Sermon on Mark 1:9-11for the 15th Sunday after Pentecost, Year B, September 6, 2015
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
When we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, or Communion, as we will today, what are we doing? We are enacting an enormous feast by means of one tiny bit of bread and a small amount of juice. We reduce a banquet down to its most basic elements: something to eat and something to drink, shared together from a common table. The feast is represented sacramentally by these small signs.
So, in baptism, a tiny amount of water is the sacramental sign of something much bigger. We should at least imagine a pool, or even a great body of water, if not an ocean. The little bit of water we use to sprinkle on the heads of the baptized sacramentally represents a deep pool of water. It means not one, but two things at once.
First, it is a bath; a cleansing. Baptism is the sign that we are clean before God. White is the color of baptism, a symbol of purity. We are forgiven because
“God is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.”
Baptism is more than the sign of a cleansing bath, it is also a sign of dying and rising. Think of your experience of jumping into water on a sunny day. Above the water everyone is making noise, having fun, laughing, talking, music plays. But the instant you go under water, it is almost completely still. Silent like the grave.
And then when your head comes up again back into the day, all the sounds of life return. The few drops of water we receive at baptism stand for the pool, and going down, we die; coming back up is, then, a resurrection to new life. It is like being born anew; being born again.
None of us baptized ourselves. In fact we cannot self-baptize. It is something we receive. This too is important. Just as we receive the water of baptism, so we can only receive the new life that God gives. That is what grace means: simply receiving what we could never have laid claim to. It is a gift.
But maybe I am going to fast. Why would we need to be given baptism, the sign of dying and rising? Why is death part of the picture, and what is the new life that we are born into?
Think of it this way: we are all self-conscious; self-aware. We evolved a capacity to see ourselves as selves. Did this happen because we developed a brain with two chambers, a bi-cameral mind, as some have suggested, one side listening to the other side talking? Perhaps that is how it happened; but anyway, it happened.
Developing self-consciousness or self-awareness happens to each of us individually in infancy. When we are born, we do not first realize that we are separate from the world. But before we can speak, we begin to understand our separateness, first from our mothers, and then from the rest of the world.
For those of you who are coming to the Wednesday evening program, the things I will say now are a preview of one of the best chapters of Marcus Borg’s book, “The Heart of Christianity.”
Separation Anxiety: Self-Concern
As Borg says, the birth of self-consciousness is the birth of the separated self. And as soon as we become aware of our separateness, we feel anxious about getting our needs met. What if I cry and no bottle comes? We become self-concerned.
Self-concern becomes anxiety. As we grow, we begin to be influenced by the world around us. Will we succeed in life? Will we be attractive to others? Will we have enough to live on? Are we enough?
The world becomes for us a place of judgment and alienation. All of the fragile ways we learn to define ourselves by how we measure up, the groups we belong to, the ideas we support and defend, these are components of what spiritual leaders call our “false self,” our “small self,” our ego. And it is fragile, which is why it is always defended so defensively. And even when intact, it is never enough to give us a deep sense of purpose or meaning. Ask rich and famous, beautiful people. There must be more.
This sense that we are separate selves who must vouchsafe our own standing and existence in the face of competition and danger is a state into which we have fallen. This is what we experience as lostness. Who has not felt like the lost lamb, on her own, outside of the protective fold, separate and alone? This is the experience we all have of being in exile, away from home and unable to return.
In this state of separateness and lostness, the only thing that our self-awareness does for us is make us wonder who we really are? Why are we here? What is our purpose? Who are we? What is this “I” that I carry around in me, that both is “me” and somehow leaves me feeling uncomfortable in my own skin?
This is why baptism is a death. This old separated anxious identity needs to die so that a new identity may be born. So the language of the New Testament is full of language of dying and being born again, death and resurrection. It is the metaphor for personal transformation.
And this is why the cross is at the center of Christianity. The cross is a place of death that opens the possibility of new life. Death to the old identity of separateness and lostness, and resurrection to the new identity as beloved children of God.
Jesus went down into the water as John baptized him, and coming up, he heard the voice of God saying, “You are my beloved son.” Paul tells us that in baptism, we are baptized into Christ and therefore we too are now beloved sons and daughters:
“in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through trust. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” (Gal. 3:26-27)
We who are baptized are baptized into Christ’s death, and raised with Christ to a brand new identity: the identity of children of God. That is our true self, so much more resilient and free than our fragile false self.
So, we are not separate selves. We are one with God. It turns out that the sense of separateness and lostness was an illusion. Being baptized into Christ means that we are one with God, and one with each other. We are now the community of the baptized, and there is no separation that makes any sense anymore. As Paul puts it,
“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3)
In baptism, we die to the old self-concerned self, and rise as a part of the body of Christ. Paul often spoke of being “in Christ” but sometimes spoke of being “in the Spirit.” The two mean virtually the same. We live “in Christ” by the Spirit of Christ who is living in each of us.
As we pay attention to the Spirit’s work in our lives, as we practice making space for the Spirit in our minds through meditation, prayer, and other mindfulness practices, we see the Spirit transforming us from self-concern to mindful-connectedness and oneness, to other-concern.
We begin to feel other people’s pain. We notice suffering. We become aware of the needs of others. We become people of compassion. We become the hands and feet, the eyes and ears of Jesus in the world, reaching out to listen, to feed, to heal, to educate, to rescue, to defend and to advocate for people in need. This is what the community of the baptized does naturally.
So we see that baptism is a sign that we died with Christ, and now are alive in Christ. Christianity is then, a way of life. A path. It is the Jesus path, the path that promotes life and enjoys life, reconnected with God and open to the Spirit, re-connected to a community of fellow travelers, and re-connected to the world.
The word “religion” comes from the word for ligament: re-ligamentation; getting re-connected; union; becoming one. No more separation. Waking up to the reality of our truest identity as beloved children of God. Religion is what we do together: we re-enact our connectedness in this new family.
The Purpose of the Baptized
As the community of the baptized, we come to understand our purpose: that we are not here for ourselves, but that God made us for each other. We are here to make a difference; to be a part of what God is doing to redeem the world; to heal and restore the world; to bring light to places that were dark, to bring joy to places of despair, to bring our presence to the lonely, our embrace to the guilty and our welcoming smile to those who have been shamed and shunned.
And the beauty of it is, as St. Francis so beautifully said, “in giving we receiving, in pardoning we are pardoned, and in dying we are born to eternal life.” Our joy, our sense of purpose and meaning blossom in us as we reach out to others in compassion and love. That is what it means to be the community of the baptized.