09 January 2012

New Beginnings

Mark 1: 4-11

Baptism of the Lord/ 8th January 2012

The beginning of Mark’s gospel–his account of God’s good news–s situated near water, along the River Jordan.  We’re not sure where.  Today, there are not one, but two “official” sites, pilgrimage places, where you can go down into the water. For one U.S. dollar you can buy a little vials or for a couple of bucks a larger container to bottle the water, bring it home as a souvenir, maybe mix the water with ordinary tap water used in most baptismal fonts.   One site is in Galilee, in modern-day Israel; the other is in Jordan. 

The exact location is not important, of course.  What’s significant is that Jesus begins his ministry in and around water and that he was baptized.  Luke and Matthew’s story of Jesus’ life and ministry start with his birth in Bethlehem.  For Mark, Jesus is “born” as it were here in the water, in the act of baptism. There are probably good historical reasons for this.  Mark’s gospel was probably written first, early, around 70 AD scholars suspect.  Mark was probably not aware of the birth narratives; he didn’t know the tradition rendered by Matthew and Luke.  For Mark, Jesus’ origins start not with a virginal conception or as a baby in a manger.  Jesus is “born” here in the waters of the River Jordan.  He is conceived by the Holy Spirit who rests upon him when he comes up out of the water, after having gone down into the depths of the flowing river and rising up a new person.  It all begins here, according to Mark.

This is worth noting as it provides an important insight into the meaning of baptism.  We need to remember that the Christian church didn’t come up with the ritual of baptism, although the two–church and baptism–are now inextricably linked in our consciousness.  Baptism literally means to wash or to bathe.  It’s a ceremonial washing, an act of purification.  Jews practiced different forms of ritual cleansing, which were commonplace during Jesus’ lifetime.  This was especially true for the Jewish apocalyptic sect, the Essenes, who lived out in the wilderness, primarily along the Dead Sea, near Qumran, away from the Romans and the Jewish religious authorities in Jerusalem.  John the Baptist was probably associated with the Essenes and perhaps even Jesus. 

Baptism emerges from within a radical religious sect of Judaism.  This, too, is worth remembering because John didn’t baptize Jesus because Jesus decided he was ready to become a Christian.  And he certainly wasn’t baptized because he wanted to become a member of a church.  The church didn’t exist when he was baptized.  The early church modified the original understanding and turned it into an act, a ritual, a sacrament of incorporation, incorporation into the church. 

A simple surface reading of this text, however, would lead us to see that it has very little to do with the church.  We could say it’s an act of incorporation, but incorporation not into the church, but into something, dare I say it, more important than the church, incorporation into the mission of God, the missio Dei

Baptism here is really more about initiation into the mystery of God, into the knowledge of God, and then, once initiated, one’s life and the life of the world are forever changed.  Baptism here is really more about participation, of Jesus participating in the life of the Spirit of God flowing through him and the world and then getting caught up in the Spirit’s flow, the Spirit’s movement in the world fulfilling the purpose and work and mission of God.  Baptism here is really more about identification, through this act Jesus’ identity is firmly rooted in his relationship to and with God.  He is identified, associated with God.  And he discovers his name:  the Beloved.  He discovers who he is: the Son in whom God takes immense delight, the object of all God’s love and joy.  And when Jesus discovers that his life is not his own, he’s places his life in service to the one who loves him and now sends him on a mission–the missio Dei, the mission of God–first into the wilderness for further training and then into the Galilee to proclaim the good news of God. 

The way I’m characterizing baptism here has very little, if anything, to do with the church. Yes, Mark wrote his gospel for his community, his church.  But the emphasis was and is not on the church as church.  The church is not an end itself and has value and importance only when it is being pressed into service to something far more profound and meaningful than itself:  the mission of God, or, as Jesus called it–the kingdom of God.  If the masculine, royal image doesn’t speak to us, we could also translate kingdom as the realm of God, or the kin-dom of God, or even the Empire of God.  All would be correct.  All point to God’s generosity, healing justice, redemptive power, and love governing our lives and the world.  Jesus is called to serve this mission, to embody it with his life, and he invites us to join him, to be “born” like him in the waters of baptism, to allow the Spirit of God to conceive within us something of God’s mission, to begin something new for the sake of the kingdom. 

