Baptism of Jesus – Mark 1:4-11 audio only
Welcome to a new beginning. The celebration of the Baptism of Jesus begins the church lectionary’s focus upon the Gospel according to the anonymous gospel-storyteller that we call Mark. For the balance of the church year most of our gospel readings will come from the oldest gospel in the New Testament, from storyteller that we call Mark. Written before the development of the nativity myths, this gospel begins with the story of Jesus baptism by the prophet known as John the Baptist. As the oldest account of Jesus’ baptism, written sometime after the year 70, some 40 plus years after the execution of Jesus of Nazareth, this story gives us particular insights into the ways in which the legacy of Jesus was experienced by the early followers of the teachings of Jesus. In those early years of the followers of the Way, Jesus’ life and teachings not only ushered in a new way of being in the world, they also provided a new way of understanding the Divine.
Jesus of Nazareth was a Jew. Raised in the ways of first century Jewish people, Jesus would have been taught to relate to the Source of All Being, the One we call God, as a far off distant, super-natural being. This is the kind of understanding of Divinity that is reflected in John the Baptizer’s proclamation of a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. However, this is not the understanding of Divinity that the anonymous gospel-storyteller that we call Mark portrays in his depiction of Jesus’ baptism. Most of us have heard the stories of Jesus’ baptism so many times that we tend to miss the radical nature of Jesus’ baptism. Once we let go of the notion that this is some sort of historical account of Jesus baptism, we can begin to understand how the gospel-storyteller understands the significance of Jesus’ life and teachings.
“Immediately upon coming out of the water, Jesus saw the heavens opening and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. Then a voice came from the heavens: “You are my Beloved, my Own. On you my favor rests.” The intimacy portrayed in this story, defies what would have been, for the story-teller and the story-teller’s community, the accepted understanding of the nature of the Divine. The God depicted in this story is radically intimate. Jesus’ relationship to the Source of All Being, is one of intimacy. You can almost hear the Creator of All that Is, declare, lovingly, “That’s my boy! He brings me such pleasure.” At that time, the prevailing understanding of God, of YAHWEH, as KING of KINGS, LORD of LORDS, is expanded to what will eventually be taught by Jesus as Abba, or Daddy. Jesus’ teachings move beyond the hoped for super-natural, super-hero God, that the persecuted Hebrew people longed for and point instead to a God who is known in the intimacy of LOVE. Within the Jewish tradition there was and is a great diversity of depictions of the Creator of All that IS. Sadly, so many of those depictions of Divinity had been reduced to an understanding of God as a super-natural-male-being. The feminine attributes of the Divine that are depicted in the Hebrew Scriptures were largely forgotten. Gone too were the depictions of the Divine as something other than a super-natural being. It was as if, over time, the understandings of the Power that lies at the very heart of reality were reduced to the projections of human desires to be saved from the trials and tribulations of this life.
The people of Jesus day were trapped within systems of tribalism, so they longed for a god who would save them from the horrors of those systems. They projected into the heavens a God who could save them. Then along comes Jesus who lives his life in ways that point to a Divinity that is vastly different to the projections of a super-natural, male-warrior God. Jesus’ life embodied a new way of understanding life, new way of understanding creation, a new way of understanding what it means to be human and a new way of contemplating the ONE who is the Source of All.
Now suppose you are the anonymous gospel story-teller known to us as Mark. Remember, this Mark wrote his story after the year 70 when the Jewish world in Palestine has fallen apart. The Temple has been destroyed. The Romans are at war with the Jewish people. Thousands of people have been slaughtered. The air is thick with death. Violence, rape, murder and executions are the order of the day. Hundreds and hundreds of rotting corpses hang upon the trees upon which they have been crucified. Historian James Carroll describes the context in which the gospel-story-tellers wrote their stories as the first Jewish holocaust. Somehow you have heard the story of Jesus of Nazareth, and the you have experienced the power of his teaching. Jesus embodied a wisdom that the Romans could not kill and you want to get across to the people who are suffering that there is another way to respond to this terror that is being inflicted upon them every day. You’ve heard the story of John the Baptist and his call to the people to repent under treat of hell-fire and damnation. You’ve also heard about Jesus teaching about God who is LOVE and about a way of responding to one’s enemies which does not include violence. You’ve heard, believed and experience the kin-dom of God that Jesus taught and you want to tell the story of Jesus so that your community can hear, believe and experience this kin-dom of God in ways that will nourish, ground, and sustain them in all that is to come. So, you tell the story in ways that will make it clear who and what Jesus was: I mean even the day that he went down to the river to be baptized, why it was as if the heavens opened, and God’s very spirit came into Jesus. His own disciples didn’t recognize who it was who was in their midst, but surely you can see that Jesus was a child of God. Surly, you can see that resisting the Romans is only going to cause more violence, more pain, more heartache? Jesus passion for LOVEing people extended to his enemies. Jesus taught a different way of responding. Surely you can see, that the LOVE of God embodied in Jesus is the Way the truth and the life?
So, if the gospel-story-tellers wrote their stories about Jesus the way they did, to ensure that their listeners could recognize God in their midst, what can we learn from the way in which these stories have been written?
