15 January 2009

Waters of New Creation

Genesis 1: 1-5 & Mark 1: 4-11

Baptism of the Lord/ 11th January 2009

If a non-Christian asked you to explain the meaning of baptism, what would you say? We often think of baptism as initiation into the membership of the church. No less authority than John Calvin (1509-1564) himself wrote in his Institutes, the foundational theological text for the Reformed –Presbyterian theological tradition, “Baptism is a sign of initiation, by which we are admitted into the society of the Church, in order that, being incorporated into Christ, we may be numbered among the children of God.”[1] This has come to be the conventional, even orthodox way of viewing baptism. It informs our understanding of infant baptism. I often say after a baptism, “Welcome to the life of the church.” Emphasis on church. It’s become a sign of membership perhaps more than anything else. We tend to see baptism as initiation into the community of God’s people.

Now, I don’t want to take on Calvin, especially on the start of what is being called the Calvin Jubilee. The Reformed tradition is celebrating in 2009 the 500th anniversary of Calvin’s birth. (Princeton Seminary has set up an online Calvin devotional, with daily readings of the Institutes.[2]) And I don’t want the church heresy police banging on the door of my study or people questioning my theological orthodoxy, but there’s something partially wrong with such a one-sided view of baptism. The problem comes into full view when we take this initiation-view of baptism and read the accounts of Jesus’ baptism from this perspective. We’re faced with a glaring dilemma. How could baptism be a sign of initiation into the society of the Church, how could that have been true for Jesus who wasn’t baptized into a church? The church didn’t exist at that time. Jesus wasn’t baptized into the church or by the church. And John the Baptist certainly wasn’t a Christian by any stretch of the imagination. John wasn’t baptizing Jews into the church. Baptism was a ritual used by radical Jews who were fed up with the abuses of the religious authorities in Jerusalem, who wanted to be purified or cleansed of those abuses, in order to be more fully faithful to the ways of God. Those who went out to see John in the wilderness didn’t want to be identified with the Temple community in Jerusalem, they wanted to separate themselves from it, distance themselves from the Temple and their associations with the Roman Imperial authorities. They wanted to identify themselves with God.

When we read the baptism account with this in mind, setting aside our Church-ly view of initiation, we begin to see that for Jesus baptism was less about initiation, than identification. It had to do with identity – his identity as the son of God and being identified with God’s way in the world. In the act of going down under the water and coming up out of it we find a symbolic expression of Jesus coming to grips with who he is. He is identifying himself with John the Baptist’s mission of reform, of the need to focus more clearly upon God’s way for his life. When he came up out of the water, physically demonstrating the new life he was about to enter, about to embark on the mission of his life, the heavens ripped apart and he saw the Spirit of God descending upon him. And a voice from heaven was heard: “You are my Son, the Beloved. With you I am well pleased.” You are my Son – the Beloved. With you I am well-pleased. That is a statement of identity. Can you hear it? See it? Feel it? This is the confirmation of his identity.

Through this divine declaration we begin to see that being baptized has something to do with identity – who we really are at the core of our being. What we discover in our baptism, a baptism not into the church but into Christ, is something akin to what Jesus discovered about himself in the waters of his baptism. This means that baptism is not something that occurs once in our lives, whether as an infant or adult, but something, a truth that we need to live ourselves into day after day, year after year. During the stress and strain of the Reformation, attacked on all sides, Martin Luther (1483-1546) took great comfort in knowing he was baptized. He would repeat to himself, over and over again, “Remember you baptism. Remember your baptism. Remember who you are.” Luther said of baptism that is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that takes our entire lives to complete.[3] We’re not “done” and then we’re “in.” It’s an experience that yields saving, personal knowledge. And the knowledge we gain of ourselves in baptism, when we come to see who we really are, a knowledge that takes us a lifetime to fathom and acknowledge and really claim to be true in our heart of hearts is similar to what Jesus learned in the divine declaration, the truth that defined his mission – Jesus came to show us that we too are sons of God, daughters of God, children of God, beloved children of God, with whom God is well-pleased. This is who we are. This is who you are – son of God, daughter of God, Beloved child.

One of the greatest tragedies is that some spend their entire lives in the church and never come see themselves in this way. Others know it, but it’s so easy to forget. Instead of seeing ourselves as reflected through the gracious face of Christ we so often see ourselves mirrored through the distorted images of family, culture, tribe, and the ever-self-defeating, self-destroying, self-doubting, fearful images of our egos. Sometimes it feels like we go through our days in a hall of mirrors, where we are lost in the reflection of multiple mirrors distorting reality all the time, losing a sense of who we are. We are surrounded by mirrors in which we see reflections darkly, never whole, always incomplete. How do you we know who we are? Who tells you who you are? Who grounds your identity? Do we look to our families, our neighbors, our friends alone to tell us who we are? Is it our professions, our work? Is it the culture as a whole, with its distorted drives and wayward passions that we turn to guidance? There’s no way to exist apart from these reflections. But what we have to remember is that every mirror we look toward in order to see ourselves is imprecise and distorted. The image we receive back is always partial, never the complete picture.

