Baptism and Reconciliation

Baptism of Christ            January 7, 2018

Ephesians 2:11-22           Mark 1:4-11

We begin the season of Epiphany this morning. Yesterday was the feast of the Epiphany, when the kings or Wise Men from the East finally arrive to worship the Christ child, and so round out the Christmas season. Epiphany means “appearance”, or “shining forth”, and over the next weeks we will hear about how Jesus first appeared to the people around him as someone very special. Beginning with the three kings, Epiphany takes us through stories of his first disciples and first miracles, ending with his Transfiguration on the mountain-top, when his divine glory shone through the flesh as blinding light.

And today, on the first Sunday after the day of Epiphany, we hear, as we hear every year, of Jesus’s baptism by John in the Jordan River. The story is very closely connected with the feast of the Epiphany – in the Russian Orthodox Church, the word for Epiphany is in fact just “Baptism”. Jesus’s baptism marks the beginning of his public ministry; it is a key moment when his true identity is revealed, as the Holy Spirit descended from above and marked him as God’s beloved child, with whom God was well-pleased. And it gives us the chance, at the beginning of a new year, to reflect on our own baptism, and who we are as baptized Christians.

The account in Mark’s gospel, which is our main gospel for our Sunday readings this year, is very short and to the point. What the other gospels tell as a full story, Mark takes care of in three short verses: he came, he was baptized, the Holy Spirit came upon him, he was named as God’s Son. The bare essentials.

But even in this brief account, there is a paradox hidden that has occupied the theologians of the church over the centuries. John came, we are told, “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” John’s baptism was all about washing away sin and starting afresh. But why would Jesus, who is without sin, need to be baptized by John?

The answer is that Jesus is baptized in solidarity with sinners – that is, the rest of us. Sure, he could have said, “I don’t need this”, he could have made a distinction between himself and us; but he didn’t come to make distinctions, to keep himself separate from us, but to get close to us in every way. He came precisely to reconcile us to God, to bridge that infinite gap and unite us with God, to make peace between God and humankind.

John’s baptism may be a ritual for the cleansing of sin, but when Jesus waded into the river that day, he transformed it into something else: baptism becomes the great event by which we are adopted as brothers and sisters into the family of God. One might even say that Jesus is transforming the nature of religion itself, moving us beyond the management of our sins vis-à-vis a holy deity, to a new, deeper unity with God – and with one another.

Baptism is the very core of who we are as Christians. We have all been washed in the same water. Whatever distinctions society might put up between us: sinner or saint, man or woman, rich or poor, local or foreigner, in our baptism these mean nothing, we are all children of God. We know this, of course, at least in theory, but I think we tend to forget how important this truth is. In some ways, you could say that it is the whole point of being Christian: Jesus came to us to reconcile us to God, to tear down the dividing wall between us and make peace; and it is our job to live out this reconciliation with one another.

It is a thought that is at the heart of the letter to the Ephesians, in the passage we heard as our second reading. It talks about Jesus coming to heal the great crack that ran down the centre of humanity: the division between God’s chosen people, and the Gentiles, all the other nations that lived without knowing God. That distinction was, at least from the standpoint of a pious Jew, pretty absolute: it combined religious and moral judgements with national identity, always a dangerous combination. This division, Ephesians tells us, had its end in Jesus: “he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us, creating in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and reconciling both groups to God in one body.” The vision of Ephesians is of a church that included and reconciled these two different groups, Jews and Gentiles. It is one of the church’s sad and shameful failings that we did not live up to this vision: Jewish Christians were marginalized and finally suppressed within the church, and non-Christian Jews attacked as the other.

I read an article this week that got me thinking about how we live out this vision of reconciliation. It was written by a pastor in Kansas City by the name of Tim Suttle.(( He begins by saying he was asked to contribute helpful suggestions that could lead to peace in the New Year, and he says that the only suggestion he has to offer is this: worship. Not, he hastens to add, the kind of worship you might find in thousands of churches and megachurches, singing your favourite hymns or praise band music with your close friends. But the worship of churches so rooted in their local communities that they include those you might not otherwise want to be with.

His own church is an example of that: of their 200 or so members, there are about 50 or 60 homeless people, people who bring their problems (addictions, mental health issues, behavioural problems) to church with them. The other members try to help them out in various practical ways, but – and this is important – the homeless are not a “project” of the church: they are part of the community. That is not always easy – but it’s real.

He gives a simple but powerful example: as people line up to receive communion, one of the homeless and addicted members thrusts his blackened and grimy fingers deep into the wine in the chalice. As the pastor turns to the next person, a young woman, their eyes meet. She grabs the bread, plunges it into the cup, and chokes down the body of Christ.

And this simple incident raises some pretty important questions. Maybe our worship is not supposed to be comfortable or easy. Maybe our communion with one another is supposed to be hard sometimes. Maybe if we do not occasionally find ourselves choking on the body of Christ, we have not yet realized how radically inclusive that body is supposed to be.

Now, looking at our own community, it is perhaps easy to feel inferior. We don’t live in some edgy American inner city: folks around here tend to look alike, we don’t have the ethnic tensions – although we don’t live far from Mikmaq communities, and we know our society has some reconciliation work to do there. We don’t have a large homeless population – although there are plenty of people in this community who are living pretty close to the edge. We tend to like each other here, I think, for the most part – and that is certainly not a bad thing. So maybe it’s hard for us to compete with the radical vision of church lived out by Pastor Suttle’s community. But it’s not a competition. The point is to keep ourselves oriented towards the vision of radical inclusivity that is part of our original Christian heritage. If we remind ourselves from time to time – and Jesus will remind us, if we listen to him – that we are not really here to be comfortable with our friends, but to seek reconciliation and peace with those who are different from us, then we will find opportunities to do that.

Let me quote from the article, because he says it so well:

Worshipping with “the other” in all its forms requires us to choke down the hostility we would otherwise feel toward those who are not like us, those with whom we are most likely to end up in some kind of violent confrontation. Worship is meant to train us in this proficiency. If we don’t have to choke down the body of Christ every now and then, then we have no hope of living in peace.

Peace is not an accomplishment or a status. Peace is an orientation of the soul that is formed by a community of peace. In a society such as ours (one steeped in violence), the soul must undergo serious training in order to cultivate the willingness to suffer violence rather than commit violence. Nowhere else in Western society does that kind of soul-formation have the potential to happen except in the local church.

This last thought I found particularly hopeful. Sometimes it can seem that the church has no purpose or point in today’s world – at least there are enough people telling us that that we can start to believe it ourselves if we are not careful. But nowhere else in our society is there an institution – at the centre of every town, no less – that is devoted to overcoming the divisions that the rest of society sets up.

So to the extent that we can reclaim that vision, and be transparently a place that practises radical hospitality; to the extent that we can embrace those who are different than us, those who disturb us and get on our nerves, perhaps; to the extent that the comfort of our communion with God is sometimes interrupted by God’s radical demands that leave us choking down the body of Christ – to that extent we will be a beacon of peace and reconciliation to a world that needs that more than anything.