I’d like to suggest that we begin with baptism. We can start by setting aside all the things that we have been taught about baptism. Let’s set aside all those things we have been taught about the far off elsewhere God and open ourselves to the Mystery that lies at the very heart of reality, God who is bigger than our images, God who is LOVE. For a moment, let’s resist the temptation to personify God. Let’s also remember that humans didn’t appear on this earth in some perfect form only to fall from grace and into sin. Let’s remember that humans evolved and are continuing to evolve. So, that means we can set aside the idea of original sin. Yes, humans are sinful, but our sin comes out of our incompleteness, out of our struggles to evolve, not because we fell from grace.
It is time for us to set aside the idea of baptism being a ritual drowning, or cleansing and simply return to the basic facts about water. Water is the very stuff of life. Water is an essential element in the cosmos. Without water life cannot exist. We have and we continue to search the realms of space for evidence of life beyond the Earth. Our forays into space are embodied in a tiny robot searching for signs of water on Mars because we know that where there is water there is life. Our own evolutionary history takes us back to the reality that life began in the oceans and that our reptilian ancestors dragged themselves out of the water and onto the land. Scientists tell us that our very bodies are comprised of water; more than sixty percent of our bodies is comprised of water. We cannot survive for very many days without water. In the beginning, we float in the waters of the womb, our birth is heralded in the breaking of our mother’s waters.
Water is in and of itself sacred. Baptism is a ritual expression of what is. Baptism doesn’t bring anything special. Baptism opens us to what already is. The waters of baptism open us to that which is beyond us, to the more than; to the sacred. When we bring babies to the waters of baptism, we don’t make them special or holy, or sacred, we ritually recognize that they are special, that they are holy, that they are sacred. In baptism, we are reminded of our sacredness. Baptism is a beautiful welcoming moment in which the full potential of LOVE is glimpsed. All that hope all that potential, I can’t help but well up with joy at the very possibility that all the challenges that Jesus lived his life to teach us about, all the challenges to the way we are, come to us in the waters of baptism. In the waters of baptism, we see beyond the drops of water to the very stuff that nourishes, grounds, and sustains us in this life, and we also see the possibilities of what life might become if we love one another. When the waters of baptism touch the head of a child, they are anointed with possibility, the possibility of love, the possibility of peace, the possibility of joy, and yes, the possibility of pain. And all that possibility comes to them in the context of a community that is both renewed by such beautiful potential and refreshed by the challenges of living into that baptism. For the Body into which we are born in the waters of baptism is the is the body of Christ, an incomplete body of imperfect people who are doing their best to follow a path toward a world in which everyone is loved; everyone has enough, and everyone can live in peace.
Just as the gospel-story-tellers crafted stories about Jesus’ baptism which enabled their people to recognize the sacred in Jesus, we too must craft our stories about baptism in ways that enable us to recognize the sacred in one another and I do mean the other. It is easy to see the sacred in a baby or in a loved one, but how do we see the sacred in the other? How do we see the sacred in the enemy? How do we recognize the sacred in the terrorist? How do we see the sacred in the people we don’t like; especially in those people who insist that they are “very stable geniuses”? How must the way we tell our stories change so that everyone can recognize the sacred in this life? What epiphanies await us? What do we need to do to facilitate those epiphanies? What needs to happen in us so that we can begin to recognize the sacred in our enemies?
We can’t continue to tell our sacred stories just the way we’ve always told them. Creation needs more than we seem prepared to give. And yet, what is being asked of us, was asked of our ancestors and they found ways to open generations to the sacred in their midst. Surely, we can learn to tell our stories, to enact our rituals and to be LOVE to one another in ways that transcend religions, cultures, and old hatreds?
A long time ago, a very dear Sikh, friend of mine, Sarginda Singh, introduced me to the Hindu word, Namaste. Namaste is a greeting which means that the God in me recognizes the God in you. Sarginda, went to great pains to remind me that we Christians have a similar greeting: Peace be with you. According to Sarginda this is how Christians, say “The Christ in me, greets the Christ in you.” Jewish people say, Shalom, and Muslims say Salem a lachum. The God in me, sees the God in you.
I suspect that until we find a way to see the sacred in everyone, humanity will remain stuck in a cycle of violence, which threatens to destroy us all. What do we need to facilitate an epiphany that will allow old enemies to recognize the sacred in one another? What do we need to do to remember that everyone that we call “enemy” was Those once beautiful baby full of all sorts of potential, who despite their actions remains a beloved part of creation? What role did our way of life play in their descent into sin? What role does injustice play in our failure to thrive as a species? What steps can we take to facilitate the kind of epiphanies that will allow humanity to evolve beyond our warring madness?
People have a habit of not recognizing what’s in front of us. What work do we need to do in our world and in our lives so that the sacred in each one is recognized? Namaste, Peace, Shalom, Salem a lechem, the God in me recognizes the God in you. Namaste. As we begin to understand that the ONE we call God is so much more than we can begin to imagine, perhaps we can begin to approach intimacy with the Divine. What new ways of being in the world need to evolve so that all may know and the intimacy in which we hear our Creator’s LOVE, “That’s my child. That one right there brings me such pleasure. On that child, my favour rests!”
You are God’s beloved! Namaste, Peace, Shalom, Salem a lechem, the God in me recognizes the God in you. Namaste.