On the cusp

This is the text of a sermon for the commemoration of the Baptism of the Lord, in the parish where I am now licensed. The Scriptures it references are Mark 1:4-11 and Acts 19:1-7.

In Tolkien’s epic work, The Lord of the Rings, Frodo Baggins and his travelling companions encounter a perplexing stranger, Tom Bombadil; he has mysterious powers over nature and the weather, and they don’t quite know what to make of him. After a while, Frodo works up the courage to ask, “Who are you?”

Naturally, he doesn’t get a straight answer. Bombadil replies, “Don’t you know my name yet? That’s the only answer. Tell me, who are you, alone, yourself and nameless?”

Frodo has no answer. And Frodo’s not alone in that. Who am I, alone, myself, and nameless? Who are any of us, once we get beneath the names on our badges, or the labels such as “curate,” “music director,” or “vicar”? Perhaps some of that angst, the desire to create identity, to know and be known, is part of what drives the popularity of Facebook, Twitter, blogging… I might not be sure of who I am, but I’ll tell you all about it!

As Christians who worship together in a liturgical service – by which I mean that the way we worship has been carefully thought through, and created to give us an opportunity for a dynamic encounter with God – all of the elements of our worship, the hymns, the sermon, the creed, communion, all of it, should tell us something about, and help us to become, who we are destined to be in Christ. The liturgy itself is designed in part to offer an answer to the question of identity.

But it is baptism above all which marks us, which gives us Christian identity, and which admits us to the fullness of Christian life and worship. In this day and age, where we encourage people to come to church and hope that the experience will allow them to encounter Christ, we forget that in the persecuted early church the practice was completely different. A person did not join the Christian community, was not present for communion, did not even hear the gospel read, until after being baptized; baptism was the watershed encounter with God which made all of the rest possible. Long periods of formal preparation – up to several years – were the norm, and very high ethical standards were expected of those preparing for baptism.

We’ve come a long way since then, and perhaps we are more confident of God’s grace and more humble about our own potential for perfection. But a look backwards at the early practice of the church can remind us that baptism is not a feel-good event, but a crisis moment which shapes everything that follows.

And this is where we can begin to see the significance of Jesus’ baptism. In a dramatic demonstration of his solidarity with fallen humanity, Jesus descended into the water which symbolises chaos, death, disorder and a place not regulated by God. But then he ascended into life in the Spirit. In the meeting place of chaos and the Spirit, there is the beginning of a new life, identified as the life of God’s beloved child.

This is as true for us as it was for Jesus, and as it was for those in Ephesus who were baptized by Paul. Living in accord with our baptism means being confronted with the chaos, the ugliness – dare I say the sin – in our lives, and facing that honestly. It means welcoming the presence of the Holy Spirit into that mess, and celebrating that presence in our brokenness as the beginning of new life, and the new identity to which God calls us.

The chaos of our lives isn’t resolved by a distant and detached God, one who is too holy and fearful to have anything to do with the darkest corners of our heart. With Christmas just barely behind us, we have still fresh in our minds the incredible intimacy of God’s involvement with us. St. Augustine put it as crudely as to say that Christ was born between feces and urine; but we tend forget that, and try to hold Christ at a distance from the grotty bits of our lives. We are tempted to let our sense of shame at our mess override any ability we might have had to yield to him.

If baptism has anything to do with our identity as Christians, then, it cuts across that shame and tells us that we ought to be suspicious of the kind of distance and control which is about hiding or fearfulness. The person alive to his or her baptism is aware of chaos, of the impossibility of being perfect by sheer goodwill and hard thinking. Aware that I must not pretend that my inner life is tidier than it is, or be afraid of confronting sin and chaos. We live amongst the mess of this life, out of which God calls us and forms us. We live on the cusp, as it were; able to look in joy at what God has done, and in hope to face honestly the forces of darkness, looking for what God will do.

To live according to our baptism, then, is daily self-examination and conversion, daily turning into the darkness which we have not yet understood, away from the comforting emotional and intellectual patterns that we can devise for ourselves and use to keep ourselves “safe;” the social structures which justify our individualism, our selfishness, and our complicity in injustice. This vision of what baptism means is not warm and fuzzy; it doesn’t cuddle up to our culture or make us feel good. Rather, it provides us with a lens which can bring the blots on our own life into sharp enough focus to be addressed.

In choosing baptism, in choosing to identify with human life in all its chaos, messiness, and brokenness, Christ found his identity as the beloved son, with whom the Father is well pleased. Each of us might struggle to give a full and complete answer to Tolkien’s question – who are you, alone, yourself, and nameless? – but looking to Christ’s example, we begin to have a sense of what it might mean to answer, I am baptized.

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