Catholic Contextual urban Theology, Mimetic Theory, Contemplative Prayer. And other random ramblings.

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Sermon at Parish Mass The Baptism of Christ 2015

Genesis 1.1-5
Acts 19.1-7
Mark 1.4-11

Je suis Charlie. I am Charlie. We are Charlie. Following last week’s terrorist murders in Paris this slogan has appeared in demonstrations and social media. The magazine Charlie Hebdo was the target of the attack. But people want to say, not just them, us too. We are all in this together. It is an expression of solidarity. People collectively rejecting violence and seeking a better way. Solidarity is a powerful idea – it was the name of the union movement in Poland that helped to bring down communism. There is a sense in solidarity that humanity is more than the sum of its parts, that together we can seek what we cannot achieve by ourselves.
That idea is not wrong, and it is echoed in the scriptures. But the scriptures add the extra dimension that solidarity needs: God, the creator and redeemer, in whom and by whom alone we can achieve our created purpose. For instance, the idea of solidarity runs through today’s gospel reading: John is baptising in the wilderness, 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”.
The Greek does give the sense of an enormous crowd: the whole population has come together for baptism, confessing their sins. This is collective repentance, collective seeking after God. Repentance means turning away from sin and towards the Lord. And all the people do so in the expectation of grace, in the hope that God will raise them up and give them new life.
John the Baptist tells them that repentance by itself is but a beginning. Repentance prepares us to receive the gift of new life, but it is God himself who must give it to us. So he says of the Messiah who is to come: “I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” He will pour out the gift of the God’s own life upon those who repent.
But here there is something in today’s reading that may seem a little strange. John has promised that the Messiah will baptise believers with the Holy Spirit. But when Jesus comes to the Jordan, it is he who gets baptised. He is baptised by John, with water, in the river Jordan. And he is baptised with the Holy Spirit, as he sees the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending on him like a dove.
So it is Jesus who receives the baptism that John has said will be given to the people. Why is this? The answer is in the idea of solidarity, of everyone being in this together. All the people have come together seeking repentance and new life. But it is Jesus who enters the water, Jesus who receives the promised Spirit. Jesus does so not as an individual alone, but as the representative and head of all humanity. The human race has a new beginning in Jesus. All who are baptised into Jesus are made one with him in that new beginning. And all are made one with him in his Divine life, for he is both God and man. Jesus is God’s solidarity with the human race. So those who are baptised into Jesus, in him, have been baptised with the promised Holy Spirit. The voice addressed to Jesus is now addressed to the whole of humanity, as found in him: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased”.
This voice from heaven speaks to us not as separate individuals, but as part of a redeemed humanity made one in Christ. This is why the alternative name for baptism is christening. The Spirit says to all who are baptised, “You are Christ”. We are all made one in Christ Jesus, one new humanity. Christ is the new Adam, but so, in him, are we.
The Creator Spirit is poured out to save us from sin and death and to create us anew as beloved children of God. The letter to the Hebrews speaks of this idea of human solidarity in Christ:
Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, [Christ] himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death[1].
God’s solidarity with the human race, in Jesus, means that he shares everything that it is to be human, including death, in order to save us from death. And indeed the symbolism of baptism is that of death and resurrection, as Jesus descends into the water to be raised up.
But that is not the only reference to the death of Jesus in this passage. Heaven is “torn apart” as the spirit descends. Mark uses the Greek word for “torn apart” only twice: here, and at the death of Jesus on the cross, when he tells us that the “curtain of the temple was torn apart, from top to bottom”[2].
The curtain in the temple hung in front of the holy of holies, the empty space filled with the presence of God. In Hebrew this curtain was called “the heaven”. It symbolized the cosmos, the visible creation concealing the invisible presence of the Creator. So, in both places, at the baptism of Jesus and at his death, the heaven is torn apart, the veil removed, and the Creator Spirit is poured into the creation.
At his baptism Jesus commits himself to his calling as Messiah, the new and representative human, God’s solidarity in person with the whole human race. And on the cross, by his voluntary pouring out of himself even to death, he fulfils that calling and his solidarity is complete.
The death of Jesus is a consequence of sin, and so it unmasks the heart of our sin. It is an act of religious violence, murder perpetrated by people who think that death is the ultimate reality, and who can only conceive of God in those terms. This is the false imagination of God, the fear of death, that has enslaved humanity from the beginning, as Hebrews says. But by surrendering himself to death Jesus tears heaven apart and the Creator Spirit is poured into creation to make all things new.
The Spirit is the true and living God in whom there is no death, who does not deal in death, who does not want death. God is love and light and life, and in him is no darkness at all. The first-fruits of that outpouring of the Spirit is the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, breaking the power of sin. And, in him, all humanity now can be freed from sin and raised to eternal life.
All this is both promised and already present when Jesus comes to the Jordan and is baptized. In him, all humanity turns towards the Lord in repentance. In him, all humanity is born again and receives the Holy Spirit. And in him all humanity hears at last the true voice of our Father, who loves us and wants us to live in him: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased”.

[1] Hebrews 2:14-15
[2] Mark 15:38

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