Saturday, 4 March 2017

A Baptism of Non Conformity

Trinity College Bristol and Bristol Baptist College
Academic Awards Ceremony  4th March 2017

Matthew 3.13-17 Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him.  14 John would have prevented him, saying, "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?"  15 But Jesus answered him, "Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness." Then he consented.  16 And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.  17 And a voice from heaven said, "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased."

When I received the invitation to speak
            at today’s Academic Awards Celebration,
I was asked what passage I would like to preach on.

And so I found myself picturing the congregation:
            theologically educated graduates
                        of the finest theological colleges the West of England has to offer,
            together with their proud and supportive family and friends.

And I thought to myself,
            ‘I know, I’ll preach on Baptism, what could possibly go wrong?
            ‘Surely with all of our study, and our careful commitment to ecumenism,
                        the founding rite of the Christian church
                        offers safe ground on which to stand
                        on an occasions such as this?’

Well, we’ll see.

But before we turn to our engagement with our passage from Matthew’s gospel,
            I would just like to observe that I seem to be having
            something of what I would call an ‘Ecumenical Week’.

On Tuesday, the church where I serve in London, Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church,
            hosted an evening with Archbishop Rowan Williams
                        in conversation with Professor Mona Siddiqui
            on the future of Christian-Muslim relationships.

Then, on Wednesday, I was participating in the service of Ashing
            at King’s College London, where I am the Baptist Chaplain.
Those of us getting our fingers dirty included:
            a Roman Catholic lay woman, and Orthodox priest,
            a Baptist minister, and an Anglican vicar.
And whilst there as joy in the ecumenism of the moment,
            there was also sadness in our shared recognition
            that we have so broken the body of Christ
            that we are unable to share in communion together.

And then, tomorrow, and I’m trying to say this without sounding too smug,
            I shall be preaching at the 11.30 sung Eucharist at St Paul’s Cathedral.
            A truly remarkable act of ecumenical inclusion by the Canon Chancellor.
But do you know what has been worrying me most about tomorrow morning?
            It’s not what I shall say, it’s what I shall wear!
The instructions I received indicated robes ‘according to the season’!
            (whatever that means!!!)
But I can’t wear those, because I am not an Anglican priest,
            and my baptism has not been confirmed by a Bishop.
It’s that brokenness again,
            that lies at the heart of all our efforts for unity.

In the end I simply wrote to St Paul’s and said that I was happy
            to wear whatever they deemed appropriate
            for Baptist minister to wear in their pulpit,
and they have suggested a black academic gown:
            recognising my training,
            but not, of course, my baptism and ordination.

And so we come to Matthew’s account of the Baptism of Jesus.

At the heart of our reading today from Matthew’s gospel
            is something of a mystery,
and it’s a mystery that has puzzled people
            from John the Baptist himself,
            to the biblical scholars of our own time.

And the mystery is this:
            Why does Jesus come to John for baptism?
            What was Jesus thinking when he came to John for baptism?

Was it a baptism of repentance for sins committed?
            If it was, then this is somewhat out of step
                        with the dominant Christian teaching
                        that Jesus was sinless and had no need of repentance?

Was it a baptism of solidarity with sinners,
            with Jesus simply standing alongside those who did need to repent?
Possibly, although it’s not clear why baptism by John is necessary for this,
            unless it is simply to underline
            what has already happened at the incarnation.

If this is a question that puzzles modern readers,
            we can take some comfort from the fact
            that it also seemed to puzzle John himself.
We’re told that John initially tried to prevent Jesus from being baptised,
            asking instead that Jesus should baptise him.
But Jesus argued back by saying, somewhat enigmatically,
            ‘Let it be so for now,
            for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness.’ (v.15)

And here we find our first clue,
            as we begin to grapple with the mystery of Jesus’ baptism.

Jesus is baptised by John to ‘fulfil all righteousness’.

The Jewish insight was that because God is righteous,
            so his people are to be righteous in their behaviour.

Or, to put it another way,
            ‘Righteousness’ was considered a visible sign
                        in the life of God’s people,
            confirming their status as members of God’s covenant community.

How did you know whether you were part of God’s people?
            You knew because of righteousness.
            It was a sign of the covenant

So when people departed from righteous living,
            when they worshipped other gods,
            or failed to keep the commands of the Lord,
they were considered to be breaking the covenant,
            and the ancient Jewish prophets, such as Elijah,
                        would call them to repentance,
                        to a turning back to righteousness,
            and to a rediscovery of life lived in covenant relationship
                        with the God of righteousness.

From John the Baptist’s perspective,
            the society of his day had departed from the covenant;
                        it had lost its focus on righteousness,
                        and needed to turn, to repent, and to start living differently.

So the baptism of John was a rallying call
            for all those who wanted to join him
                        in his rejection of society;
            it was a baptism of turning away,
                        a baptism of abandonment of the dominant values
                        of his society and religion.
It was a baptism that marked a commitment
            to live life in a very different way
            from that which the world was demanding.

