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

Monday, 18 January 2016

Sermon at Parish Mass The Baptism of Christ 2016

Isaiah 43.1-7
Acts 8.14–17
Luke 3.15–17, 21–22

“In the wilderness John proclaimed a baptism of repentance.” This presents us with a bit of a problem, because Jesus also was baptised. Why did Jesus need a baptism of repentance if he was, as the Bible tells us, without sin?
All four gospels describe the ministry of John the Baptist, and Jesus’ baptism as the culmination of that ministry. But the baptism of Jesus is different. For him, alone, the heavens are opened, the Spirit descends, and the voice from heaven proclaims him to be God’s beloved Son. He confesses no sins, but the repentance of those who have been baptised before him opens them to receive his message.
Jesus comes to the Jordan as the representative of humanity. Himself without sin, he is the head and founder of redeemed humanity, the new Adam who will do the Father’s will. In his baptism Jesus represents, first of all, sinful Israel, called back to be faithful to God, exemplified by all the different people John has been baptising before him. But Jesus, the new Adam, also represents all of humanity beyond Israel. The Jordan was and is the boundary between Israel and the world outside. By plunging into its waters, on the one bank Jewish, on the other bank Gentile, he identifies himself with the whole human race and all of its tax collectors, soldiers, prostitutes and Pharisees – we are all in there somewhere.
By his baptism Christ sanctifies our baptism, so that in the waters of the font we leave behind our sins and are clothed in Christ. So we receive grace from baptism because Christ has given grace to it. By being baptised Jesus gave to the waters of the font the life giving power of the Spirit, so that sinners who are plunged into those waters are raised to new life. Dying to sin, living to God: this is the two-fold grace of baptism that Christ has obtained for us by being our representative before the Father. In him we are adopted as children of God, and the Father addresses us in him: you are my beloved son, you are my beloved daughter.
All four Gospels describe this scene and the descent of the Holy Spirit like a dove. Luke adds the detail that Jesus was praying when the Spirit descended.
This is important. Jesus spends a lot of time in prayer, and so must those who are adopted as children of God in him. Prayer is as vital for the Church as it is for Jesus.
Luke of course wrote two volumes, his Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles. In them he makes several parallels between the start of the ministry of Jesus at his baptism, and the start of the ministry of the Church on the day of Pentecost. In both beginnings those who receive the Spirit are praying, Jesus by the Jordan and the disciples in the upper room. The Spirit descends visibly on both, in the form of a dove or as tongues of flame. For both Jesus and the Church their ministry then begins, preaching the good news and working miracles. Healing, restoration and new life are the work of the Creator Spirit who hovers over Jesus and the Church as he hovered over the waters of creation at the beginning. This emphasises that the mission of the Church is entirely derived from Jesus, that it is in him that the Church is rooted and lives.
Prayer is how we open ourselves to the work of the Spirit. In Baptism the image of Christ is formed in us indelibly, but this is as a seed that needs to be nourished. His life needs to grow in us throughout our lives. Conversely, we need to die to sin daily, so that the image of Christ in his death and resurrection can be reproduced in us. This is the work of the Spirit in us. Our spiritual life is the opposite of our bodily life, because while bodily life declines the life of the Spirit grows and develops to maturity, and does not decay, provided we remain open to the Spirit.
The image of Christ is formed in us and grows in us through the power of the Spirit, and in that likeness is our eternal life. As St Paul says in 2 Corinthians, “Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day.”
This growth in the Spirit is life long. Therefore it takes time. Growth is organic, it can seem interminably slow. And the habits of sin can seem like weeds continually popping up in the ground of our souls. But through prayer the Spirit is able to work in us so that our spiritual growth can take its proper course, nurturing the two-fold grace given to us in our baptism: death to sin, and life to God.
What is prayer? At the simplest level, it is conscious attention to God’s presence in our hearts and making room for him to act in our lives. No relationship can flourish without communication, and prayer is the most vital communication for our most essential relationship, that with God in Christ.
There are many methods of prayer, of course. And because we are different personalities we may find some more conducive than others. There is silent meditation, or simply using the name of Jesus as a mantra to focus our attention on his presence within us. We can use collections of prayers from favourite books. There is the daily prayer of the Church, composed mainly of psalms and bible readings, which we can follow using the official books or via an app on your hand held device. There is meditative chewing over a passage of scripture to listen to what God is saying to us. There are devotions such as the Rosary and Stations of the Cross.
The method does not matter so much as the interior reality: attention to God in our hearts, to the image of Christ, who is our true life, being formed in us by the Spirit. And it is by persistence in prayer that the Spirit is able to work in us. It is the Spirit who will bring to fruition both the grace of our baptism which we received once for all, and the grace of the Eucharist by which we are fed week by week.
This is a time for New Year’s resolutions. Have you made any? Have you kept them? Often these are connected to our physical health, and this is good, but we need to recognise that our outer nature is falling into decay, inevitably, however many diets or fitness regimes we might commit ourselves to.

The life that endures to eternity, the life of the Spirit, ought to claim at least as much of our attention as the life of our outer nature that is wasting away. So here is a new year-ish resolution for the feast of the Baptism of Christ: to be constant in prayer, for by prayer the Holy Spirit is able to make his abode within us and form in us the image and likeness of Christ. If we pursue this resolution, then by the grace of God in the end we will be able to say with St Paul, “it is no longer I who lives, but Christ in me”. And then the grace of adoption given to us in our baptism will have grown to its full fruition and maturity. Then we will live the full reality of what is true already when the Father looks on us in Christ and says “this is my beloved Son, this is my beloved Daughter”.

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