Baptism of our Lord Vanderbilt Divinity Library Lectionary 10 January 2010

Baptism of Jesus 10 January 2010 Textweek

Isaiah 43:1-7; Psalm 29; Acts 8:14-17; Luke 3:15-17, 21-2

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

The Baptism of our Lord, Agatha’s day of Baptism: what is it all about? What was and what is your baptism all about?

A voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."
A voice came from heaven, "You are my Daughter, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased." "You are my Child, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased." Do we hear these words spoken to us or were they only for Jesus? What might we learn from the gospel accounts of the baptism of Jesus; what might that tell us about ourselves? Stained glass windows were there for those who couldn’t read, to provide a picture, a reminder of the story they would have heard, so that those who came into the church could just sit and look and wonder, what is this all about; what is it telling me; what is it asking from me?

Luke’s account that we heard today is different in many respects from the account in Mark’s gospel and later you might like to read Mark 1:1-11. It’s another account of the baptism of Jesus – very very similar and also very different, and the first and obvious difference is that Mark uses the baptism of Jesus to begin his telling of the gospel, whereas Luke has already given us two chapters of the birth narratives; Luke gave us the classic Christmas nativity story before the baptism of Jesus.

When we look at the four gospels, in the introduction, like any book, a point is being made; the gospel writers seek right up front to tell us: this is a narrative of the life of Jesus; he is special, he is important and I want to make that point up front. Matthew does it by giving us a family tree followed by the Christmas story, birth narrative. Luke does it – interestingly his beginning is the annunciation of John the Baptist, then the annunciation to Mary, then the birth narrative. John takes a mystical approach, and in that wonderful prologue we heard last week John tells us that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us”; and Mark begins with baptism of Jesus as his starting point. A point is being made there: Mark quite deliberately wants to emphasise the Baptism narrative as the beginning; that’s his nativity story.

As the foundational sacrament for Christians – for most of us this is the first sacrament we encounter - it is worth looking at our understanding of it, for we are shaped by our understanding of things and we also give shape to the world by our understanding of things.

We just participated in a baptism: what were we doing? What was happening? What were we participating in? Baptism is seen as a rite of initiation, the rite in which we become Christians, the rite by which we become denominationally labelled. It is also a rite of naming, so we receive our ‘Christian name”, and there’s a clue there, because that echoes one of the acts of creation that we find in Genesis. So out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. (2: 19). Amazing power in that story at the beginning of creation.

Baptism is a ritual cleansing, the removal of original Sin, and provides entry into heaven, something which is denied to those not baptised, at least according to many established doctrines. And that then raises the question, so why did Jesus need to be baptised? Original Sin? It therefore calls into question some of the theological foundations on which we have constructed our faith and so constructed our worldview, and our view of the Divine.

Baptism makes one a member of the ‘Body of Christ”, it symbolises the union of the believer with Christ - one is then “Saved’ or as some say, “Born Again”. It changes the state of who we are and what we are.

I think all of these classical understandings hold a thread, they hold a thread of a much richer tapestry of truth. However, on their own they can be blinkered and distort the truth. If you imagine looking at a woven tapestry and trying to work out what the picture is by looking at one thread. Imagine a jigsaw puzzle - those boring things that take hours - imagine taking one piece and trying to work out what the picture is. Why do we do this over and over again with our understanding of God? There is a thread there but perhaps we might look beyond, because those threads distort the overall picture.

Baptism is the doorway into the church, which is why traditionally so many fonts are located near the entrance of the church; symbolically this is the way in – to come into the church you must go through the font. There is a truth in that. But also, we can end up mistakenly thinking that the priest then is the gatekeeper, and once the temptation of power clicks in, it’s very easy to distort what the priest is, because as the gatekeeper we may confuse him with Christ. How many times has that happened in the past, where there has been a power held by the priest as if it’s the power that Christ held, because the priest is gatekeeper?

Baptism can also be creative of exclusivity, determining who comes in and how they come in. It creates a separation, because there are now those in and those out.

In its mystical sense, in the icons that are given to us through holy scripture and in our – rather than understanding - in a wisdom of Baptism, we might see that there is something more going on than an institutionalised qualification for membership. And that’s where today’s readings I think are really helpful. Well, helpful and unhelpful! They don’t give us the answers, but gosh they open up some stunning questions.

This is the reading we heard from Isaiah in a shortened form:
The Lord ... created you... redeemed you... called you by name....
You are mine
I am the Lord your God
your Saviour
I am
Because you are precious in my sight, and honoured, and I love you...........

Now with that said, the question must pop out, so why would you need baptism? If that is the divine attitude toward us why do we need baptism? This is Isaiah; this is long before Christ was ever invented, so again we might ask what about Jesus? Who and what is the place and person of Jesus in the unfolding of the divine creation?

But even such an affirming text - you are precious in my sight, and honoured, and I love you - can be distorted and understood in a context of exclusivity. Zionist Jews such texts to affirm their rights to geographical territories: ‘this land was given by God to us and to our people’, and so the very same text that affirms the honouring and preciousness of us can be used to create ghettos, walled ghettos to hold the peoples of Gaza. We must, we should be careful and questioning of our understanding of the scriptures. We have a history, the Church has, it’s a history of getting it so stunningly wrong, because in the past we were not encouraged to question, not encouraged to go beyond.

The Acts reading again opens up further questions. In the short account some Samaritans had been baptised, quite significant because there was quite a division with the Samaritans, anyway they’d been baptised. However, it’s only later after Peter and John had travelled down from Jerusalem and laid their hands on them that they “received the Holy Spirit”. Some bishops would likely see themselves modelled in that narrative. “There are baptisms going on over there but not until I come and with the power of my hands is the spirit revealed and released”. Or is this telling us something about being touched, being connected, giving and receiving, about being in communion? Pointing us toward where to go from here when we are baptised? There’s a clue there.

The feast of the Baptism of our Lord is well placed in the Church’s calendar alongside Christmas, because it is about Birth, it is about creation, it is about becoming. If we move away from the old paradigm of baptism, we might realise that baptism is not a changing of the state or status of an individual from unsaved to saved. Those that were watching very very carefully would not have seen us turn Agatha from something into something, that wasn’t the movement, that wasn’t the movement at all. If we look closely we will see beginnings in the font, we will see becomings in the font. Baptism births an intentional process; it opens a becoming; it orientates toward a possibility.

One of the things we might do as a community of St Paul’s is to look again at the work we’re doing on the East – we’re called to look toward the East, to the rising sun/Son. What is this building work all about that we’ve initiated? To some it will look like we’ve changed the state of the Church - it was like this and now it is like that. But for others, they will see a movement beyond the Church, a building on foundations, the birth of something new coming out of the womb of this community. And as with the baptism of our Lord, we might see the unfolding of our ministry - something beginning and becoming from this point, a new direction marked by the baptism of the East End.

If we follow the flow of the gospels, it is doubtful that we will know where we are going but if follow the flow we will go with purpose, we will go with direction, we will walk in faith, with hope, in joy, with love, and those things will take us on a journey. A journey that may open our ears to hear the word, the Divine word that is addressed to each and every one of us:
"You are my Child, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."

Peter Humphris