Sunday 13th January – The Baptism of The Lord – Eucharist – Kenneth Boyd
ST JOHN Baptism of Christ (2nd of Epiphany): Isaiah 43.1-7; Acts 8.14-17; Luke 3.15-17, 21-22
“Why don’t they just get on with it?” When people in the street are asked by reporters what they think about Brexit, that’s what many say. “Why don’t they – the politicians – just get on with it?” It’s an understandable response. In a representative democracy, politicians are elected to consider – in more detail than the rest of us have the time or resources to do – what is best for the country, and then to make wise decisions on our behalf. And quite often that is more or less what actually happens. But then there are also times, like the present, when people as well as politicians are very divided on what is best for the country; and the ‘it’ that some people want politicians to get on with, is the opposite of the ‘it’ that other people want them to get on with. How, or even if, this can be resolved politically in the present circumstances, is not for a sermon to say. Each of us will have our own political views, to which we have come on the basis of our own experience and interests. But what also can be said, I believe, is that none of the political views any of us hold are infallible or incontestable. None of us, however strongly we may feel that our views are the right ones, has a monopoly on political wisdom; and none of us, for that matter, has a monopoly on any other kind of wisdom either. It is simply a fact of human nature that each of us inevitably sees the world and one another from our own point of view, and that to truly understand the point of view of other people whose views differ from ours – and crucially, to do that without abandoning our own point of view – is incredibly difficult, perhaps humanly impossible.
And yet that perhaps humanly impossible possibility, is what the event we celebrate this morning, the Baptism of Christ, is all about – about God, without abandoning God’s own view of things, truly understanding the point of view, the many points of view, of human beings. Now to speak about God doing that of course, is to speak about what we truly cannot comprehend: we cannot get our minds round what we mean by the word ‘God’. Where other people are concerned, we can both know them personally as ‘you’, and also know observable things about them, as ‘his’ or ‘her’ human characteristics, endearing maybe or sometimes irritating. But where God is concerned, there are no observable things that we can say about God: all we can say about God is about how it feels to pray to ‘You’ or ‘Thou’, and then to sense, more deeply than words, the grace of God’s forgiveness, acceptance and challenge. But what if the sceptic in us then says: ‘That mere feeling or sense is not a true view of the real world’? Well then perhaps, we should ask ourselves the same question about someone, another person, whom we love and care for. “Is the true, real-world, view of that person we love and care for, all about the observable things that can be said about them? Or is it all about who they, like we, are, in ourselves, and in our personal relations with one another?” It’s all-too-easy, in other words, to fall into the assumption that the true view of the real world is an observable one taken from an imaginary omniscient overview of the world, an overview from which the earth appears as an insignificant planet in the impersonal vastness of space, with human beings scuttling around on it like cockroaches. But that view of course is an illusion: for in reality we have no such omniscient overview, only the fragmentary observations of science which are always provisional and never provide a final picture of everything; and it is only megalomaniac dictators and their cronies, before they fall, who are sufficiently self-deluded to talk of other human beings as cockroaches. The only real, omniscient overview, if such there be, is God’s view, and that view is of a very different kind.
God’s view is of a very different kind. But how do we know that? In one sense, of course, we cannot know it. But in another sense, in the sense we know one another as ‘you’ and the mystery of God as ‘Thou’, in that sense, as we think about the life and teaching, the suffering, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ, we sense more deeply than words, that ‘he who shows us God/helpless hangs upon the tree;/and the nails and crown of thorns/tell of what God’s love must be’. How this can be, we cannot tell; and the language of God sending his Son to die for us indeed can sometimes get in the way, especially if it is said not ‘with awe and wonder and with bated breath’, but too glibly, routinely, almost as if it were from some Greek myth involving a distant God, and his Son who really only seemed to be human as he descended to earth. How this can be, how God could be ‘in Christ reconciling the world to himself’, we cannot tell. But as we pray and worship, as we feel the grace of God’s forgiveness, acceptance and challenge, and as we try, and fail, and try again, to respond to this grace in our daily lives, then, again more deeply than in words, we know, in our hearts, that it is true.
And that is what we celebrate today in the Baptism of Christ: God, without abandoning God’s own view of things, truly understanding the point of view, the many points of view, of human beings. In today’s Gospel, St Luke tells us that ‘all the people’ and then ‘Jesus also’ were baptised: but a few verses earlier he said that the baptism by John was ‘a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’. How could that apply to Jesus, if as the Church would later maintain, Jesus was sinless? But then that was not how Jesus’ own religious contemporaries regarded him, a man who kept company with sinners – doing indeed what many of his own later more straight-laced followers would condemn. Perhaps the answer lies in what St Paul wrote to the Corinthians [2.Cor 5.21], that God made Christ ‘to be sin who knew no sin’ – a dark saying, but one that becomes a little clearer when we recall that sin can be social as well as individual, and that what may be seen as an individual’s sins are often to some extent consequences of the individual’s circumstances. This is the inevitable mixture of good and evil, of what can and cannot be avoided, in human nature; and Jesus’ willingness to be baptised as a sign of ‘repentance for the forgiveness of sins’ was the measure of his willing acceptance of human nature, of his willingness to be one of us, as deeply involved in the uncertainties and limitations of human nature as we all are, and so of truly understanding our human point of view – of truly understanding our human point of view, but at the same time not abandoning the view of the one he prayed to as his Abba, Father; and thereby keeping his heart and mind true to the possibilities promised that same human nature by the ever-renewing love of God.
But that was then, and what of now? Our reading from Acts tells of the Samaritans who had ‘accepted the word of God’ and been ‘baptised in the name of the Lord Jesus’ but had not received the Holy Spirit until the Apostles ‘laid their hands upon them’. Why was this necessary? One way of understanding that story might be in terms of how the early Christians were organising the church and its practices. But there is, I think, a deeper meaning, of relevance to us today. At his Baptism, Jesus demonstrated his willingness to be one of us, infusing our human point of view with that of his Father, bringing heaven to earth. And because of this, after he had walked our earth, the heaven to which he ascended was not far away, but as near as in his human lifetime. His Spirit moreover, did not confine itself to churches and their activities, though it was, if not always, to be found there. His Spirit, rather, went out into all the world, and in all the world is as active now as ever, active everywhere, for those with eyes to see, with faith and love to understand.
The Spirit is no unworldly abstraction. The Spirit is what prompts us to use our imagination, in order to understand what Jesus meant when he said ‘what you do to the least of my brothers and sisters you do to me’. The Spirit is what prompts us to understand that, and what urges us to act accordingly. What that means today, for example, is that at the very least, we can never think, let alone speak, of asylum seekers in the English Channel or at the Mexican Border, as ‘them’ and not ‘us’. However the difficult politics work out, that must be where we stand: we can do no other. To truly understand the point of view of other people who views differ from ours, and to do that without abandoning our own point of view, again, is incredibly difficult. But if that is what God in Christ has done for us, we must go on trying, undefeated as long as we have gone on trying.
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