Christ Church Cathedral
Baptism of the Lord
13 January 2019
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Slowly Christmas is receding into the distance behind us.
The last couple of weeks have been a little like driving down the highway and seeing the places we have been becoming smaller and more distant as we move into our future.
For the next several weeks we will be in the season known as Epiphany, the time in between Christmas and Ash Wednesday. Throughout the epiphany season we are celebrating many different ways in which God becomes known by us, or if you like, is manifest to us.
As we engage with the Scriptures and reflect on our lived experience during these coming weeks we will be looking to discern different ways in which God becomes known and real to us.
The baptism of Jesus
We begin this series as always with the baptism of Jesus and this morning I simply want to share a series of reflections with you, with the invitation that you will take the one which most interests you and reflect on it further during the week ahead.
I want to organise these reflections as a series of progressively deeper answers to the seemingly simple question: why celebrate the baptism of Jesus?
Reason #1: because it happened
The baptism of Jesus is one of the most certain historical events in his life. It ranks up there alongside the crucifixion is something whose historicity we can be totally confident about. It may not strike us as such an awkward story, but the account of Jesus being baptised by John was an inconvenient truth for the earliest Christians.
To appreciate that we need to understand the followers of John represented a rival reform movement within second Temple Judaism. For the followers of Jesus to remember that the founder of their movement had started out as a follower or disciple of John the Baptist required them to acknowledge some kind of debt from Jesus to John.
This is not a topic that I want to linger over today and I have discussed it at other times, but it is worth noting that the Gospels of Matthew Mark and Luke all describe Jesus’ baptism by John while the Gospel of John offers an extended treatment of the relationship between John and Jesus, with a reference to the baptism having taken place ‘off stage’.
So we are celebrating a moment in the life of the historical Jesus, and it is a point which hints at a rather more complicated relationship between Jesus of Nazareth and John the Baptist than any of the early Christians really wanted to speak about.
Reason #2: the baptism marks a point of transition
As the early gospel writers tell the story, the baptism of Jesus by John represents the beginning of his public activity as the prophet of God’s kingdom within second Temple Judaism. This is the moment, as it were, when Jesus steps onto the public stage.
Again, I don’t want to spend a great deal of time on this particular point, but it strikes me as significant that none of the canonical gospels show any interest in the childhood of Jesus or in his adult activities prior to his baptism. The nearest we get to such an interest is the unique story in Luke chapter 2 with the 12-year-old Jesus choosing to remain behind in Jerusalem and engage in conversation with the leading scholars of his time.
Generally speaking, in the biblical tradition as we also find in the creeds, Christianity has no interest in what happened to Jesus prior to his baptism by John.
Think about that for a moment.
Despite all the fuss we make at Christmas time, the New Testament never refers to the circumstances of Jesus’ birth nor to his childhood nor to his early activities as an adult prior to stepping onto the stage round about the age of 30 years. Considering that many peasants in first century Palestine barely lived that long, this is a fairly remarkable oversight.
In any case, whatever Jesus was up to as a child and a young adult, we mark a fresh beginning in his life and in his public career with his baptism by John.
Reason #3: the spiritual roots of Jesus
The baptism of Jesus actually takes us deep into the lived spirituality of second Temple Judaism and it has very little in common with the baptisms that we will be celebrating here in the Cathedral next Sunday morning.
What is happening at the baptism of Jesus is something which is fundamentally and intrinsically Jewish.
It is very easy for us to assimilate Jesus into our life experience including our personal spiritual practices, our religious culture. However Jesus was a person of Jewish identity and his religious practices were significantly different from our own.
Let me just list some of the things which would have been taken as perfectly normal religious practice for Jesus, mostly items we would find rather strange:
- I keep referring to Jesus in the context of second Temple Judaism, and that phrase reminds us that the temple stood at the very centre of Jewish public life and was the focus for all of their aspirations for an encounter with God.
- Animal sacrifices took place in that temple with hundreds if not thousands of animals being killed every day and vast amounts of incense being required as sacred a room freshener to cover up the smell.
- Frequent ritual washings were such a central part of Jewish spirituality at the time that the presence or absence of mikvot, ritual bathing installations, is one of the pieces of evidence archaeologists assess when determining whether the site they are excavating was occupied by Jews or Gentiles.
- In addition to the temple, Jewish people also gathered for prayers and readings in the local synagogue, most likely on Friday evening or Saturday morning.
- In these gatherings participants were strictly segregated on the basis of gender.
- The weekly Sabbath observance was a point of distinction between Jews and their neighbours, and it was observed with some care.
- Strict food laws including rules about people with whom one could not ever eat were central to Jewish identity and social practice. Even though Jesus often transgressed these rules, they were very important to him and to his contemporaries.
