Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Last Word

First Sunday after the Epiphany:  The Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ

Luke 3:14-17, 21-22

Fred Hedgepath was my pastor at Conway Methodist Church from the time I was eight until the time I was twelve.   He still emerges as one of the two or three most significant figures in my life when I think back over the years of all the folk who have shaped me.  To this day, I remember many of his sermon topics, illustrations, even poems he quoted.  Once he said that if he had only two sermons to preach he would choose one to be on the love of God and the other to be on the forgiveness of sins.  I have thought from time to time what I would choose to preach on.  I think without doubt my two would be the incarnation of the Word made flesh and the resurrection of the body.  Both speak of the union of human and divine, of reconciling humanity with God, and above all with the human body as the vehicle for God’s life.  But if I had only one sermon to preach I would choose to preach it on baptism.  For in baptism, these two great themes come together as nowhere else.  So it is not altogether by accident that I set this Sunday as my final one at St. Stephen and the Incarnation.  I just can’t quite get enough of baptism, nor say enough good stuff about it.  It is indeed, for me, the heart of the Good News.

            It took the Church a very long time to accord Jesus’ baptism the importance it deserves. That is because the oddity of Jesus wanting, let alone needing, to be baptized, has just perplexed people.  What folks often have missed is that Jesus’ baptism is the point at which he thoroughly and unequivocally identifies himself with humanity.  I think most of us would agree that “sin,” even when we think of it most deeply and broadly as the condition of alienation from the Truth, from the Source of Life, from the best and most positive intentions of the Creator of the universe, is a bit too narrow to describe the entire human condition.  Of course, an argument can be made that human beings are totally depraved (ask John Calvin and Joseph Casazza); but they too exhibit qualities that simply don’t fit in the category of sin—or at least Casazza does—I am not so sure about Calvin.  At any rate, Jesus in being baptized got as far down in that mud-hole of a Jordan River as he could possibly get:  right down into the hungers and anxieties and regrets and shame of stumbling, fallen humanity—and also into the unleashed potential, the capacity for greatness, the quality of empathy, the talent for creativity that mark human beings as well.  We are not only ashes, but also glory.  For every demon that lurks behind a human persona, there is an angel waiting to be a messenger of the holy. 

            The thing easy to gloss over in Luke’s account of the great epiphany at the Jordan River is what John the Baptist says about Jesus.  For years I never paid much attention to this stuff:  “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.  His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”  It seemed only to belong to the rather wild-eyed and sideways-walking nature of the old Baptizer.  But I have begun paying more attention to him and his description of Jesus.  Rather than hear it as a raw condemnation of non-conforming humanity, I hear it now as precisely what Christ does.  He winnows.  He sifts, he sorts, he discerns.  He is not afraid to cast away what is opposed to life and health, to healing and wholeness.  He indeed plunges us into a holy, spirit-driven life.  Yet, the baptismal water strangely ignites the fire of enthusiasm rather than dowses it with cold, dull suppression of human energy. 

            And this is why the Baptism of Jesus is the most profound witness to the incarnation, the embodiment of God.  The whole point of God’s becoming human in Jesus is not to make and keep him special, but to take not just human nature but the entire created order and reveal its capacity for manifesting God.  We are to be epiphanies of God.  We are to understand our lives as being best and truest and purest and most honest when the very bodily existence we have mirrors our Maker.  And we do it the way Jesus did it:  by praying, healing, feeding, listening, teaching, telling the truth, taking on the know-it-all authorities, breaking the rules that keep people separated from each other, transgressing the boundaries of social propriety in favor of justice and mercy, and finally by owning yet detaching from our deepest and controlling fears by dying courageously, trusting only in the power of Love.  That is it.  We are to be the Word embodied, so much so that people can actually look at us and see the Body of Christ. 

            But baptism is not only a radical statement of incarnation.  It brings us to resurrection and resurrection to us.  And it does it in a most peculiar way:  the way of death.  Rather than actually dealing with death, the Church is always trying to put makeup on it and take the sting of it away before we feel it.  Every Sunday we gather at the altar and tell a story replete with images that ought to shake us to the core:  betrayal, crucifixion, blood being spilled and body being broken.  But none of that hits home until and unless we realize that it is not just Jesus’ story; it is ours.  Not only because our lives have their share of tragedy and suffering, which is true enough; but also because there is no way of being mortal without experiencing mortality.  Back up to our list of things that Jesus (and we) do to reveal God:  we don’t get to march in the light of God praying and singing and healing and feeding and telling the truth and taking on authority by playing it safe.  We don’t do it by refusing to grow.  We don’t get there by resisting change, let alone by insulating ourselves against transformation.  No, it takes a dying, a dying to the false and inflated self—a real and conscious choice to let ourselves be “handed over” to the possibility of letting everything go—even the things we give our lives to—so that we can get to the bottom of it all. 

And you know what’s at the bottom.  Love.  Loving your Self.  Loving your own body.  Loving your nature, rather than denying it.  Loving profligately, so that love spills over the brim and runs down the crevices of your life and out into the streets and into the fields and streams so that boundaries disappear between you and people, you and nature, you and animals, you and the earth, you and the sky, you and the sun, you and the fire that burns unquenchably in every star, in every planet, in every atom in this cosmos.  We don’t get to cross that Jordan without getting down, down, down into the Source of the water itself, into every blessed molecule, every atom, quark, hint of being and lying helpless and defenseless.  You probably will never get there unless you either have to, like Julian of Norwich, falling so sick that your conscious mind is overruled by clear insight; or because you grow old enough to see what you simply cannot comprehend when you are busy becoming important (or conforming to those who you believe to be important) which is what all of us do during the first half of life.  When Julian, in the twilight of the 14th century, got to the bottom of everything she had learned in the revelations of divine love to her in her illness, she wrote:

Wouldst thou learn thy Lord’s meaning in this thing?  Learn it well:  Love was his meaning.  Who shewed it thee?  Love.  What shewed He thee?  Love.  Wherefore shewed it He?  For Love….Thus was I learned that Love was our Lord’s meaning.[1]

And that is resurrection.  Not some existence in the sky by and by, but a radical affirmation of the body, and thus of mortality.  Resurrection is the only thing left at the end and depth of life:  the power of Love.  

So, wade in the water.  Wade in the water, children.  It won’t part until you stick your toe in.  And then it will roll back and stand at attention as you march through on dry ground, O Israel.  Wade in the water with Mother Scott and Bill Wendt and Jack Woodward and all those who have gone before.  Wade with Moses and Aaron and Miriam.  Wade with John and Jesus and all that brood of vipers that slithered out of Jerusalem to come see what all that racket was down at the Jordan.  Wade in the water of baptism until you are so human that you bleed love.  Wade in the water until you catch the vision of the Bread that is the Body of Christ become your body, and your body become as dazzling as the body of the resurrected Lord.  Wade in the water until you become as little children and so enter the Promised Kingdom.  Wade until the dove alights on you and you hear a voice that says, “Come on in.  Sit and eat.  I’ve been waiting for you since before the world began.”

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2016.

[1] Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love, Kindle edition, first published 1901), p. 175, location 2273.

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