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Saint Margaret’s Anglican Church

Budapest, Hungary

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Sermon of the Week

January 12, 2020

First Sunday after the Epiphany

Saint Margaret’s Anglican Episcopal Church

Budapest, Hungary

 

Isaiah 42:1-9; Acts 10:34-43; Matthew 3:13-17; Psalm 29

 

"I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?"

 

The early Church really did not know quite what to make of John’s Baptism of Jesus at the Jordan. The prevailing view was that it should not have happened in the first place, since Jesus was obviously greater than John, and in any case he was not in need of repentance, much less a Baptism of Repentance. Some even called the Baptism of Jesus an embarrassing mistake. The Gospel of John for instance does not so much as mention it.

 

We see the conflicted feelings reflected already in today’s first-century account of Jesus’ Baptism from the Gospel of Matthew, in which John pipes us and says, "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?" This is the issue in a nutshell. The vignette by the way is only found in Matthew and does not occur in the Baptism narratives of the Gospels of Luke and Mark.

 

Frustratingly perhaps, Matthew’s Jesus does not give John much of an answer to his quite sensible question; saying in essence and a bit cryptically, just let it be for now. The early Church however – and Christians ever since – could not simply let it be. And so scholars and theologians have over the centuries made a cottage industry out of offering meaning to and explanation of Jesus’ Baptism. Allow me to add my own humble reflections to theirs. 

 

Warning: This will be a bit theological.

 

Baptism as a religious rite has a long history and pedigree in many of the religions of the world, including Judaism of course, and Islam. For the Jews of John’s time, regular ablutions were apparently commonplace, representing a sort of symbolic cleansing from ritual impurity – impurity which was not to be confused with outright sinfulness by the way. And, until John came along, people in essence washed – or baptized if you will – themselves, pretty much as we might wash our own hands or face today without anyone’s help.

 

John on the other hand personally baptized – or washed – the people who came to him at the Jordan, presumably one at a time, suggesting for the first time that one could not, of one’s own efforts, bring about either ritual purity or for that matter forgiveness of sin. And indeed, John was also unique in his call for more than simple ritual purity in accordance with arbitrary laws and customs, as important as that was. John demanded more. He demanded inner repentance for sin and a Baptism of Repentance. 

 

That was new.

 

And, it was perhaps this as much as his preaching that drew people to him – including Jesus. People instinctively knew or felt in their hearts that rote compliance with innumerable rules and regulations and ritual ablutions could not bring inner peace. Yet at some deeper and more troubling level, neither could repentance, as they came to see, if it was purely an act of one’s own volition and desire. You cannot, in other words, make God love or forgive you. And, that was a problem.

 

Jesus offers a solution. At his Baptism, our Lord takes upon himself the sins of all humankind and receives John’s Baptism of Repentance on behalf of us all. In our Lord’s Baptism, repentance is no longer the action or decision of the individual alone. It is a grace and a gift from God, freely given and bestowed to humankind. You still cannot make God love you. But then, you no longer need try.

 

Jesus humbled himself before John in order to inaugurate his work of redemption of all humankind. Thus, the ancient Fathers of the Church called Jesus’ Baptism both the end of the ancient, exclusively Hebrew, Covenant and simultaneously the beginning of the new Covenant of grace, or “all righteousness,” as Matthew has Jesus describe it, a Covenant which is sealed by the words from heaven, "This is my Son, the Beloved.” And, those words in turn find their final fulfillment at the Cross and Resurrection. 

 

What to make of it…?

 

Well, our Baptism in a way is also an embarrassing mistake. It should not have to be. It should not be the case in other words that sin should still exist, much less that we should engage in it. Nowadays after all, engineers tell us, even computer programmes and Smart-Phone applications learn from their mistakes and auto-correct. Surely, humankind should be able to do as much. Surely by now, wars as well as political and business corruption should have long ceased. Justice should rule the lands, and people should live in peace.

 

Workplaces too should be places where productivity is based not only on forints and pence and the bottom-line but on the commonweal, on the common good. Families should provide homes and reservoirs of love and acceptance. Jealousies and envy should have long been replaced by good will and self-giving. How embarrassing indeed that things are not so. What John proclaimed long ago still holds true: If we cannot seem to perfect human nature, then we must at least accept the Baptism of Repentance -- and the Baptism of grace and all righteousness.

 

Our Baptism is then a sharing in the Redemption, and so a sharing in our Lord’s Baptism as well. It is a poignant reminder that Christ’s work of Redemption is far from over, for the world around us is still a world of sin and madness from which we cannot escape, except through the grace of God. In Christ and in his Baptism, we find hope for the world and for ourselves. His Baptism -- and ours -- remain works-in progress as long as human nature is, well, human nature.