- And perhaps we also tend to forget that Jewish culture at this time was strictly iconoclastic with no images of humans or animals being permitted in a Jewish home or in a Jewish public space.
From that preliminary listing, you might well already be starting to think that second Temple Judaism was more like Islam than Christianity. There is indeed a significant cultural gap between Jesus and ourselves, and this is made particularly clear on an occasion like this when we celebrate Jesus’ own participation in the religious rituals of his own community.
Reason #4: the authentic religious experience of Jesus
The baptism of Jesus is not simply a moment of transition in his adult life nor is it simply a reminder that Jesus was an active participant in the normal rituals of the Jewish religion in Palestine in his time. The baptism of Jesus is also a story that invites us to recognise that Jesus had his own authentic personal religious experiences.
That may be something about which we have not thought very much.
We might have the unexamined assumption in the back of our minds that Jesus maintained a continuous conversation between himself and God the Father as he went through each day. However, that is probably not a helpful way to understand the humanity of Jesus and the mystery of his vocation as the human face of God.
Like all of us, Jesus would have developed a sense of awe in the face of the mystery of existence and like some of us he came to understand that the sacred dimension of life could best be understood as the God calls us into being and invites us into the future.
Just as we each have to discover our own vocation and calling, so Jesus had to grow in his understanding of himself and of what faithfulness to God was going to mean for him in his own unique particularity.
In other words, Jesus had a spiritual life and this included moments of religious experience.
The baptism by John in the Jordan River may well have been one such pivotal religious experience for Jesus. We will never know, because Jesus’ own observations and reactions are not recorded in any of the gospels. But we can use our imagination with care and self-discipline in order to appreciate some of the dynamics which must surely have been operating for Jesus.
Reason #5: the value of ritual
A final reflection that I want to offer this morning concerns the value of ritual.
On one level, of course, Jesus did not need to be baptised by John. Most of the Gospels make that very clear as they wrestle with the question of why Jesus would have been baptised by John.
In the Gospel of Matthew, John even asked that question and Jesus replies by saying, Let it be for now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness.
I think Matthew has it right when he understands that doing the right thing and being the right kind of person requires us to appreciate, to value, and to participate in ritual of various kinds.
Some of these rituals are simply the personal practices we develop in our own lives. How we begin the day, how we end the day, how we exercise mindfulness at various times throughout the day. They may extend to favourite colours or particular pieces of jewellery or any number of personal choices that we make. When these rituals are taken away from us we have a deep sense of loss.
There is another whole set of rituals relating to our home life, a life we share that intimate community of people we call family. These rituals come in many varieties and may change over time but we realise how significant they are for us when we find ourselves with another group people whose family rituals are different from our own, or when a guest from another family spends some time with ours.
In public life we know the value of ritual, whether it’s the courtesy of giving way to other vehicles as we approach the bridge or a major civic occasion such as Anzac Day. Ritual not only expresses our deepest identity and values, but can also facilitate our shared lives as a community and as a nation. Again, we often only realise how significant these familiar rituals are for us when we find ourselves away from Australia and in a place where different rituals shape the day-to-day experience of the people with whom we find ourselves.
In our religious life we also know the value of rituals, whether that be coming into the Cathedral to light a candle or participating in a major religious festival. The Cathedral itself is a piece of ritual executed in brick and standing at a prominent location in the heart of Grafton.
We like to have our West doors open despite the risk that creates, because that little act in itself says something about our openness to our neighbours. Opening the doors every morning is a ritual that reminds us to open our hearts and open our minds to those we meet that day. And for those who could walk past the Cathedral during the day, the open doors are both an invitation and an expression of trust. We are not closing our doors to keep you out. Our doors are open. We trust you. We are not afraid of you.
Of course, for Christians, the greatest ritual is the celebration of the Eucharist as we take bread and wine to participate in a meal together at the table of Jesus. It is not just the ritual at the table, but the entire shape of the Eucharist offers us a way to ritualize our lived experience during the week.
We are people who gather,
we are people who reflect on our performance and seek reconciliation,
we are people who listen to Scripture,
we are people who explore and wrestle with God’s truth,
we are people who pray,
giving thanks for God’s blessings and sharing our concerns for a broken world,
we are people who bring our gifts in the service of God’s kingdom
and out of compassion for others,
we are people who break the bread and we bless the cup,
we are people who seek to nurture the life of Jesus within us,
we are people who go out into the world transformed and inspired to be Jesus people in the city day after day.
At one level today we celebrate the simple event took place in the life of Jesus.
But at another level we are being invited to understand the importance of our own community of spiritual practice (which for Jesus was second Temple Judaism) and the value of ritual in so many different areas of our life.
I invite you to reflect on both those lines of thought during the week ahead.