Jesus, John and your Baptism
How many birthdays have you had? Only one actually. You have enjoyed many anniversaries of your birth, and been often celebrated I hope, but you were born only once. And how many baptisms have you had? When was that? I know from the parish timeline that Nick Kirby was baptised in 1957, and Declan Liddiard in 2000. And were you baptised Episcopalian? The answer there is easy – No. You were not baptised Episcopalian or Methodist or Lutheran. You were baptised Christian. The denomination, your tribe, came later. You may be Episcopalian but you are baptised into a worldwide family which numbers 2.2 billion, 31% of all the people of earth, a family with a mission, the Christian family.
There are many faces to Christianity these days, most favorable, some not so much. Christians come with different attitudes, different policies, different rallying cries. I remember a bumper sticker which read, “I love Jesus, but his followers frighten me.” Whatever your tribe, somewhere in your present or past, your religion has been frightening. It was when your religion was great; when your religion had power. Honoring your Christianity these days means taking stock of your belief and asking, “Would Jesus endorse my personal Christianity?”
John the Baptist appears in the Gospel this morning, my third and last opportunity to preach about Jesus and John. John appeared December 11, but weather kept me away that Sunday. Jesus and John appeared last Sunday, at Jesus’ baptism, but you were away. Now today, John is reflecting on Jesus’ baptism, saying, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him.” And remember that Jesus said of John, “Never has there appeared on earth a mother’s son greater than John the Baptist, and yet the least in the kingdom of Heaven is greater than he.” (Matt 11.11) What might that be about?
It must be there are differences between John and Jesus, attitudes and policies distinct to each. Baptised into Jesus? Baptised more into John. Which is your religion? Let’s have a look.
You remember John the Baptist was a wild man, stark and strong and aggressive. He preached God was cleaning house, cutting down the wickedness and corruption in the old order, casting all into the fire and starting over. “Even now the ax is aimed at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire… I am plunging you in water, but one who is stronger than I is coming… He will overwhelm you with holy spirit and fire.” (JD Crossan paraphrasing Matt 3.7-12 in Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, p38) For John the time for mercy was past. He knew only good and bad people, and the bad were just about to be whacked. His message trumpeted God’s righteous outrage, and if the people did not repent, they would go with the trees into the fire. His baptism demanded amendment of life, and carried a warning against backsliding.
John expected Israel to be an exclusive community of the righteous, a system of sanctified individuals. He was a new Elijah who would scourge the people and bring them back to God. John believed the kingdom was coming. Be warned, he shouted. God is coming to clean house, and it will not be pretty. The corruption of the times was real, the abuse of power rampant, so there was reason for John’s tirade. The kingdom is almost upon you, and it will come with unquenchable fire, so you’d better get right with God. Does that sound like your Christianity?
Jesus was baptised by John, not so much endorsing a fear of divine retribution, but as a way of standing not opposite from his people, but with his people as a savior. He accepted the baptism of John to be with and among us, one with us, God with us. A first distinction.
Second, Jesus believed the kingdom of God, but not that it was coming as judgment. Jesus believed the kingdom of God is already here, in and among us. Further, the kingdom is among us for hope and reconciliation, not an end of all things. The face of God that Jesus saw was of mercy, of reconciliation, and though the wages of sin are still pain and death, for Jesus there was always a way home. He preached no exclusive community, but all were welcome. And where John talked of the coming fury, Jesus believed that the fulfillment of the kingdom would come through the unrelenting love of God. His kingdom was non-violent. Jesus knew, you and I know, violence only breeds more violence. Have we ever had a recession in our weaponry? Weapons only get bigger and more destructive – stones, then arrows, then bullets, then bombs. In Jesus’ day weapons were capable of death, but not destruction of the whole planet. That is our generation’s legacy. Grace is costly, and the way of Jesus can mean sacrifice, but the kingdom is about grace and hope, a light that the darkness cannot overcome. Even if incomplete, the kingdom is here, and in Jesus God is not out there somewhere as prosecutor, but among us as savior and friend. That is the God Jesus called, “Abba”, beloved Father.
One small distinction remains. John was a sole proprietor. He had disciples, but he was the COO. On the other hand, Jesus commissioned his disciples, and sent out 70, thirty-five teams of two, to go and teach in his name. John was solo, Jesus franchised. When John was executed his movement was over. “Strike the shepherd and the sheep will scatter”, as the proverb goes (cf Matt 26.31). Jesus, on the other hand, commissioned and empowered his disciples, gave the message for them to give away. That is why the movement continues after twenty centuries.
So is John misguided? No indeed, but he is not Jesus. He knew that, and said so. Jesus sent his disciples to carry on – that is you and me. Even the least in the kingdom of Heaven, you and me, have a mission. Bishop Patrick is coming next Sunday. The Church will be whole then – laity, deacon, priest and bishop - all four orders of ministry. We will all renew our baptismal vows - to continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and in the prayers, to persevere in resisting evil, and when we fall into sin repent and return to the Lord, to proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ, to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves, to strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.
Perhaps before the Bishop’s visitation next Sunday you might recover the date of your Baptism.
I don't know what the future of the church is, but I know that we will continue to be a place of sanctuary and hope, working towards healing in the world.