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

Tuesday, 14 January 2020

On gathering into one a divided and broken humanity

Sermon at Parish Mass, the Baptism of Christ 2020

The Baptism of Christ - Piero della Francesca c. circa 1440-1450
Photo – Wikimedia Commons

Isaiah 42:1-9
Acts 10:34-43
Matthew 3:13-end
There are usually good-natured demonstrations going on in Parliament Square. But last week, as I was passing through on my way to a meeting, there was something different: a group of far-right activists, waving flags and shouting, openly preaching white supremacy and racism. It was viscerally shocking to encounter something like that on the very doorsteps of Parliament.
It has been a divisive few years in our country and around the world. And some groups on the extremes have been only too happy to exploit that to promote further division through fear, hatred and racism. There are people who want to tear society apart, who delight in creating ever deeper divisions. Many people speak of the need to recover unity. But how are we to do it?
Today’s feast of the Baptism of Christ sheds some light on this. The Gospel reading is not only about a significant event in the life of Jesus. It is also about what it means for the whole of humanity. 
When John the Baptist starts preaching and baptising in the river Jordan, Matthew tells us that the “people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him”. And this conveys the sense of the whole population coming together, a vast multitude.
And yet they are individuals, separate, divided and overthrown by their sins, going down into the water. They have heard the call to repentance and sense that in this action, somehow, a new beginning will be possible, not simply for them as individuals but a new beginning for the whole of humanity.
So all these separate individuals go down into the water, confessing their sins. But what comes up out of the water is Christ. It’s quite extraordinary how Matthew describes it. All these separate individuals go down into the water, but the only one who is described as rising up from the water is the Christ.
And it is as Jesus emerges from the water that there comes the great revelation, the voice from heaven, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Here is the “new Adam”, as St Paul tells us. “Adam” meaning, originally, the whole human race, rather than just one individual. And the Spirit is seen over the head of Jesus, just as the Spirit hovered over the waters at the beginning, to bring creation to birth.
What goes down into the water is fallen humanity - sinful, divided against itself, isolated individuals struggling against themselves and each other. And what rises up from the water is humanity restored, recreated, united: Christ the new Adam, the Son, the Beloved.
The water foreshadows the death and resurrection of Christ. It is through his dying and rising that the whole of humanity is made new. By being baptised himself, Christ gives to baptism the power to regenerate all humanity. By receiving the Holy Spirit in his human nature, he enables all humanity to receive the Holy Spirit and share in eternal life.
At Christ’s baptism the Father says, “This is my Son, the Beloved”. And all who are baptised are adopted in Christ. By our baptism we share in his baptism, so that the Father says also to each one of us, in him, you are my son, my daughter, the beloved. St Paul says in Romans 8, “you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ”.
All of this means that baptism is a big deal. Christianity in the West has tended to become too individualistic in its thinking, as though the Gospel was only about saving select individuals from a doomed world. The idea of baptismal regeneration became reduced to washing away an individual’s sins, and although baptism does that, there is much more to it than that. It is the whole of humanity, divided and overthrown by sin, that goes down into the water, and the whole of humanity regenerated, made one in Christ, that is raised up. Some Christians talk of “accepting Jesus as your personal Saviour”, but the Biblical vision is quite different. Christ is the Saviour of the whole world; grace is freely given to all. Our part, as individuals, is to co-operate with grace, in order to become united in Christ.
The 20th Century French theologian Eugène Masure summed this up in a sentence: “Fundamentally the Gospel is obsessed with the idea of the unity of human society”. This was part of the great rediscovery of the social dimension of the Gospel in the last century, as expressed at the Second Vatican Council and in the Church of England in documents such as “Faith in the City”.
And if the Christian Gospel is obsessed with the unity of human society, then so should Christian disciples be as well. Our baptism marks us with a fundamental calling into unity in Christ, a call which is addressed to the whole of humanity.
Living out our baptism then becomes not merely a matter of personal discipleship, of prayer and sacrament, though of course that is part of it. Baptism, lived out, is a life in pursuit of unity. A life lived sacrificially to overcome divisions. A life that will not settle for anything less, in the end, than the whole of humanity gathered into one in Christ.
Disunity and division seem to loom on every side. The political divisions of the last few years have polarised people. Abuse and insults have outweighed listening. Major changes in our relationship with other countries will soon be upon us, whether we like it or not. As disciples of Christ our calling to seek unity will need to find new expressions for these changing circumstances.
But the call to seek unity remains. In place of the voices of division and hatred, we must proclaim the primacy of love. We must reach out to our neighbours afresh in friendship and welcome, particularly to any who at this time may be feeling anxious, threatened or unwelcome. We must ensure that the needs of refugees and migrants, the vulnerable and the marginalised, are not allowed to slip from the attention of those in authority.
In the Church, too, we must renew our search for unity. The week of Prayer for Christian Unity, something that would have been unthinkable a century ago, reminds us that a rediscovery of love can begin to heal the divisions of the past. A divided and fragmented Church is a poor sign of unity to the world. But working together in love is a great witness to the world.

“Fundamentally the Gospel is obsessed with the idea of the unity of human society.” That is our calling. That is what our baptism means. Because our baptism is our baptism into Christ, and his baptism renews the world, gathering into one a divided and broken humanity.