In the midst of all the pressures to conform,
            be they ideological pressures,
                        theological pressures,
                                    or sociological pressures,
John invited people to turn away from an unrighteous society
            and to turn towards a new way of living.

He called them to enter into the life of a new kingdom,
            where God was once again the focus of existence,
and behaviour was determined by obedience to God,
            not conformity to the status quo.

By this reading,
            John’s baptism was a radical and non-conformist baptism.
It was an outward sign of an inward commitment
            to rejection of an unrighteous society,
and a turning towards an alternative,
            God-focussed, way of being.

So, when Jesus came to be baptised by John,
            ‘to fulfil all righteousness’,
he was aligning himself with the non-conformist and radical nature
            of John’s challenge to first century Jewish society.

It wasn’t a baptism for the forgiveness of his personal sins,
            rather, it was an act of public repudiation of conformity.

It was a rejection of the compromises
            by which his inherited religious tradition
            had entered into its uneasy alliance with the powers that be,
and it was an act of commitment to the recovery
            of the true meaning of the covenant
            as the in-breaking of God’s justice and righteousness on the earth.

The challenge which John brought to the world
            of first-century, second Temple Judaism,
is a challenge that echoes down the millennia to us as well.

It is a relevant challenge to us, because humans,
            be they first or twenty-first century humans,
have a tendency to compromise,
            a tendency to set aside righteousness,
and a tendency to then justify that compromise
            as necessary, pragmatic, or expedient.

‘It’s just the way the world is’, we tell ourselves.
            ‘We can’t change it, so we might as well join it’, we say.

We conform, and then we try to justify our conformity,
            as we try to justify ourselves,
by making the same move in our own time
            that John challenged in the first century
            with his baptism of repentance.

The baptism of Jesus at the hands of John
            was an expression of his commitment
                        to a radical, non-conformist alternative.

Jesus’ baptism was him consciously and publicly aligning himself
            with the radical revolution of the Kingdom of God,
                        where compromise is rejected,
                        and conformity confounded.

In many ways, in our various traditions,
            we have lost the political significance of baptism;
and yet Jesus’ baptism at the hands of John
            points to a profoundly and radically politicised act.

The days when Baptism into the established church
            marked a child’s political allegiance to the state
            are long gone from these shores;
as are the days when those dissenting from that church
            on a conviction regarding believers’ Baptism
            were to be regarded as heretical or traitorous.

But nonetheless baptism is, or should be, more than a symbol
            of our personal forgiveness
            and of our identification with Christ in his death and resurrection.
It is also a sign of our entry
            into a radical, revolutionary, and counter-cultural lifestyle
                        that rejects the status quo of conformity
            and yearns, longs, and lives for a world transformed,
                        a world re-imagined, a world reconfigured.

Baptism is the initiatory act
            of the convicted revolutionaries
            of the in-breaking kingdom of God

It is a rejection of conformist religion,
            and it is something people take upon themselves
            to mark their membership of, and entering into,
                        a radical new way of living.

To be baptised in any of our traditions
            is to be baptised according to the pattern of Christ,
into an alternative kingdom,
            the kingdom of righteousness and justice.
And it’s this kingdom that is coming into being through Christ,
            the servant who is also the son of God.

The emperors of Rome may have claimed the term ‘son of God’ for themselves
            to legitimate their own rule over the world,
but the voice from heaven, the voice of God
            proclaims Jesus, and Jesus alone,
            as the legitimate son of God.

The earth is the Lord’s and Jesus is his son,
            and all other powers and principalities are merely false pretenders.
Their claims to divine sonship are illegitimate attempts
            to assume a throne and a kingdom
            that does not belong to them.

And so we are back to the political ramifications
            of the baptism of Jesus in the wilderness.

Just as the people of Israel made their exodus from the empire of Egypt
            through the wilderness to promised land;
just as the prophet of the exiles
            proclaimed the hope of a second exile from Babylon;
so Christ, in whom Israel and covenant are fulfilled,
            initiates the third and final exodus
                        from all the corrupt and evil empires of the world,
            as people follow Jesus through the waters of baptism
                        into the new world of justice and righteousness
                        that is the kingdom of God.

Jesus not only identifies himself with John’s radical rejection of conformity,
            but he is proclaimed the personification of Israel,
                        and commissioned as the rightful holder
                        of all power in heaven and on earth.

But, and here is the radical theological insight:
            he holds that power as a servant, not as an emperor.

This is where politics and theology and ministry collide.

Those of us who are set aside through ordination to ministry
            among the churches of our different traditions
do so as servants and not as masters:
            we are not emperors of our churches,
            because we serve the one who came to serve others.

Jesus, the son of God, saves the world not through conquest,
            but through suffering.
He brings new life through death,
            and hope into the darkness.
Because his kingdom is a kingdom of justice and righteousness,
            and it is breaking in upon the earth
            as others catch the vision, and join the movement.

And so Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan,
            to be baptised by him.
And he calls us to follow his example,
            and to join him in his radical and non-conformist vision

            for the transformation of the world.

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