How many ways can you tell a story, particularly a family story? Each person remembers the event slightly differently, or focuses on a different detail, or it has a somewhat different meaning or importance for each person telling it, yet it is the same shared story – the sort of story that binds families together.
Last week when I was visiting and travelling with my son in the Netherlands we went to stay overnight with my cousin Peg who lives in Brussels. She is my second cousin, and we hadn’t seen each other in at least six or seven years. In that time her sons have grown up and are both at university, so we were lucky to be able to have dinner with them; it was the last night of their Christmas holiday. The conversation eventually came around to her grandmother and my grandfather who were siblings. Peg had some questions about what I knew and remembered, and where certain family names came from. As we talked, the next generation listened in: Jack, Meg, Alex and Nicholas – hearing the stories of their own family, creating bonds and a sense of family identity that was larger than either of our nuclear families. For Peg and me, and to a lesser extent for her husband Anders, there was renewal of our family ties and our sense of belonging.
The Gospel reading we have heard today is another one of those “family stories.” It relates the baptism of Jesus at the hand of John the Baptist, his cousin. Matthew and Luke tell this story, too – each in their own way. The Gospel of John refers to the event, but doesn’t actually describe it – but that’s John for you….always telling the story from a very different angle.
Mark, in his typical fashion, is in a rush to tell us the Good News – and in as few words as possible; we all have family members like that, don’t we – direct and to the point. Jesus arrives where John is baptizing people, engaged in his ministry of getting them ready for the Kingdom of God to arrive. And then as one translation puts it: "Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. The moment he came out of the water, he saw the sky split open and God’s Spirit, looking like a dove, come down on him. Along with the Spirit, a voice: “You are my Son, chosen and marked by my love, pride of my life.” (The Message)
It is from here that the Spirit drives Jesus out into the wilderness to be tested by ordeal before beginning his public ministry. His baptism isn’t just a private moment of revelation and affirmation for Jesus alone. Instead, it is the jumping off place for Jesus to reach out to a much wider and larger circle of people, to begin to bring God’s Kingdom to fruition right in their midst.
John was baptizing those who came to him for repentance, a symbol of their turning away from sin and smallness of heart and going their own way, and turning towards God – getting ready for all that God’s future might bring. For Jesus to show up on the riverbank and ask to be baptized sometimes seems strange to us: Why should Jesus be baptized? What does he need to repent of? John the Baptist even says that he is not worthy to bend down and untie Jesus’ shoes! Yet Jesus comes for baptism anyway, to be part of those who are aligning themselves with this new movement that God is inaugurating, to claim his identity as part of the People of God. In doing so, Jesus has an experience, a pretty overwhelming spiritual experience. The heavens are torn open, the Spirit descends in the form of a dove, and he hears the voice of God saying to him: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well-pleased.” This is the voice and the sense of identity that Jesus carries with him into the wilderness, into his ministry, and to which (I imagine) he returns often in prayer and meditation. “You are my Son, the Beloved” – his identity.
From the earliest days of the Church Jesus’ followers have been baptized by water and the Spirit – not only as a mark of repentance, forgiveness, and a new start, but also for a new identity and to receive God’s power. The identity we receive is that of being part of the Body of Christ. Baptism marks the transition from us living for ourselves alone, or even for our family, to living for a much larger group – our sisters and brothers in Christ. We die to ourselves in baptism, so that we may be made alive in Christ and members of one another. We are given a new identity, a new family name.
Christian faith and believing is not just for ourselves and our own salvation and relationship with God, a private and circumscribed experience. Christian faith and practice are for the sake of the world; it is those who follow and belong to Jesus, carrying out God’s mission of renewal and reclamation and wholeness and joy in every arena to which our life takes us. When we are baptized we are given, increasingly, the power and energy and strength to be God’s agents in the world.
Our identity and our mission are twin faces of our baptism: we have been forgiven, reborn, set free, made alive, beloved in this new family of Christ-followers; and we are sent out to do God’s work in the world, following in the footsteps of Jesus, powered by the Holy Spirit, directed by the wisdom of the Father. And because we belong to the family of Christ, we hear God saying to us just what he said to Jesus that day in the River Jordan: “You are my Child, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And just like Jesus, we need to return to that affirmation of our identity and purpose over and over again in prayer and meditation, in the midst of crisis or boredom, as we actively seek to do God’s will, when we are getting ready for bed and when we rise from sleep. It is part of our family story; it is part of what ties us to one another and to Jesus. And our identity and purpose as God’s beloved, baptized children – each and every one of us – is what will carry us forward into God’s future with joy and wholeness and hope.
Let us pray.
Lord Jesus, You were the center of all waters and floods at thy Baptism in the River Jordan, still sanctify the waters of baptism. You were the center of humanity as you gathered your friends, taught the crowds, and faced those who opposed you, grant us to hear your call and follow. You are the center of the new creation, re-gathering your friends and speaking peace, send us out in witness to your mercy. Amen. ~ excerpted from “Litany of the Incarnate Life”, St. Augustine’s Prayer Brook.
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
First Sunday after Epiphany: The Baptism of our Lord
January 11, 2015