The Paradox of Jesus’ Baptism

17 04 2013

Life, especially life in Key West, is full of contradictions and paradoxes.  Consider our sister parish, St. Paul’s.  It is home to the first Episcopal parish in all of Florida.  People go in and out every day for some peace, a chance to meditate or pray or just even to marvel at the stained glass windows.  One block away, there is a three story bar which has a roof deck ironically (or appropriately, depending on your point of view) called “The Garden of Eden.”  Across the street from that is a mansion which has been turned into apartments with a wine bar on the first floor, but 150 years ago it was the home of a doctor whose life’s work was to treat and hopefully cure those dying of yellow fever.  Looking a little closer to home, we are here in the heart of town with a beautiful space in our own rights, but I hear a rumour that there is a crack house a few blocks away.

Many who live here call it paradise.  Just as many call it something else.  For as many who call this island home and would never think of leaving, there are just as many lost souls who feel trapped, abandoned and alone.

Jesus was no stranger to paradox or contradiction.  In the Gospels of Matthew and Luke we see the authors tracing his lineage all the way back to Adam.  We see his ancestors are full of people he can brag about, and also lots of people he probably would like to forget; people whose lives are full of tragic choices and flaws, as well as joyous triumphs.  Jesus was the Messiah, but he did not come on a big white horse or as a conquering hero.  In fact, this holiest of men was accused of  being illegitimate, and the people he decided to hand around with were generally not considered polite society.

Today’s Gospel lesson is also a portrait of paradox.  Jesus gets baptized by his cousin, John.  This begs the question, “Why?  Why does he do this?”  At its heart, baptism is an act of repentance, of turning away from the things of this world and a commitment to a way of life where the focus is the things of God, especially of loving each other.  It could be argued that it was unnecessary for Jesus because it is taught that Jesus was sinless and blameless and that he had nothing to repent of.  It is even all the more remarkable because John the Baptist’s ministry has centered on preparing people for the coming Messiah by repenting and being baptized.  Not only that, up to this point the Gospel of Luke has focused on just how special and holy a person Jesus was.

The answer, I think, of why a sinless and blameless person lines up with everyone else in an act of repentance can be found in the mystery of the Incarnation.  If you even take a cursory reading of the Old and New Testament you will see there is a big difference in how God deals with humanity.  In the Incarnation, God decides to come here, to earth and to live just like we do.  God decides to face the choices and temptations we all must confront on this journey we call life.

Jesus was born into a fallen world, just like we were.  Jesus knows what it’s like to face all the choices we make, so his baptism is an act of solidarity with us again the powers of Sin and Death.  But notice how he does it!  he simply gets in line with everyone else.  In the Gospel of Luke, there is no big ceremony, no crowds parting for him as he approaches.  He simply shows up and stands alongside all the downtrodden, the sick, the broken, the lost.  Jesus is standing with those who have no where else to go, those who have given up on themselves and joins them.

In his baptism, Jesus is identifying with a damaged and broken people who need God.  It is a first step on the Cross, the first act of ministry which ends with the phrase, “It is finished.”

After his Baptism, Jesus goes off to pray.  even the Son of God realizes that he cannot do anything on his own, so he reaches out to the Father, the Source of Everything, and then the Holy Spirit comes to be with him, to give him the strength to keep on loving us for all of our failures and to be faithful even when we are not.  Remember, this is the One who created the world.  As it says in the Gospel of John, “Through Him all things were made,” and yet he decides that we are people worth loving and ultimately worth dying for.  That love will ultimately prove to be stronger than Death itself.

If we return to our first reading in Isaiah, we find his words written for a nation in exile still resonate today.  We see a God who is both Creator and Redeemer before we even leave the first verse. “He who created you, who has formed you, now has redeemed you.”  Not only that, Isaiah goes on to say, “I have called you by name and you are mine.  I will be with you.”  Of course, one of the names that we have for Jesus is Emmanuel, which means “God is with us.”

Even in the middle of exile, of occupation, God calls Israel precious in his sigh.  The choices we make and our own shortcomings do not prompt God to stop loving us or claiming us as his own, even if it is a mess we create for ourselves.  Because God lived and dwelt among us, the Good News I have for you today is that God Himself knows everything you are going through because God Himself has experienced it.  The Good News I have for you today is because of our own Baptism we are marked as “Christ’s own forever” and nothing can separate us from his love and grace.

We don’t have to worry about being respectable or cleaning up our act.  In our Baptism, we ARE made clean.  The same Holy Spirit that was with Jesus is with us today, guiding us along as we follow in the footsteps of Christ.

In a moment, we will renew our Baptismal Vows.  As we do so, and we reply to each other, “I will with God’s help,” let that be a prayer so we will have the necessary strength and endurance to show God’s love to a hurt, broken and lost world just like Jesus did.

“We thank you Father for the waters of Baptism.  In it we are buried with Christ in his death.  By it we share in his resurrection.  Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit.  We thank you that by water and Holy Spirit you have bestowed on us your servants the forgiveness of sin and have raised us to a new life of grace.  Sustain us, O Lord, giving us an inquiring and discerning heart; the courage and will to persevere; a spirit to know and to love you; and the gift of joy and wonder of all your works.”


