12 January 2014
Baptism of Christ
10. 00 am Communion Hadlow
Readings: Acts 10: 34-43, Matt 3:13 -end
May I speak in the name of God whom we know as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
When talking about your faith, or the fact that you go to church, have you ever heard anyone say: “Oh, I am a spiritual person, but I’m not religious.” Have you ever heard that? Somehow there seems to have arisen a division in the popular imagination between spirituality and religion. When you go into Waterstones there is generally a big section called “Mind, Body & Spirit” filled with all shorts of things from how to read your tarot cards, balancing your charkas in three easy steps, a beginners guide to yoga and so on. And then, if you are lucky, there will be one or two shelves maked ‘religion’ which may have a few different bibles and the biography of Rowan Williams.
Spirituality is seen as exotic, diverse, interesting, self-fulfilling whereas religion, unless it is an Eastern religion perhaps, is perceived as about following rules, going through the motions and as being most definitely not spiritual. On the divide between Eastern and Western religions it is interesting even seeing the TV programs that my children watch that Buddhist Monks are portrayed as cool, not least because they can do Kung Fu, but Christian Monks are often portrayed are being spooky or weird.
So when someone says: “Oh, I am spiritual but not religious” what they are actually saying is that “I am modern, I am in touch with my inner self and I am not stuck in a boring old religious rut, unlike you you poor old thing.”
I have to admit to feeling somewhat puzzled by this apparent division between religion, especially Christianity, and spirituality. I am puzzled for two main reasons: Firstly the history of Christianity is absolutely full of divine mystics who are more than capable of giving any Eastern guru a run for their money – just to pluck a few at random we have people like Francis of Assisi who lived the life of Christ in a direct and mystical manner, Julian of Norwich who had visions of the love underlying the universe and said “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” and, closer to our own time, writers such as Evelyn Underhill have reminded us of the deep spirituality of our own faith.
But the second reason I am puzzled by the apparent division between spirituality and Christianity is that we call God Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Spirit is there at the foundation of our faith. But it is not a vague, individualistic spirituality that is simply about relaxing and making us feel good about ourselves as we are, it is God’s Holy Spirit, who baptizes us, dwells within us and inspires and enthuses us. And I choose my words carefully because to be inspired is, literally, to be in – spirited or filled with the Spirit, and to be enthused comes from the Greek en-theosed which means to be en-Godded, or filled with God.
And, of course, the Holy Spirit features prominently in our readings today as we are celebrating the festival of the Baptism of Christ.
Having been thinking about Jesus as a baby in a manger for the last couple of weeks it feels like a slightly strange change of pace to move suddenly back to the start of his adult ministry and his baptism by John, whom we also thought about a great deal during Advent both preparing the way for the Lord and latterly in Herod’s prison.
However the reason for this chronological shift from nativity to baptism becomes clear when one remembers that we are in the season of epiphany – the season in which the human person Jesus, whether baby or adult, is revealed as being the one anointed by God. Last week we reflected on the epiphany of the Magi and how they recognised the baby Jesus as the new King of the Jews and that they got there not simply by following a star but also by asking for directions from others.
In today’s reading we have a very public moment of epiphany or revelation when Jesus is baptised in the Jordan and is proclaimed to be the Beloved of God.
But before John will consent to baptise Jesus we have an exchange between them, which occurs only in Matthew and not in the other gospel accounts of the baptism. If you cast your mind back to Advent John had said, only a few verses before today’s reading:
“I baptise with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”
So when the person arrives whom John recognises as the messiah, the one who will baptise with the Holy Spirit, he cannot see why Jesus would need to be baptised by him and says instead that he, John, ought to be baptised by Jesus and, presumably, by the Holy Spirit. John appears to be recognising that the baptism of water that he is offering is but a pale reflection of the baptism that Jesus brings and, therefore, that Jesus can have no need of this immersion.
This reminds me of passages such as Hebrews 8 when we are told that the temple on earth is but a “copy and a shadow” of that which is in heaven. For the more philosophically minded the very word ‘shadow’ should bring to mind Plato with his ‘forms and shadows’ and there is a direct correlation here with the perfect form of the temple or the perfect form of baptism existing in the kingdom of heaven and that our human attempts at both, whether through the high priests in the temple or through the baptism of John are merely shadows of the real thing.
And yet despite the fact that Jesus did not need repentance in the way that John meant it and despite the fact that being immersed in water would not, on the face of it, change Jesus’ existing relationship with God nonetheless Jesus insists on being baptised by John, for the “fulfilment of all righteousness.”
Matthew’s gospel makes frequent use of the concept of ‘fulfilment’, and the way in which Jesus and all that happened around him was the fulfilment of earlier prophecies and scriptures concerning the coming of God’s anointed one. Looked at from the perspective of fulfilment John is strongly identified as the old testament prophet Elijah who was to return before the messiah came and it was important for the ministry of the forerunner to be fulfilled before the ministry of the messiah is to start. Jesus is making it clear that there is a proper order to be followed here – John must fulfil his ministry of baptism by immersing Jesus who will then be shown forth to the world as the next and final step in God’s plan to bring the world back to righteousness.
And so Jesus entered the Jordan and was immersed in its waters. However, unlike the probably hundreds of others who received the water of baptism at the hands of John, Jesus also receives the baptism of the Holy Spirit and the audible anointing of God the Father:
“…At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him. And a voice from heaven said “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”
And so who is this Holy Spirit who descended on Jesus at his baptism? Well, first and foremost, Christians believe that the Holy Spirit is God himself, but is neither God the Father, nor God the Son. The Holy Spirit is a separate person from the Father and the Son but is equally God with them in the trinity. The image of Jesus’ baptism is the image par excellence of the trinity – God the Father sending God the Holy Spirit onto God the Beloved Son.
So Jesus was baptised, in both the water of the Jordan and in the Holy Spirit. When Jesus ascended to God the Father he said that he would send a guide and comforter to his church until he returned and the Holy Spirit descended on the Church during Pentecost – making the people of his church into living temples of the Holy Spirit. Jesus commanded his followers to go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit and one of the greatest privileges and responsibilities of my role here is to follow Jesus’ command by doing exactly that.
It is an awesome thing to remember that we as a Church and we as individuals are temples of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit gives us the gifts that we need to be the children of God, the Spirit calls us together here to worship, the Spirit impels us towards the Father and the Son, it is the Spirit that inspires and enthuses us.
So whatever false distinctions the world may make between spirituality and religion we don’t need to fall into the same mind-set. Our faith is Spiritual to its core and throughout its history – Christian Spirituality is about Holy Spirituality.