For the communities of Dignity/NoVA at Emmanuel Church-on-the-Hill in Arlington, VA and Dignity/Washington at St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church, Washington, DC.
I once read that every theological statement that is of value or truly meaningful always has a degree of paradox about it. Statements about God and the Divine that are worth anything at all always are a bit mysterious, and they cause us to stop for moment, to ask “how can that be?” or “what does that mean?” They cause us to pause and to scratch our heads!
I kept coming back to this idea in thinking about what we celebrate today – the feast of the Baptism of the Lord. This is an event in the life of Jesus which is re-told in all four Gospels, though each presentation is somewhat different. This year, as we read from the Gospel of Luke, we have Luke’s account in this third Chapter which starts off with John, the Baptizer, preaching what Luke calls “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” People are coming out to John and he is speaking very strong words about how they must mend their ways. And – lest anyone think that John is talking merely about something spiritual, merely about a change of heart – he speaks very explicitly about how they must “produce good fruits as evidence of their repentance.” The repentance that John preaches is very socially oriented, very justice oriented, and one that must bear itself out in concrete action.
This is the scene that Luke sets before the passage we just heard. Jesus – whom Luke says was about thirty years old – comes forward and receives this baptism of repentance with all the other people. Luke is the only Gospel writer who says that, after the baptism, Jesus was at prayer. Only then do we have the big “Hollywood moment” with the dramatic scene with the dove-like Holy Spirit and the divine declaration, “You are my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased.” Then – as if this voice from heaven were not enough to convince that Jesus is indeed the Son of God – Luke provides something that the editors of the Lectionary didn’t include: a lengthy list of Jesus’ paternal lineage going back for 76 generations (“…was the son, as was thought, of Joseph, the son of Heli, the son of Matthat, the son of Levi,…) all the way back to “… Seth, the son of Adam, the son of God.”
Now, we may ask ourselves, “Did Jesus need to receive this baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, since he was ‘the sinless one’; and if he didn’t need to, then why did he?” It’s a good question, as is the question, “what does Baptism mean for us?”
When I was in active parish ministry in a large parish north of Boston, we celebrated baptism not only through a very active and large RCIA program – the process by which un-baptized adults are catechized and welcomed into the sacramental life of the Church – but we also celebrated every month a very large number of infant baptisms. These celebrations would sometimes have eight, ten, even fifteen children being brought by their parents and families for baptism. Our practice was that the priest who was presiding that month would also conduct the catechetical sessions for the parents and godparents. Whenever I conducted these sessions, I would usually ask the assembled group – folks usually in their twenties or early thirties, some of whom hadn’t been inside a Church since the day of their Confirmation or their Wedding – what Baptism meant to them. Invariably some would say it meant being “cleansed of original sin.” And while this is not incorrect, the fundamental meaning of Baptism is much more than this.
For us as Christians – the fundamental and central meaning of Baptism goes beyond the meaning of John’s baptism, mere forgiveness of sins. At its core, Christian Baptism is a sharing in the death and resurrection of Jesus. To be baptized means to die and rise with Christ. At the celebration of Baptism, when the water of the baptismal font is blessed, the prayer of blessing ends with these words: “May all who are buried with Christ in the death of baptism rise also with Him to newness of life.” The small rituals we perform immediately after Baptism are meant to exemplify what has just been celebrated. For example, the newly baptized is clothed with a white garment, indicating that the old self has died and the baptized has “…become a new creation in Christ.”
Dying and Rising, Life through Death – that’s a paradox if ever there was one!
How can Life come from Death? How can Life come from the loss or absence of Life? All of us want to live, but who among us wants to die? Death means loss, it means letting go. It often means sadness and pain and suffering, too. This is true of our own physical death – and perhaps even more true when we experience the loss of someone we know and love. It is also true of the ways in which we must die a thousand deaths this side of the grave, in order to be fully alive. As followers of Jesus, we are challenged to live out our baptism each and every day – and sometimes that means dying and letting go.
Are there things today that I need to let go of in order to experience the new creation I already am? Are there things within my heart or my mind that are needlessly taking up space, needlessly distracting me from being the child of God I became in baptism? Are thing parts of my life that I need to let go of, to empty out, making room for the Spirit to dwell more fully within me?
- Perhaps there’s a friendship I have ignored and let slip away through inattention or ambivalence.
- Perhaps I am weighed down by my attachment to wealth, to power, to possessions.
- Maybe I am so absorbed with the daily problems of my own life that I am unable to see and hear my sisters and brothers in need.
- Perhaps there is within me too much anger or resentment at a Church that admittedly fails to fully live the Gospel message it’s called to preach, especially in welcoming her gay and lesbian children.
Whatever might be in the way of living out our own baptism, there is one thing we can be certain of. Just as the voice from heaven spoke at Jesus’ baptism, that same voice of God reminds us each and every day that we, too, are God’s beloved daughters and sons. We, too, even as LGBT people created in God’s image, are God’s beloved children with whom God is well-pleased. Many centuries ago, St. Irenaeus said that the “glory of God is the human person fully alive.” As we come to the end of this Christmas Season – the season that celebrates the paradoxical reality that the Divine became Human, the mysterious marriage of Divinity with Humanity – let us pray that we may be fully, joyfully alive each and every day.