Baptism of Jesus – 1/12/2020 – St. Paul’s
Susan and my discussion……
Following the incident and not being very secure on my heresies, I scheduled a time to meet with my advisor…Orlando Sydney Barr. Having relatively recently converted to Christianity, I found myself uncertain and unsure about what was a heresy and what the different ones meant. In Seminary, having recently converted to Christianity, I found myself nervous on whether I was a heretic or not and where the stake was I could be burnt on. S, late one night I went to my advisors office on campus. I began my conversation saying this…. So, explain to me,, the differences between the heresies of Arianism, Monophysitism, Nestorianism and Docetism. We then launched into a spirited discussion of whether Christ was human first and foremost, or God first and foremost; about whether he was created after the beginning of time by God the Father, and, therefore, perhaps not divine; and about whether he had two natures, or only a divine one. To tell the truth, given the lateness of the hour I’m not sure I was that coherent, but I followed as best I could.
Now these questions might, to put it mildly, seem rather abstract, not to say totally irrelevant today. Yet for centuries people fought and even killed each other over these differences, so perhaps we should linger on them a moment longer. People fought about them because they actually raise critical questions about the meaning of Jesus’s birth, life and death on earth. They actually raise fundamental questions about what it means to have Jesus in our midst as a baby at Christmas; what it means to have Jesus being baptized on this first adult appearance today; and, ultimately, what it means to have Jesus die on a cross on Good Friday. And at the heart of each is this: who was Jesus? God? Man? Or both?
Christianity is unique among the major religions in God coming down to earth and becoming human. Other faiths have inspired prophets who channelled divine messages; or gods who took on human or animal form; or, indeed, gods who gave up their divine status to become human. But there are no others where God lives among us in human form and then dies on a cross to save us from our sins; where God becomes fully human and yet remains totally divine. So, perhaps it’s not so abstract, perhaps not so irrelevant?
Let’s focus this in a bit, and look at the Gospel reading. What does it mean for Jesus, for God himself, to be baptized? He obviously didn’t need John’s baptism for the forgiveness of sins, he didn’t need a symbolic cleansing – because he had no sin. In our reading, John himself sees that clearly: What are you talking about? he says to Jesus. You want me to do what? Why are you coming to me? This should be the other way round. But, no, says Jesus, it’s going to be this way round. I am going to do this; I am going to feel it; I am going to experience what everyone else experiences. Why does he do this? Well, here’s why, I think. God may have made us; he may have breathed into us and given us life; he may have known our weaknesses and our frailties. God may have known all that, but, until Jesus lived as us, God didn’t know what it was like to actually be us. What it was to be encased in these frail human bodies; what it was to truly feel our human limitations; what it was to be stirred by human emotions to tears, to anger, to laughter. Ultimately, as God, he didn’t – how could he? – he didn’t know what it was like to die. God, in Jesus, came down to earth to live as one of us. He would remain, as he always had been and always will be, fully divine, fully God. But for his time on earth he would also be fully human, confined and restrained by his body; subject to all the emotions that affect, and sometimes afflict us all.
And, so, here, in Matthew’s account of the first public appearance, the first public act of the adult Jesus, we see God undergoing the human experience. God experiences immersion in the river, God feels the chill of the water on his skin, God feels the mud between his toes, maybe a hand on his head, and then breaking back up through the surface of the water for air – which he, as a human, needs to breathe. God undergoing a human ritual like so many had before and like so many would afterwards. Jesus totally immersed in water in order to experience what we experience; Jesus totally immersed in our lives to be more fully God; Jesus totally immersed with humanity, and in humanity. This is not abstract or theoretical. This is what our God did – and what our God does.
And God immerses himself in us, rather than observe us from a distance, because it is in the act of immersion – full, soaking, immersion – that God’s experience of being us becomes something more than a series of disconnected episodes. The whole becomes not just more, but also different from the sum of the parts. Think about the creation of a painting. At first, there are only seemingly unconnected brush strokes on a canvas, but, slowly, a picture begins to emerge. And as the picture emerges, the painter becomes more aware of the effect of what happens when they make another brushstroke, more aware of the interconnectedness of one brushstroke with another, more aware of the totality of the picture and what it means, what it makes up together, independent of any single brushstroke. God immersed himself fully in us to understand how we really worked, what was the effect on our human life of each Individual tug of emotion, the effect on our life of each little victory and each little setback. God immersed himself fully in us, in order to understand what we really are – and in order to save us.
But there’s even more to this immersion, because Jesus did not just come himself to be baptized and to be immersed. He also came to baptize us and immerse us. He came, as John says elsewhere, to baptize us with fire and with the Holy Spirit. To baptize us into a new and richer life. So, if he came to be immersed in our life, to truly understand what it means to be human, he did that in order to immerse us in his life, immerse us in something which is truly godly. To immerse us so fully in the Spirit that we can feel it in our bodies, can feel it between our toes, feel it press upon our head, feel it enter our lungs as we come up for air and are given life itself. We are immersed in Jesus, fully divine and fully human, because Jesus, fully human and fully divine, is immersed in us.
But those experiences, those sensory experiences, of birth, of being in the stable, and now, today, of being in the river, are only the prologue to the ultimate human sensory experience of our God. The experience of being whipped; of having thorns driven into his forehead; of stumbling, staggering under the crushing burden of a cross of wood; of having nails driven through his hands and feet; and of hanging agonizingly, dying slowly, in the unforgiving sun. And the joy of birth, and the delight of recognition, are only the prologue to the ultimate human emotional experience of our God. The experience of being betrayed by a disciple; of being abandoned by his friends; of being mocked and reviled by his enemies; and, at the end, of feeling totally deserted by everyone, even by his father, and left to die alone.
Our God immersed himself in human life and death so he could truly understand what it meant to be us. So, he could understand everything that shapes us and disturbs us. And he did this so we might become more deeply immersed in him. More deeply immersed in a God who is truly God, but who we know also understands and shares our burdens and our pain because he lived them himself. This is not a god on the divine mountaintop, or far away in the highest heaven. This is a God who lived a human life, and died a human death, in order that we might become completely immersed in the new life that was bought by that death on the cross.
So, this is our God: feeling mud between his toes; feeling water on his skin. Totally immersed in us. And this is us, his people: feeling his Spirit fill us; feeling his love envelop us. Totally immersed in him. Amen
“Worship the Lord in the splendor of his holiness….” Psalm 29:2
whose holiness is not limited to grand cathedrals
or saintly persons,
spectacular mountains or mountain-moving leaders;
whose holiness is often discovered
in simple everyday places
and simple everyday folk,
plant Your holiness in this place, in us now.
Grow us this hour,
that we might flower, right where we are,
with the beauty of Your holiness.
Through Jesus we pray.
We leave the waters of baptism to offer grace to others;
we give from our abundance to bless others with hope and healing;
we offer our lives to you and others in serving with love and mercy.
May the path
that Christ walks
to bring justice
upon the earth,
to bring light
to those who sit
to bring out those
who live in bondage,
to bring new things
to all creation:
may this path
run through our life.
May we be
the road Christ takes.