A few days ago, in Churches and religious gatherings around the world, congregations were singing lusty joyous carols. Joy to the world….. Or was it perhaps: While shepherds watched their flocks by night….. ?
The last verse to that one goes:
All glory be to God on high
And to the Earth be peace
Goodwill henceforth from heaven to men
Begin and never cease.
So how are we doing in the goodwill department in the dawning of a New Year? Another bomb in Cairo, some more in Russia as a lead up to the Winter Olympics …. and no end to the crisis in South Sudan, or for that matter no end the nasty civil war in Syria. What happened to Peace on Earth and goodwill to all men? Then there is the nervous uncertainty of those awaiting the next terrorist act in Iraq or Afghanistan and a small TV item of an interview with an Afghani army interpreter for the New Zealand Army, one of the number resettled in New Zealand,. And why were they resettled? Simply it was because he believed for him to stay on in Afghanistan would have meant death for both him and his family. The score for mass shootings in US schools continues to mount. Not so good on the home front either. In my home city, new records have been set with the number turning up for Church meals for the poor. Did you happen to notice in the Herald the report that just before this recent Christmas, Father Christmas in one of the Shopping centres out West Auckland recounted some depressing statistics about children who had been asking for basic necessities instead of toys. For example children living in cars would ask for a house for Mum and Dad. Welcome to the New Year.
Today the lectionary gospel reading finds us celebrating the Baptism of Jesus. I want to suggest that first, as with Christmas, we are fond of using over-blown statements about how the coming of Jesus and the start of his mission transforms the world without stopping to think how we as individuals encourage his coming to continue to affect the everyday world. In the same manner I wonder if we are also often guilty of treating the topic of his baptism casually – assuming perhaps that since we got baptised as Jesus got baptised we are thereby transformed into Christians and everyone benefits. As with Christmas, could it be we are making assumptions that don’t necessarily fit reality?
It kind of reminds me of the well-known story about the little girl who started crying after she was baptized? The minister asked her why she was upset. “Because,” said the little girl, “you made my parents promise I would be raised in a Christian home. But I want to live with them!”
In a way it is entirely understandable we don’t necessarily understand what baptism is about. There have been many different types of baptism through the centuries and even the experts in Church doctrine have been divided about what it is intended to mean.
An additional problem was that for the early Church, baptism was being offered for different reasons. The Jews said that only the unclean gentiles needed Baptism when they were demonstrating they were renouncing their old ways to become Jews. John the Baptist told the Jews that they too needed to renounce their old ways so that they in effect would be proper Jews, and hence ready for the Messiah.
It therefore followed that Matthew’s account had John telling Jesus he wouldn’t need baptism. In retrospect Jesus’ insistence that he too needed baptism made a kind of sense even if he were only signalling the official start of his mission in faith. It has also been noted that part of the symbolism might also be that he totally identified with the others being baptised. The suspicion on the part of some that he also considered himself to be a sinner in need of repentance is not widely accepted, but we might at least acknowledge the possibility.
Although Matthew and the other gospel writers don’t say so, for those familiar with the customs and scriptures of the Jews, there is a further possible symbolism in that some of the priests and high priests were ceremonially washed and there were pools set aside in the Temple for that purpose. To the Jews this had a scriptural antecedent For example in Leviticus 8:6 we’re told that, in accordance with God’s instruction — “Moses brought Aaron and his sons forward and washed them with water.” Then, later, during that ceremony Moses “poured some of the anointing oil on Aaron’s head and anointed him to consecrate him.” Leviticus 8:12
The early church offered several variants for Baptism, including sprinkling with water, the baptising of whole families regardless of age, and usually associating this with initiation into the faith. About the only aspect of baptism which appeared common to all the forms of baptism is that it was intended to mark a new phase of life.
While the varying layers of meaning associated with baptism offer different things to people at different stages of different faith journeys, this in itself is not a serious problem. Indeed discovering new dimensions of chosen symbols brings a faith to life and looking back with new perception on a chosen sacramental act has the power to open us to new meaning.
Where unfortunately it can and actually has gone wrong in the past is if we come to believe that there is only one permitted form for baptism and only one allowed meaning for the symbolic act. At its worst, what was intended as a public demonstration of a step forward at the beginning of a new journey can then become disciplinary dogma, used to confine actions which ensures little more than the establishment of power for those who wish to control others, particularly those who wish to act as arbiters for judgement on who is entitled to salvation.
To show just how lacking in compassion dogma can become we might remind ourselves that Anabaptists of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were persecuted for daring to suggest that adult baptism was needed even for those who had been baptised when they were too young to have understood what was happening. Thousands of Anabaptists were executed at the decree of some traditional Church leaders, and by a cynical and cruel imposed irony, this was usually accomplished by drowning, which their judges insisted on calling a third baptism.
The other way baptism becomes inappropriate, is when it is presented as a ceremony disconnected with what follows. We might acknowledge for example the large number of Christening ceremonies carried out at the request of families who have virtually no other contact with Church teaching other than for the traditional hatches, matches and dispatches.
Jesus’ baptism was not a religious ceremony disconnected with the life that followed. Indeed if it had been, it would long since have faded into oblivion. Because his baptism marked the start of a relatively dramatic period in which ordinary people had their lives transformed, and because it also marked the start of new ways of challenging outworn conventions and nationalistic faith, we then find significance in the ceremony Jesus chose to begin his ministry. Had there been no mission, no concern for the nobodies of his society, no challenge to a close minded priesthood, no crucifixion and no new life for the Church as a consequence of the dimly understood event we now call the resurrection, why else would we be concerned about Jesus’ baptism?
Yet there is a caution here as well. His baptism is not our baptism. Indeed, if the truth be told, we have no way of knowing with certainty even which of the gospel accounts of his baptism was most accurate – nor indeed exactly what was in Jesus mind when he stepped into those waters.
We do know that our own Baptisms, if indeed they have already happened for all those present today, were almost certainly arranged for different motives. And not all Churches have a common view even today. But what we also know, is that baptism – or for that matter – whatever your preferred action you undertake to signal the start of your own faith journey – only takes on meaning if it is followed by steps in that journey.
This is the second Sunday in the New Year and yes – all is not well in the world. Yet we assemble with the intention of affirming the lead of the one we follow. Jesus taught a new way of relating to one another, our neighbours and even our enemies. Each of us has, however briefly, no doubt considered Jesus’ proscribed way – and through our baptism, or confirmation – or whatever our chosen symbolism may be – we may have already signalled our association with his teaching.
The only way baptism will eventually have meaning for ourselves and those we meet is first to start – and then continue to attempt to live his teaching.
Christian faith is not simply listing and affirming statements of belief as a superficial exercise of intellect. It is primarily about establishing relationships with God encountered in creation and in acts of love, relationships with neighbours, living according to ethical standards and in serving others. Of course we cannot expect to transform the whole world, stop all conflicts and force others to live with peace and goodwill. What we can do is acknowledge we intend to make a start and realise that the nature of our journey, good or bad, will be our personal witness.
NOTE TO THE READER
A number of Church leaders have told me they are starting to use these sermons as a focus for House Group meetings and Bible studies. Because the sermons are designed partly to raise questions to take folk out of their comfort zones, any feedback from studies or group discussions (including corrections or obvious omissions) would probably be helpful to others and might spark further development of ideas. If you are using the posts as a starting point for discussion, you might like to check out the general posts on this web-site where topics like homosexuality, abortion, Bible literalism, bioethics, science and religion etc etc are introduced.