Easter is not for the Past

16 04 2013

Text:  John 21

There are quite a few times in our lives when we may experience a case emotional or sensory overload. In fact, in today’s day in age when we are constantly bombarded by television, radio, magazines, and not to mention everything that comes with the internet such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube … add all that to what it means just to get through our day, we may throw our hands up to heaven and say, “STOP THE WORLD I WANT TO GET OFF!!”  Some people have professional and work lives that are so stressed that they make sure they find some kind of solace at home.  Others’ home lives are so filled with turmoil they throw themselves into their work.  And yet there are still others, like a colleague of mine who confided in me just this week, that there have been dramatic changes at home and at work that he has no idea where to turn and he is just trying to keep afloat. He tries to find peace and sanity in the mundane ordinary things just to give his life a sense of normalcy.

In today’s Gospel reading, we find the disciples in a place where they have just come through the most emotional and hair-raising experiences of their lives.  From their point of view, it was not two weeks ago that they saw Jesus enter Jerusalem to shouts of Hosanna as he rode into the city on a donkey.  It was not two weeks ago that they had the most extraordinary Passover meal.  They witnessed their teacher, their friend, whom they had lived with for a few years, betrayed by one of their own, arrested, given a mockery of a trial and then executed like a common criminal.   He was then given a decent burial only by the generosity of one his secret followers.  And then three days later, they met him … Jesus had risen.  Back from the dead.  Not as a ghost, but in the flesh.  And he keeps showing up.  Showing up and proving that not even locked doors could keep the risen Christ away as we heard last week in the story of Thomas.  From the earth-shattering lows of the crucifixion, to the extreme highs of the empty tomb and the resurrection, it is no small wonder that they needed some time alone to process it all, to get their head around what they had just gone through and let the enormity of what they had witnessed just sink in.

Like many of us when we go through times of emotional stress, and like my colleague at work, we try to do things which bring a sense of normalcy, to find a way to be grounded by doing the mundane things that we always do.  So … Peter, a fisherman by trade, speaks up … and says … “I’m going fishing.”  But … like everyone else who has an encounter with the Risen Christ, Peter and the disciples find out that it’s not so easy just to slip away.  They find that once you meet Jesus, your life is never the same.

Now, there is a lot to unpack here, so please bear with me if I jump around a bit.  The disciples find Jesus on the shore of Galilee after having spent the night catching fish to no avail.  The nets are empty.  Jesus calls to them and asks if they were successful during the night and their reply was a disappointed “no.”  But notice that they don’t recognize him even though they have met him at least twice before.  But then Jesus says, “Try it my way.  Cast your nets to the other side and see what happens.” And wonder of wonders, they have the most amazing catch of fish, enough to feed themselves several times over.  At this point, one of the disciples recognizes him.  Peter then is overcome with joy and rushes towards Jesus without any thought to the fact that he left his clothes in the boat. The disciple who first recognized Jesus is the one they call “the Beloved Disciple” or “the Disciple Whom Jesus Loved.”  This is the one who, during the Last Supper, spent the evening reclining at Jesus’ breast.  Perhaps if we, too, spent more time reclining with Jesus, in quiet time with God in prayer and meditation, in finding our rest in him instead of trying finding our own ways of escape what the world throws our way, we might better be able to recognize when Jesus shows up in our own lives.

The abundance of their breakfast after a long night when it seemed they might not have anything to eat at all recalls to our mind the feeding of the multitude on the Sea of Galilee … the same sea where they currently went fishing.  It reminds the disciples … and US … that the abundance of generosity of God’s grace does not belong to the past, but to the present.  How often we lament how wonderful things used to be when we were children, when we first fell in love, or even how great things were even two or three years ago; but we must never forget the blessings of the past are only foreshadows of the promises of the future.  The Easter Story; the encounter with the flesh and blood Risen Christ is not a one-time event.  It is something we carry with us today; it is a part of who we are as People of God; and we are reminded of that when we least expect it.  It is a reminder that no matter how hard they try to make things work or to make ends meet, the disciples cannot do anything on their own without the help of Jesus.

Our story now turns to Peter.  Three times Jesus asks Peter if he loves him which reminds us of how Peter denied Jesus three times.  The entire scene with Peter is like a reversal and restoration of all the damage that has been done, not just in the denial of Christ, but in how much we hurt each other, ourselves, our city.  It shows how the Grace and Forgiveness of God is so much more powerful than anything we can ever do.  Notice that Jesus doesn’t ask Peter if he was sorry for what he did, even if he felt bad for what he did or understood what he did.  Jesus asked Peter if he loved him; and at the end of all of our struggles, the end of all of our history; that is what matters.  Peter was so overjoyed to see Jesus he raced to be with him as fast as could even though he was naked.  It is as if the Adam’s shame at being naked in the presence of God had been taken away as if it never were.

Our story shows that God is willing to entrust ministry and the Gospel message to a group of people whose lives are marked by impetuousness, denial, betrayal, vanity and doubt. Like all of the stories in the Bible, the overarching theme is not about how mankind went looking for God, but how God came and found us.    In our darkest moments, in our hunger, in our failures, in our poverty and in our desperation just to hang on, we can recall to mind that at the beginning of the story in the Gospel of John, we read that the “light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.”

We cannot reduce the stories of Jesus and the wonders of his ministry and miracles to things that happened in the past or metaphors to talk about over tea.  The Good News that I have for you today is that the Easter Proclamation that Christ is Risen does not belong to a time long ago or a place far away.  It belongs to us in the here and now.