearing.
And this sense of recognition seemed to open people up a little. They were wearing their red as a sign of togetherness, and there was a sense of joy in that togetherness—the kind of joy that was enough to make you want to go out and climb a greased pole, if you know what I mean.
So you might see this kind of thing—this joy that came to us in the long, soft, fading days of fall—you might see that joy as something that has to be the exception to how things usually are. You might think of it as the kind of rare opportunity that comes along maybe once in a decade, if you’re lucky.
And yet what I think we forget is that living with an intense sense of togetherness, in community based on a common vision, shared in a spirit of joy and hope—that is exactly what it should mean to be baptized.
Baptism for us believers—it’s not just an event that happens to us individually on a particular day. It’s a new identity that’s ours every day of our lives.
It is a commission to active ministry, and a source of grace to sustain us in that work. It’s a reminder that we are a people who are not like everyone else. That we measure ourselves by a different standard.
We follow Jesus Christ.
The principles we live by are outlined in the promises that we make at baptism, which we will repeat here today, in place of the Nicene Creed. And I encourage you to really think deeply about how those promises still play out in your own life as we go through them.
I don’t know what’ll happen to the Eagles today. I don’t know if they’ll clinch a place in the playoffs. I don’t know what the postseason will be like for them if that happens.
But I do know that we are already winners. May we leave here filled with grace and joy and hope—and a sense of belonging to something that’s bigger than ourselves, that’s even bigger than this parish community. Something that matters.
Just don’t go climbing any greased poles.
Preached at St. James the Greater Episcopal Church, Bristol, PA.
[i] Credit for the theme of baptismal identity: Adams Kevin J. Living Under Water : Baptism As a Way of Life. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company 2022.