St Francis, Terriers - Baptism of Christ (08.01.2017)

Tony Dickinson

In the Eastern Church at this time of year they like to go for a swim – well, not a swim exactly. In the Russian Orthodox Church on the Feast of the Epiphany people go out from the liturgy, cut a cross-shaped hole in the ice over the nearest stretch of water, strip down to their swimsuit or Speedos and plunge in. They do this as a powerful identification with the baptism of Jesus, which we celebrate today, and as a way of remembering their own baptism.

Our own celebrations this morning will be more modest, though we too will be remembering our baptism with a ceremony involving water. That, however, will happen at the font inside this building, rather than outside in a frozen lake or river. The Church of England, you may be thinking, wimps out again! But you would be wrong. What we are doing today is more important than the detail of how we are doing it.

The Feast of the Epiphany, you see, is much more than a reminder of the coming of the wise men to worship the infant Jesus. The word “epiphany” means “manifestation” or “revelation”. On the personal level it’s what we sometimes call a “light-bulb moment”, when we suddenly recognise a truth that has so far escaped us, or when we realise that there is a connection, a relationship, of which we have previously been unaware. So, for Christians in the Eastern Church, the key texts for this time of year are not just St Matthew’s description of the coming to the magi, which a few of us heard at the Parish Communion on Friday evening, but St John’s account of the sign that Jesus performed at Cana in Galilee, when he turned water into wine, and the story we have heard just now in this morning’s Gospel, which tells how Jesus came to the river to be baptised by John and what happened then.

What happened then is a classic expression of the truth that the way down is the way up. Jesus joins the crowds who were coming to John for baptism in the river Jordan, “confessing their sins” as St Matthew tells us. John is baffled. He tries to stop him. He asks what Jesus is doing, coming to him for baptism. Oughtn’t it to be the other way round?

John, like most of us, lived in a “top-down” world. As Richard Rohr wrote in his meditation on Friday, “Most of religion… defines reality from the top down. It begins with a transcendent God up there in heaven, and then we try to explain everything down here in relationship to that transcendent God. But what Jesus actually taught was something much more akin to ‘from the bottom up’.” So Jesus goes down into the water, alongside the tax-collectors and other sinners, alongside the members of the religious establishment. He goes down – and when he comes up something strange and wonderful happens.

Now, the story of Jesus’s baptism is one of the very few which appears in all four Gospels. The details may differ, but on one point they are agreed. When he came up out of the water Jesus, and John, and possibly others, had a massive light-bulb moment, an “epiphany”. It became clear to them who Jesus is, and what he is about. “Suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’”

That is a theme which St Luke takes up later in the Acts of the Apostles – not least in the passage which formed our second reading, when Peter tells Cornelius and his household “how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.” Paradoxically, that “doing good” was what led him to the cross. “They put him to death by hanging him on a tree.” “They”, the leaders of the people and the Roman authorities, also lived in a top-down world. “They” found the activity of Jesus disturbing. As another American writer, Brian McLaren, puts it “Rather than seizing, hoarding, and exercising power in the domineering ways of typical kings, conquistadors, and religious leaders, Jesus was consistently empowering others. He descended the ladders and pyramids of influence instead of climbing them upwards, released power instead of grasping at it, and served instead of dominating. He ultimately overturned all conventional understandings of . . . power by purging [it] of violence—to the point where he himself chose to be killed rather than kill.”

It is in that empowering, that service, that overturning, that Jesus fulfils the promise given to the prophet in today’s first reading. Here is the servant who cares for the damaged and desolate, who embodies God’s covenant with the people, but not just “the people”. Jesus is also “a light to the nations”, shining out beyond Israel to bring sight and deliverance to non-Jews, to Cornelius and his household – to us. That too is a light-bulb moment, an epiphany.

The Jesus who comes to John to be baptised is “[God’s] Son, the Beloved, with whom [God is] well pleased.” He is also the Christ into whose death we have been baptised. We, like Jesus, have gone down into the water. We, like Jesus, have been raised by God to new life, life in Jesus. We have been raised to carry on his work, to go about doing good and healing all who are oppressed by the demons of our own age, to preach peace and forgiveness, to be “a light to the nations, to open the eyes of the blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.” Christ has, as St Teresa of Avila pointed out, no hands now on earth but ours, no eyes but ours, no feet but ours on which to “go about doing good”.

In recent days we have heard and read much about the courage of Jill Saward, who died last week at the tragically early age of 51, and about how she transformed the consequences of the horrific experience of being raped in her home by forgiving her assailants, how through that experience she was empowered to become an effective advocate for the victims of sexual violence. She had been down to depths which no one would willingly experience, deeper and more painful than an icy plunge in a Russian river. She was raised to shine light on the failures of the legal system and to be a beacon of hope for those who had suffered as she did. Her experience of the power of forgiveness was a light-bulb moment.

In a few moments, as we renew the promises made at our baptism, let us pray that our eyes may be opened to the possibilities of living from the bottom up, so that our lives become channels for God’s liberating, healing power. To him, Father, Son and Holy Spirit…