 

Matthew’s Gospel seems to be the only one which suggests that the words from heaven, "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased," are heard not just by Jesus but also by John and those surrounding our Lord at his Baptism. Stay true to your Baptism, my friends, be still and listen closely, and you too may hear those words addressed to Jesus but by extension to us as well: "This is my Son, my Daughter, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased."

 

Amen.

 

The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedűs

December 29, 2019

First Sunday after Christmas

Saint Margaret’s Anglican Episcopal Church

Budapest, Hungary 

 

Isaiah 61:10-62:3 ; Galatians 3:23-25;4:4-7 ; John 1:1-18 ; Psalm 147 or 147:13-21

 

And the Word was made flesh and lived among us (St John 1.14)

 

I have in my hands our Saint Margaret’s Register of Services. 

 

As you may know, each church community in the Church of England is required to maintain a record of each service, including the time it was held, the number of attendees or congregants at the service, and who led it, among a few other things. This Register of Service is quite old, going back to Good Friday in 1956 when the first service was recorded in it on March 30th at 11.00, with the Revd. Robert Fulham presiding at Matins and eighty people in attendance. The Register does not tell us where exactly the service was held. But most likely it was in the old British Embassy just off Vörösmarty tér.

 

And just two weeks ago, on the Second Sunday of Advent, December 15th, I entered our service of Holy Eucharist on the very last line on the very last page in this Register of Services -- so nearly sixty-three years after that Good Friday service back in 1956. The service was held, as is usual for us these days, at 10.30, and there were thirty people in attendance at our new quarters in Szentkirályi utca. 

 

I have purchased a new Register of Services for us, which appears to be more or less exactly like the old one; except that – like new British passports apparently – we are going from a red cover to a blue one. I will enter our first services into the Register after the service today. You can watch and make sure I get the facts and figures right.

 

Of course, any Register of Services – or for that matter Excel spreadsheet – is nothing but words and their number counterparts. And, any physicist or other scientist will tell you that at some level all such words are in and of themselves nothing but smudges of ink on paper, the movement and vibration of air from our lungs, or perhaps electronic impulses and particles appearing somehow almost magically on monitor screens.

 

Yet we also know that words – these ephemeral and mercurial servants of ours – are what give life and understanding to our lives. Without them, our world would be meaningless in the most literal sense of the, well, word. Our Register of Services is in a sense sacred to us for the human and holy events it records in words – ordinary Sundays, Easter and Christmas celebrations, Baptisms and funerals, and even the Evensong service on the Day of the Hungarian Revolution in October 1956. 

 

Talk about word made flesh.

 

We can only imagine the lives and spirits of those, by now, thousands of people and believers whose presence in prayer and devotion here in Hungary brought us to today. So, words have significance far beyond their most basic or physical reality. The sages of the ancient world – interestingly in the Greek and Hebrew worlds alike -- also understood the power of words. And, they came to see them in a genuinely metaphysical sense – as having a power and force beyond those who utter or write them. “Word” became for them a metaphor – all words are of course metaphors – for the very creative energy of God himself.

 

So it is that John in his Gospel Prologue is suggesting that it was only through his “Word” that God created in the first place all that is. And, it is that same Word who became in time the Christ born in Bethlehem, celebrated just days ago at Christmas. John’s message would seem to be this: That that which is impossible has come to be.

 

Some scholars and theologians suggest that these five words – “the Word was made flesh” – define the very essence of Christianity. They are probably right. In this “Word-Made-Flesh,” in Christ, God becomes a part of our world of flesh and blood -- and even pain and death. He shares our words of love and comfort, just as he is saddened by words of anger and hypocrisy.

 

No matter our lifestyle or where you and I live, the Word-Made-Flesh still dwells with us, his people, incarnate in our lives, our societies, and neighbourhoods. The old Tridentine Mass of the Roman Catholic Church in past centuries ended oddly enough with a recitation of this very Gospel text – liturgically quite incorrect to be sure – but a poignant reminder to priest and people alike, not unlike our Register of Services, that, as they left worship and church, the Word-Made-Flesh went with them into their homes and workplaces and markets. 

He is still there with us today.

 

Meanwhile, spare a thought and a prayer for the faithful Christians whose life journey brought them at some point in the past sixty-odd years to Budapest. And, think too of those who will gather here someplace in our city some fifty or sixty years from now and enter a final service in our now brand-new Service Register. The Word-Made-Flesh will be as much with them as he has been with our community over the past decades.

 

And is with us today.

 

The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedűs

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