Saturday, January 6, 2018

Becoming Who We Are: Reflections on the Baptism of Christ (7 January 2018)

Becoming Who We Are
Reflections on the Baptism of Christ

RCL Baptism of Christ B
7 January 2018

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church

Mark 1.4-11

1.4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.  6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.  7 He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.  8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

            9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.  10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.  11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Our annual journey has begun.
         Whether it begins on a Sunday in later November or early December, I always look forward to the beginning of the liturgical year.  For me it is a reminder of my fundamental identity as a member of the Christian community, the disciples of Jesus of Nazareth who have good news to share in a world where the light of hope is often obscured by the clouds of injustice and suffering caused by human greed and self-centredness.

         The cycles of the liturgical year are closely woven with our planet’s annual journey around the sun and, like that journey, these cycles sometimes pass by unnoticed.  There are times when I travel through the liturgical year as if I am commuting from my home in North Delta to the Parish here in Kerrisdale.  I am more focused on my destination than on the journey, so I miss some of the landmarks along the way.  But in failing to pay attention to the landmarks of the year, I risk losing an opportunity to grow in my life of discipleship.

         True, some of the cycles are well and truly observed:  Advent, Christmas, Lent and Easter.  Even churches that generally ignore the liturgical year cannot avoid some notice of these seasons --- our shopping malls will not let them.  But there are other landmarks that deserve closer attention.  Today is one of them.

         In the Orthodox tradition Epiphany is a day to remember Jesus’ baptism by John in the river Jordan and Jesus’ first miracle at the wedding in Cana in Galilee as well as the visit of the Magi to the Child in Bethlehem.  In the Western tradition that shaped our own Anglican ethos Epiphany only focused on the visit of the Magi.  But more than fifty years ago, as a result of Vatican II, our lectionary was revised and a new celebration, the Baptism of Christ, was born.

         This is a celebration of where our journey begins, what our journey is and where our journey is taking us.

Where does our journey begin?
         In the spring of 1981, just before I graduated from seminary, the two-year-old son of a first-year student and his wife drowned in a car accident that could have been prevented had the car’s manufacturer been willing to spend just a few dollars more to fix a known defect.  As you can imagine, our seminary community was thrown into the valley of the shadow of death just shortly after we had celebrated Easter.

         On the morning of the day before the funeral I was the reader at Morning Prayer.  We had chosen readings that were appointed for the funeral of a child and it fell to me to read these words from the First Letter of John:  ‘See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. . . . Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed.  What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.’ [1]  On that dreary morning we were reminded that Michael was God’s beloved now, that we were all God’s beloved now and that nothing could ever separate us from the love of God made known to us in Jesus.

         When Jesus was baptized by John, it was an act of solidarity with all of humanity, believers and non-believers alike.  It was and is a reminder that the voice that calls Jesus ‘the Beloved’ is the same voice that calls each one of us by that same name, ‘beloved’.  We begin our journey in this life with an identity that is worth more than frankincense, gold and myrrh, but an identity that is constantly under threat from ‘the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God’. [2]

What is our journey?
         Our journey begins with an affirmation of who we are, but who we are as beloved children of God is not only a gift to be received but a vocation to be lived into.  Being a beloved child of God is a life-long process of becoming.  For this reason the liturgical movement of the past seventy-five years has stressed the importance of frequent renewal of our baptismal promises.  At every baptism we join the candidates and their sponsors in reaffirming the promises made by us or for us at our own baptism.  On Easter and on other occasions throughout the year we remember our baptism in gratitude and recommit ourselves to the road of discipleship begun in water and the Spirit years before.

         We listen to the Scriptures to hear the Word of God spoken not just to the church as a whole but to each one of us as a disciple.  We study what the Scriptures say in order to discern what the Scriptures mean to disciples living in the twenty-first century in a North American society and culture that resemble a slightly more benign version of the Roman empire our distant ancestors in the faith experienced.

         We serve our communities and our neighbourhoods because we ourselves have been the recipients of Jesus’ own service to us.  We extend pastoral care to all who are in need of that care because Jesus has washed our feet, anointed our heads and healed our wounds.  It is in loving our neighbours as we love ourselves that we learn how to love the God who first loved us.

Where is our journey taking us?
         Our journey is taking us towards a world restored to its true self as God intended it.  In the creation story whose beginning we heard this morning, God pauses at the end of each stage and sees that what has been brought into existence is ‘good’.  At the very end God looks at everything and declares it to be ‘very good’. 

         It is true that there is much that is wrong with our world today.  Climate change is real and will bring challenges not just to our children and grandchildren but to this present generation as well.  Despite the relative prosperity of most Canadians homelessness, hunger and poverty plague too many of our sisters and brothers.  But the good news is that this world is inhabited by the children of God, some who know who they are and are committed to becoming more fully themselves, some who do not know who they are and seek to know, and some who try to avoid their true selves and need to be called, coaxed and encouraged to return.

         On this day, on this celebration of the Baptism of Christ, you and I are compelled to pause for a moment and ponder this landmark in our annual spiritual pilgrimage, begun in the promise of the Child, revealed in the life and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth and shaped by the events of that last week in Jerusalem two thousand years ago.  It is a pilgrimage that most of us have been on more than once, but it is a pilgrimage of promise, of hope and of transformation.

         Beloved, we are God’s children now.  What we shall be, we have seen in Jesus of Nazareth.  The whole creation is standing on tiptoe to see the children of God in their full glory.  May this year bring us and that same creation a little closer to the fulfilment of that promise.

[1] 1 John 3.1, 2.

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

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