Saturday, January 7, 2017

What on Earth Is Baptism for? Reflections on Matthew 3.13-17 (The Baptism of the Lord, 8 January 2017)

What on Earth Is Baptism for?
Reflections on Matthew 3.13-17

The Baptism of the Lord
8 January 2017

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church

            3.13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him.  14 John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”  15 But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”  Then he consented.  16 And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.  17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

         Today’s reading from the Gospel according to Matthew is familiar to most of us.  Throughout the centuries Christian artists have portrayed the scene at the River Jordan in many and various ways.  But despite our familiarity with the story and the number of artistic renderings of it, there is a theological mystery that biblical scholars, theologians and liturgists have tried to plumb in many and various ways.  The mystery is found in a simple question:  Why did Jesus, whom we teach was sinless, go to the River Jordan to be baptized by his cousin John for the ‘forgiveness of sins’?  For me the key to the mystery is found in three words:  solidarity, identity and mission.

         Solidarity.  Behind the Christian confession that ‘when you meet Jesus of Nazareth, you meet God’ is the claim that God comes among us in the fullness of our humanity.  As the nativity story reminds us, Jesus is ‘Emmanuel’ which means ‘God is with us’.  We dare to believe in the real presence of God in time and space, a presence which is as physical as our own physicality.  Matter, the created stuff of the universe, matters to God.  Rather than remain beyond the confines of the time and space we inhabit, God draws near to us and joins us in the joys and sorrows we experience.  Among the sorrows is the reality of human sin, a reality that even the truly innocent among us know far too well.

         Identity.  One of the fundamental questions that every human being asks at least once in her or his life is ‘Who am I?’  In his baptism Jesus experiences the public affirmation that he is God’s ‘Beloved’ in whom God is ‘well pleased’.  No matter what happens in the days, months and years that follow, Jesus knows who he is.

         Mission.  John’s ministry in the wilderness of Judea has a purpose:  the preparation for the coming of the Messiah.  With the baptism of Jesus John’s mission comes to an end and a new mission, Jesus’ mission, begins.  It is not insignificant that Matthew the evangelist moves from the baptism to Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness.  Rather than ‘temptation’ perhaps we should ‘testing’.  It is in the wilderness that Jesus orients himself to the work that lies before him.  His baptism is a baptism into God’s mission of reconciling human beings to God and to each other.  Jesus’ baptism is the first stage on his journey to Jerusalem and the cross.

         What is true about the baptism of Jesus is equally true of our baptism as the disciples of Jesus.  What on earth is baptism for?  Solidarity.  Identity.  Mission.

         To be baptized is not about being set apart from other human beings.  On the contrary, to be baptized is choosing radical solidarity with those who are denied justice, radical solidarity with those who are denied loving-kindness, radical solidarity with those who are trapped in their delusions of self-importance and privilege.  Such radical solidarity is, quite frankly, a work in progress, two thousand years in progress.  For that reason we continue to baptize people, old and young, male and female, from every nation and people.  We baptize in order to live out our vocation to be the one human society that exists primarily for whomever might be the ‘other’ or the ‘stranger’.

         To be baptized is to learn who we truly are, God’s beloved children.  Every human being is a beloved child of God, but, if the truth be told, then I must say that not every human being knows this.  Some do not know their true identity because they are oppressed by ‘the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God’. [i]  Some deny their true identity and cooperate with ‘Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God’. [ii]  Some do not know their true identity because they have confused our culture’s counterfeit ‘gods’ with the God who comes among us in Jesus of Nazareth.

         Baptismal solidarity and baptismal identity find their life in our participation in the mission God began in creation, renewed in Jesus of Nazareth and continues through the work of the Holy Spirit.  Our mission is
  • to persevere in resisting evil
  • to proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ
  • to seek and serve Christ in all persons
  • to love our neighbours as ourselves
  • to strive for justice and peace among all people
  • to respect the dignity of every human being
  • to safeguard the integrity of God’s creation
  • to respect, sustain and renew the life of the earth.

 The mission is vast, but God has so structured the human community that we have the gifts to accomplish this work if we choose the solidarity of a shared human identity rather than the ideology of privilege, self-interest and self-importance.

         What on earth is baptism for?  In a word:  Survival.  In Jesus of Nazareth we see what it means to be truly human, made in the image of God and called to live into the likeness of God.  If humanity is to survive, then our future depends upon a solidarity, an identity and a mission that is Jesus-shaped.  We who are baptized have been commissioned as agents of God’s on-going mission to save humanity from itself.  After all, we know who we are, God’s beloved children.  We are sent from this place and all those like it throughout the world, so every human being may claim the glorious freedom of the children of God.  It is the birthright of every son of Adam and daughter of Eve.

[i] The Book of Alternative Services (1985), 154.

[ii] The Book of Alternative Services (1985), 154.

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