Sunday, January 8, 2012

Baptism In Christ: What It Takes To Be The Beloved

We’ve just spent two weeks celebrating again the birth of Jesus of  Nazareth, the feast of his Holy Name, and his manifestation to all humankind, the Epiphany.  It’s a bit dangerous, however, to focus entirely on Jesus, the baby.  The remembrance of His birth should cause us to seriously reflect on the life and death of the person whom the baby grew to be.  Otherwise, it’s too easy too get caught up, emotionally, in the music, the art, the joy of the wonderful Christ Child and his mother.  What should be the beginning of a journey becomes the whole trip.  If our joy centers only on a remembrance, it’s likely that we’ve missed the Incarnation’s call and challenge.
Today’s Gospel passage (Mark 1:4-11) is the first event in Jesus’ life which Mark records. Some folks find this story troubling.  If the only purpose of John’s baptism was a cleansing from sin, how do we reconcile that with the belief that Jesus was without sin? In Matthew’s interpretation of the event, even John the Baptizer is troubled by Jesus’ request for baptism.  “I need to be baptized by you,” he says, “and do you come to me?”  Jesus reassures John, saying: “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Both Mark and Matthew subtly allude to a passage found in Chapter 42 of Isaiah: “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him...”  Jesus would have been quite familiar with that text.  He accepts his calling to be God’s servant, to do justice, to set things right, something that can be accomplished only by his accepting and affirming his relationship with people who are aware that they need to be made right with God.
By being conceived and born of a human mother, Jesus became our brother. In his baptism he now affirms that he’s truly one with us as we are, not as we think we should be.  A lyric in the familiar Christmas carol, “O come, all ye faithful”, says “Lo, he abhors not the virgin’s womb.”  The more amazing truth is that Jesus abhors not the water of baptism and all that it implies of our need to be cleansed and healed and made right with God.
A Jesus who would have entered the human experience only when it was good and right couldn’t have touched us as we really are.  A Jesus who enters our lives without changing us is only “slumming”.  What we need and what God has given us in God’s Son, the Beloved, is One who constantly enters our lives at our worst, and yet renews and restores us.
In Jesus, God is revealed as one who is determined to get involved in the messy human enterprise.  It leads Jesus at once into temptation and into a ministry of teaching, with some people rejecting his message, and of healing, a ministry with people not always so appreciative of his effort.  Eventually it led Jesus to imprisonment and the Cross.  Jesus responds to the call of the God whom Isaiah knew.  Like the prophet himself, Jesus knows that God involves Godself with real human beings, and that he himself can respond in no other way.
What about us?? Think for a moment about what happens when a child is adopted into a family.  If the child is asked: “When were you adopted?” he/she can give a specific day and year.  But that isn’t really when adoption happens. Adoption happens when the child takes his or her place in the day-to-day living and relating among the other people in a family: at the point when the child says “I choose these particular people, in this particular context, regardless of their shortcomings and failings, to be my family: my father, mother, brothers and sisters.”  Becoming part of a family, in more than just name, is a long, slow, creative process.
Baptism is much like adoption.  It happens at a specific time and place on a specific day. Mine was on March 14, 1937, at Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Dayton, OH.  My son, Andrew, just celebrated his 36th baptismal anniversary on Friday, the feast of the Epiphany.  One of my classmates from seminary did the honors of baptizing him in Alameda in 1975. But somehow, baptism doesn’t, from our viewpoint, “take” until the person baptized deliberately chooses the risk living it. That’s really what the sacrament of Confirmation is all about.  In Jesus, God calls each of us as God’s son or daughter.  Dare we deliberately risk responding to that call? And to what, exactly, does God call us?
In particular, God calls you and me to live and interact with others. As adopted children of God, we thereby become sisters and brothers of one another.  Sometimes that’s a source of immense joy. But if you’ve lived in a family with siblings, you probably know that it isn’t all sharing a plate of fresh cookies on the back porch in the sunshine! A little boy prayed fervently in Sunday school: “Dear God, please bless everybody except Tommy.”  The teacher assured the boy that God understood that his little brother was often difficult to live with, but that God loves Tommy very much.  “Then he’s a mighty funny kind of God,” said the little boy.
Isaiah, Paul, John the Baptizer, and Jesus all found that God who calls us in Baptism, invites us into relationships involving risk and cost, often with people we’d probably never choose as friends, much less as sisters and brothers! But, then, our God is a funny kind of God, funny enough to love and call each and all of us. 
The struggle which you and I experience in living out our baptism isn’t so much in the choosing between good and evil as in choosing between patterns which lead to greater love, acceptance, unity, goodness, and freedom; and patterns which lead us elsewhere.  Stealing, for example, is evil. Hardening one’s heart against the poor is evil. Murder is evil; letting people starve to death, wherever they are in the world, is evil.  And so is denying anyone the chance to grow; or playing to the worst in others.  
Most people can honestly say that they’ve never actually killed a human being. On a scale of virtue, that would be worth a 10.  But what about the times we “sink the knife” into someone with a cutting remark or a glare? What of the times we lock people into the prison of our own expectations; or the times we write people off, simply on the basis of some insignificant or selfish standard which we’ve devised?  “Dear God, please bless everyone except this person or that person.”  Each of us has a “Tommy”.
In calling us into relationship with the Father, Jesus calls us both to be made right ourselves and to become part of God’s desire to call all people, all of life, into right relationship.  If we pretend that we’re already in such a good and right relationship with God, that we don’t need healing, we’re really refusing God’s love. People who thought of themselves as holy enough refused John’s offer of baptism -- but not Jesus.
Keeping one’s relationship with God as a private matter, just between God and oneself, isn’t an option.  The God of Love can’t and won’t be so confined.  If you invite Jesus to dinner, you need to be prepared for him to show up with some of his other friends.  And you never know whom he’ll bring: perhaps someone you’ve never gotten to know, perhaps someone “interesting” or sophisticated, “our kind of people”.  But then again, he may just bring Tommy!
In baptism you and I are gathered into the Communion of Saints, given to one another, called to live in relationship, because that’s simply the way Jesus extends his love and compassion and grace in the world.  We’re each of us God’s “Beloved”, called to be a “light to the nations, to open eyes that are blind”, to release those bound up in darkness and hopelessness.  May God, as with Jesus, be “well pleased” with you and me.  

1 comment:

John-Julian, OJN said...

Oh this is a breathtakingly beautiful sermon—on any number of counts. (And I don't remember any more radical than this one!) Girard's "culture wars"—the necessity of community—the Christian anti-war stance. All of it wonderful!

Thank you, Father—you made my day!