Sunday 11th January 2015, Baptism of Christ, morning
by Revd Chris Palmer
It’s been a week of terrible news. The shootings in Paris were a personal tragedy for many families. And they feel close by: an attack on a society like ours and only a few miles away – the same could easily happen in London; an attack on freedom of speech; and an attack in the name of religion – which makes other religious people distressed that God can be recruited to justify such an atrocity.
There’s been a fair amount of analysis in the press of the religious motivation of the perpetrators and how western society might appropriately respond. Discussions of fundamentalism and what it is and of how we encourage and advocate more moderate approaches to faith, how we generate conversations between people of different faiths to prevent us stereotyping each other, and so on.
But before we get into analysis, I think it’s important that we simply share sadness about these awful deaths. If we can’t be sad, feel compassion, then our response comes from a merely cerebral place – from cold reason. And it is a distance from compassion is what motivates crimes or terror. We need to learn compassion, so as not to copy the aggression that caused these crimes.
These terrible shootings urgently ask us what it means to be a person of faith. And today, as we celebrate the baptism of Jesus, this story helps us to understand what it means for us to be baptised people. There are two signs that accompanied Jesus’s baptism: the voice from heaven, ‘You are my beloved Son’, and the Holy Spirit, seen as a dove, filling Jesus and empowering him. We’ll take them in turn.
First the voice, ‘You are my beloved Son’, you are my son and I love you. This moment of baptism revealed what was already true about Jesus, his intimate relationship with God, calling him to self-giving service, ultimately calling him to the cross.
We might imagine that if Jesus believed this passionately enough it was a status and relationship worth defending, even fighting for. But Jesus response is exactly the opposite. The devil tempts him to prove himself, ‘If you are the Son of God turn these stones into bread’ – but he chooses not to prove it. It’s the same when Jesus is crucified; he is tempted ‘If you are the Son of God come down from the cross…’ but again, he is content to know it without needing the recognition.
Really, of course, those with the most profound and mature grasp of God, those who feel comfortable and secure in knowing God are those who can be indifferent to others who disagree or even offend them. Jesus doesn’t adopt an offended or slighted demeanour, ostentatiously publicising other people’s rudeness to his cause, or expecting some special status as the victim of others prejudice. He allows them simply to be, and reserves his criticisms for the religious bigots who lay burdens or guilt on the shoulders of others. On the cross he is the victim without anything of a victim complex.
Just occasionally I hear people try to explain the difference between fundamentalists – of any religion – and more liberal believers as a distinction between those who take their religion ‘too seriously’ and those who allow religion to keep its proper place – usually meaning that it stays a private affair of limited personal morality. It is, I think, a complete misrepresentation. So called fundamentalists are more often people who are uninterested in fundamentals and are zealously defending peripheral aspects of faith, or are so insecure about faith that they feel the need to thrash about or even create carnage in order to prop up the dignity of their religion.
And the opposite of this is not some polite liberalism that doesn’t take religion too seriously. It is to discover a deep security in our relationship with God and only in this – so that we don’t need to fight for the approval of others, or imagine that God needs his honour defending. Jesus allowed his relationship with God to flow through and determine the entire direction of his life. It causes him to leave home, live in a marginal and vulnerable way, and walk into the path of danger. This alone was enough for him.
Then there’s the Holy Spirit that comes on Jesus in the form of a dove. To possess the Holy Spirit can often be used as the basis for some claim to special inspiration. There is a temptation is to claim ‘special status’, or we build a mythology in which we are the particular recipients of God’s insight, belonging to an exclusive elect community that knows God’s will that has been hidden from other.
There is a blasphemy in being too sure of the will of God. It allows us to turn up the volume on our own opinions. The person truly inspired by the spirit of God knows that discerning the voice of God’s spirit is hard: of the many motives and impulses that flows through our hearts and beings, which are from God and which arise from other motives? It’s often hard to discern. The point at which we claim certainty about what God wants is the point we cease to be open to correction, to being teachable, to making new discoveries, to be open to God. We cut ourselves off from God’s heart and mind.
Ironically it is the NOT knowing, but always seeking, that keeps us most faithful.
Perhaps the danger of religion can be summed up by saying that it can make us feel unique and different from the rest of humanity: children of God, bearers of God’s spirit. And in a sense Jesus was unique in these things: he was the Son of God in a way distinct from all others – ‘only begotten’ the creed says.
But what the scriptures shout to us is that Jesus makes these ways in which we and all other human beings can relate to God. Jesus invites us to be sons and daughters of God too. In John’s Gospel, where there’s a big emphasis on Jesus as the Son of God, at the end Jesus says, ‘I am ascending to my father, and your father…’ On the day of Pentecost, God pours out his spirit on all flesh. The prophet Joel talks about how the Spirit is for all: ‘your sons and daughters shall prophesy, your young men shall dream dreams, your old men shall see visions, even on slaves…’ The spirit is what unites humanity – not what distinguishes one person from another. John V Taylor says, that when Christians are in dialogue with people of other faiths the Holy Spirit is speaking through both groups.
God's calling to be baptised people, people of faith, is to honour his presence in all people. If we respond to this call, then we will live out a faith that is bolder, but less
defensive; more impassioned, but less certain; more engaged, but less
aggressive; and more grounded, but less territorial.