Sunday, 12 January 2014

Baptism of Christ: Not waving but drowning

Today we celebrate the story of the Baptism of Christ in the waters of the river Jordan, and it is a very appropriate moment to do so, because the news right now seems to be dominated by water. If it isn’t pouring from the skies it is crashing over sea walls, or rushing down swollen rivers, or seeping across flood plains and up into through the floorboards of vulnerable houses. Floodwaters have claimed several lives, and caused a great deal of misery. I am sure there are many in the UK this week who would be quite happy never to have to see or think about water again.
Of course that’s not possible though, because water is essential to life. It’s just as much a problem when we haven’t got enough as when we’ve got too much. Whatever  those who’ve been flooded out might feel at the moment, we all know we can’t do without water.

That is probably why water is so often used in religious practices. Hindus immerse themselves in the Ganges, Muslims ritually wash before worship, and the ancient inhabitants of this land threw offerings into sacred springs, a custom that lingers in the habit of throwing coins into wishing wells and fountains. For Christians, of course, water is mainly associated with the rite of baptism, but what is it we are doing when we baptise a child or an adult? What is it about? What is it for? What is it meant to achieve?

The truth is that if you ask any two Christians you’ll get at least three answers to those questions. Baptism can be about belonging, forgiveness, thanksgiving, naming, the washing away of sin, initiation into a new way of life and a new community, or just a jolly family gathering, and a host of other things as well. The meaning of baptism is as hard to pin down as the water we use to do it. There’s been a bit of debate in the press this week about baptism – you may have seen accusations that the Church of England is dumbing down the baptism service. Actually it is just a small trial of some alternative wording which might become available to use in parts of the service if it seems appropriate. We nearly always use an existing alternative set of words for the promises of parents and godparents anyway, as do many churches, so it really is a complete storm in a teacup, but what was clear from the debate is that even within the same denomination, people’s ideas about what baptism is, and what it’s for, vary wildly.

And there’s nothing new about that sense that baptism can have many meanings . Christians have always done baptisms; Jesus told his first disciples to go out into the world and make disciples, baptising them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, and they took him at his word. But today’s Gospel story of Jesus’ own baptism is an illustration of the confusion that has often surrounded this rite. John’s reluctance to baptise Jesus hints that even in the earliest days of the Church people weren’t sure what to make of baptism. Why does Jesus insist on being baptised? Surely he doesn’t need a baptism of repentance?

The awkwardness around this story is a sign, oddly, that points to its authenticity – that it really did happen. You don’t invent stories which you will then have a hard time explaining.  And that authenticity is supported by the fact that this story comes in all four Gospels, which is quite unusual. The only other stories that appear in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are the cleansing of the Temple, the feeding of the 5000 and the stories of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

So, the evidence suggests that Jesus really did come to John for baptism, but why? People quite reasonably assumed that God's Messiah, his chosen one, would be someone who was already walking in the way of God, someone who , in Isaiah's words, was already full of God's spirit, faithfully bringing forth justice, caring for the bruised reeds and the flickering lights, the vulnerable and the broken . Jesus seemed to his first followers to fit that bill. So what could he possibly have to repent of?

The idea that he was totally sinless – sinless in his essence, right from conception - is really a later development in Christian thought, but even at this early stage it clearly felt wrong to those who wrote the Gospels that Jesus should have asked for baptism. All four Gospels record John’s uneasiness, which reflects their own sense that there is something rather puzzling  - perhaps a bit embarrassing - about this incident.

Jesus words don’t really make things much clearer.
 “Let it be so now, for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness.”  What’s that supposed to mean? Commentators have argued endlessly about it, without coming to any real conclusions, so I don’t suppose I will get it all sorted out this morning either. But at the very least, it is clear that Jesus is insisting that this is something that he has to do, just as he later insisted that he had to wash his disciples’ feet and, of course, die a shameful and apparently pointless death on the cross, things his followers also found baffling. Going down into the waters of the river Jordan somehow sits alongside those other moments of humiliation, moments when Jesus could have turned away, retreated, left it to someone else, taken the safe, easy route, but chose not to. It was that determination which gave his message and his ministry such power to help and to save, because in sticking with it, and sticking with us, he came to where we are, lived as we live and died as we die, enduring all those inescapable realities of loss, sorrow and fear that are part of every human life.

As those who have been flooded can testify, there’s nothing like water to remind us of how little we are really able to control the world. Water exists on its own terms, not on ours; it flows where it wants to. Sometimes we manage to tame it and it appears friendly and safe – a tranquil pool, a gentle, refreshing stream - but as we’ve seen in recent weeks, it can also be wild and dangerous; crashing waves, engulfing floods, roaring torrents. Water is such a powerful symbol of life because, just like life, it can bring delight or disaster.

The message of Jesus’ baptism is that whatever life brings – calm water or floods - he is in those waters with us, immersed in it, drowning in it. He is in them symbolically at his baptism, but he is in them for real as he hangs on the cross and goes through the “deep waters of death” as the prayer of blessing over the waters of baptism puts it. We don’t usually baptise by total immersion, as some churches do but the symbolism is still there in our liturgy.

When we baptise people - children or adults - one of the things we are assuring them of is that God is with them not only in the good times, when all is going well, but in the moments when they realise they are all at sea, out of their depths, “not waving, but drowning” as the poet Stevie Smith put it. When the waters are closing over our heads, when we feel like we are sinking without trace, we are not alone – Jesus goes down to the depths with us. He doesn’t just sit safely on dry land, shouting to us to pull ourselves together and swim harder. He doesn’t just throw us a line and hope we might manage to catch hold of it. He jumps into the water with us and stays with us until we finally come to land on the other side, whether that is in this world or the world to come. That is good news, powerful news – far better than him just being just some kind of super-hero, whom death and failure can’t touch.

“The voice of the Lord is upon the waters,” said our Psalm this morning, “the God of glory thunders, the Lord is upon the mighty waters.” God speaks to us not just from the triumphant halls of heaven, but in the murky depths of the floods that sweep us away. And the message that voice proclaims is the one which Jesus embodied and lived out - in his baptism, in his ministry, in his death and resurrection. It is the message that’s there in the title the Gospel writers give him at his birth; Emmanuel, which means “God is with us.”

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