On Monday, Western Christendom celebrated Epiphany as we heralded the arrival of wise folk from the East, from a place we know call Iran. By Wednesday, the world was mourning the crash of Ukrainian Airlines flight 752 over the skies of Iran. By Friday, it was clear that the crash was no accident, that 176 people were murdered by some not so wise folk from the East in retaliation for the assassination of the most celebrated of all Iranian Generals. By Saturday, the pundits, the folks who claim to be wise, continued to argue over who is to blame. Was Iran totally responsible or does the orange ruler who sits on the most powerful throne on the planet ultimately to blame for plunging the world into madness? Today, still reeling from the reality that so many of the victims of this insanity were our very own kin, returning to Canada after visiting family and friends. Today, Canadians and Iranians are united in grief; grief at the loss of life, grief at the apparent inevitability of war as systems of domination clash. Today, we gather to do what Christians do on the Sunday after Epiphany, we gather to remember our baptism through the stories told by our ancestors about the baptism of Jesus of Nazareth.
What possible wisdom, comfort, or challenges can this story of a baptism which happened in the Jordan River nearly 2000 years ago offer to us on a day like today? Not much. Not much that is if we choose to remember this story the way the church all too often remembers this story. For centuries the church has adopted a kind of collective amnesia when it comes to baptism. We have chosen to forget the power of this story to inspire resistance to the very systems which continue to prevent us from living in peace. We have forgotten so very many of the contours of this story which, if remembered drag us out of our preoccupation with our own selfish needs toward a lifestyle of resistance to what has become the status quo. Where once the story of Jesus Baptism inspired his followers to deny allegiances to the powers that be so in order to take upon themselves a new way of being in the world, generations of amnesia have left us marching in lock-step to the drumbeat of violence even as we claim allegiance to the Prince of Peace.
So, what have we 21st century would be followers of Jesus, forgotten about this story of Jesus baptism in the first century? Well, for starters we have forgotten that our first century ancestors risked everything when they chose to be baptized. Jesus contemporaries lived under the oppression of not one but two domination systems. Under the domination of what was the mightiest Empire the world had ever seen, first century people living in Palestine whether they be Jew or Gentile were required on pain of death to swear allegiance to Rome. The act of swearing allegiance was called in Latin a “sacramentum” – that’s right our word sacrament comes from the word sacrementum which means “to vow” or to “swear an oath” or “to pledge allegiance.” Continue reading