The American novelist James Agee (1909-1955) begins his novel, A Death in the Family, through the eyes of a child, the same child who will later experience the death of his father. In the opening section called “Knoxville: Summer of 1915,” we view the child’s world, a beautiful world, a community of neighborhoods, families dwelling together, sitting on quilts in the back yard, offering so much happiness and so many fond memories. It’s an idyllic scene. The child reflects upon his experience and Agee poignantly writes, “By some chance, here they are, all on this earth; and who shall ever tell the sorrow of being on this earth, lying, on quilts, on the grass, in a summer evening, among the sounds of night. May God bless my people, my uncle, my aunt, my mother, my good father, oh, remember them kindly in their time of trouble; and in the hour of their taking away. After a little, I am taken in and put to bed. Sleep, soft smiling, draws me unto her: and those receive me, who quietly treat me, as one familiar and well-beloved in that home: but will not, oh, will not, not now, not ever; but will not ever tell me who I am.”[4]

The pastor-theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1909-1945), knew the burden of seeing himself through so many external reflections. In one of his poems, written from the Tegel prison, Berlin, for his role in an assassination attempts against Hitler (1889-1945), Bonhoeffer wrote: “Who am I? They often tell me I would step from my cell’s confinement calmly, cheerfully, firmly, like a squire from his country-house. Who am I? They often tell me I would talk to my warders freely and friendly and clearly, as though it were mine to command.” He reflects upon how others view him, “Am I then really all that which other men tell of? Or am I only what I know of myself, restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage, struggling for breath,…” Who am I? This or the other? Am I one person today, and tomorrow another? Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others, and before myself a contemptibly woebegone weakling? …Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine. Whoever I am, thou knowest, O God, I am thine.”[5] In the end, that’s all we can be sure about – and upon which we are called to build a life.

I was in New York City last weekend and finally saw The Lion King on Broadway. Amazing production; amazing show; amazing story, really. There’s one scene where Simba, the lion-son in exile of the great king of Pride Rock, a son who has lost his way without the courage to fulfill his life’s mission, receives a visitation by Rafiki, a priestess offering wise counsel (I don’t want to push this analogy too-far, but she served as a kind of Holy Spirit figure offering guidance. Rafiki is aSwahili word for “friend,” also related to an Arabic word for “companion.” She tells him to look at his reflection in the waters of creation, to see himself and to remember who he really is – the son of the king. Rafiki sings, “He watches over Everything we see/ Into the water/ Into the truth/ In your reflection/ He lives in you.”[6] He sees a vision of his father long dead who speaks words of assurance, of affirmation, of identification not all that dissimilar to what Jesus heard in the heavens: Remember who you are.

When we are in exile and far from home,

when we have lost our way in the world,

when the future looks scary,

when nothing seems to make any sense,

when the pressures and anxieties and pain and immense sorrow of the world overwhelm us, and we forget our place in the universe,

Jesus invites us to the waters,

the waters of new creation,

to remember who we are.

When we look at our reflection in the water of the font, we are invited to see who we really are, to remember who we really are, and then receive the grace to claim or reclaim that identity, to move toward that vision by the grace of God – again and again and again. That’s what it means to be baptized. Remember who you are.

But it’s so easy to forget. That’s why we need reminders. We need people who remind us who we are. That’s what a sacrament is meant to do, to help us remember. It’s what the church is for, to help us remember. You are my Son. You are my daughter, the Beloved. With you I am well pleased. That’s what we need to hear whispered in our ears whenever we approach a baptismal font, either this baptismal font or any other font anywhere in the world.

When the great St. Francis of Assisi (1181/1182-1226) felt called by Christ in a vision to enter a world of poverty and care for the poor, his father, Franceso, a leading public figure in the town of Assisi, Italy, his father was furious. His father publicly shamed him in the public square. He also shamed his father. Assisi lived in a small hut in the plains below the town of Assisi (you can still go there today). When he had to walk up the hill to town, he was deeply fearful of meeting his father in the streets, because he would often curse him and reject him again as his son. Francis carried a lot of guilt about this and the relationship with his father remained broken for the rest of his life. One day Francis had to go up into town and feeling fearful, invited a beggar from the streets to join him, to walk by his side and protect him. He instructed him, “When my father hurls curses and abuses at me, I will hear them painfully in one ear, but I ask you to walk on my other side, and whisper God’s favor into my other ear, ‘Francis, you are my beloved son. You are a son of heaven and a son of God.’ Just keep repeating it until I can believe it again.”[7]

When we come to this font we look to our baptism with the same hope. Against all the many competing voices telling us otherwise, we need to hear the voice of the truth, and hear it repeated in our ears again and again. At the font God’s Spirit whispers to us again and again, until we really believe it, feel it in our souls. “You are my beloved son, my beloved daughter. You are a son of heaven and a son of God. You are a daughter of heaven and daughter of God. You are my beloved. That’s who you are.”

[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (1559), Book IV, xv.1.

[2] Princeton Theological Seminary, Calvin 09: http://www2.ptsem.edu/ConEd/Calvin/

[3] Cited in Anthony Robinson, Transforming Congregational Culture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Press, 2003), 37. Cf. the quotation from the worship bulletin: “We hold…that although we are baptized only once, yet the gain that it symbolizes to us reaches over our whole lives and to our death, so that we have a lasting witness that Jesus Christ will always be our justification and sanctification.” French Confession (1559), written by Calvin.

[4] James Agee, A Death in the Family (Toronto: Bantam Books, 1987), 14.

[5] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, edited by Eberhard Bethge (New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1972), 347-348.

[6] The Lion King, Music and Lyrics by Elton John & Tim Rice.

[7] “Legend of the Three Companions, “#23, St. Francis of Assisi Writings and Early Biographies: English Omnibus of the Sources for the Life of St. Francis, cited in Richard Rohr, From Wild Man to Wise Man: Reflections on Male Spirituality (Cincinnati, OH: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2005), 78.