The way I characterize Jesus’ baptism here can also be applied to everyone willing to go down into the waters.  On some level, Jesus’ experience was entirely his own.  But his experience, when we pay attention to it, tells us something of what we can all expect when we encounter the Living God.   Baptism is about our initiation into the mystery and knowledge of God and once initiated our eyes are opened and how we view ourselves and our neighbor and the world are forever changed. Baptism is about our participation, you and me participating in the life of the Spirit of God flowing through us and the world, getting caught up in the Spirit’s flow, the Spirit’s movement in the world fulfilling the purpose and work and mission of God.  Baptism is about our identification, through this act we discover our identities firmly rooted in our relationship to and with God.  We are identified; we are associated with God.  And we discover our true name:  the Beloved.  We discover who we are in God’s eyes: children of God, beloved daughters and sons of God in whom God takes immense delight, the object of all God’s love and joy.  And when you and I discover that our lives are not our own—and when we rediscover this time and again because, unlike Jesus, we forget who we are, we forget that our lives are not our own—when we know this and remember it, we then by grace can place our lives in service to the one who loves us through and through and in love now sends us on a mission—the missio Dei, the mission of God.  It will require going into the wilderness for further training—always required—but then we, too, are sent to embody the mission with our lives, to proclaim God’s good news.

Jesus had to go into the wilderness to discover what his special mission was.  So, too, we have to discover our purpose, what God is asking of us, whether we’re 18 or 88.  We are called to follow Jesus, yes, but not necessarily become exactly like him.  His journey belonged to him.  But he leads the way in showing us that we, too, need to discover what God is asking of our lives, on our journeys.  What are the unique things that you and only you have to offer the world?  What are the gifts that are unique to you that are being asked of God?  What are the passions, the hope, the dreams, the hungers that make you you, and how are these, too, being asked of God?  For this life does not belong to us, “you are not your own,” as Paul said (1 Corinthians 6:19), and as John the Baptist knew, and his parents, and Mary and Joseph, and Jesus, and every other character in the Bible.

            As we explored this morning in adult education, the Christian life has often been described as a journey.  We are all pilgrims walking to the place where we might discover our resurrection.  Across Europe in the middle ages there were pilgrimage routes to holy shrines and cathedrals.  To go off on pilgrimage—like one day making a pilgrimage to Mecca for Muslims—was a special opportunity to grow in one’s faith.  Dante’s journey in the Divine Comedy—through the Inferno, Purgatory, and finally Paradise—expressed such a view of the Christian life.  John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress is another example.  The Hero’s Journey, reflected in the story of King Arthur and the search for the Holy Grail, J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and even J. K. Rowling’s adventures of Harry Potter, are all rooted in the Christian narrative of journey.   Pilgrimage is becoming very popular in Europe these days.  In 2005, 93,921 pilgrims completed the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, the Way of St. James of Compostela that begins in Southern France and cuts across northern Spain ending at the cathedral of St. James in Galicia.    Many of the old routes are being restored, such as the 402-mile route to Nidaros, to the shrine of St. Olav in Norway, or the 71-mile St. Andrew’s Way, following the ancient pilgrimage route from Edinburgh to the great cathedral (now in ruins) in St. Andrews.[1]  We don’t have pilgrimage routes in this country, unfortunately.  But we are still called to venture forth on the journey, to begin and begin again and again.

            In T. S. Eliot’s (1888-1965) stunning poem Four Quartets this theme of the Christian journey is central.  I’m a huge Eliot fan.  He has been a wise and faithful companion to me along my way.  For Eliot, the Christian life is a journey, it’s an adventure, a quest that requires courage and most of all, love.   Eliot wrote at the end of Four Quartets:
            With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling
            We shall not cease from exploration…[2]

In “East Coker,” the second poem of four in Four Quartets, named for the village in England where his ancestors once lived before immigrating to the New World in 1669, he writes: 
            Home is where one starts from. 

Home matters, but it’s the starting point. We can’t stay there.  We have to leave home and venture forth.  It’s in the venturing forth that we discover who we are and whose we are.  For Eliot, the goal of the journey is a deeper connection with God, of discovering our purpose in life through the depth of that relationship.  The journey will take us through some difficult places, dangerous places, life-threatening places, but it’s the journey toward God and discovering our lives in relation to God that was central for Eliot, probably because it was also central for Jesus. Because it was so for Jesus, it’s the way for all of us too. 

            Eliot wrote:
            We must be still and still moving
            Into another intensity
            For a further union, a deeper communion
            Through the dark cold and the empty desolation,
            The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
            Of the petrel and the porpoise.      In my end is my beginning.[3] 

This last sentence, “In my end is my beginning,” a quote of the English mystic and anchorite Julian of Norwich  (1342-c.1416), sums up the poem.[4]  “In my end” refers to death, but also end as in purpose, or as the Westminster Catechism asks in the first question, “What is the chief end of man?  To glorify God and enjoy God forever.” 

            When we know our end or purpose, that’s the place where life begins, that’s the place of new beginnings, that’s where we are conceived, that’s where we are born.  We are born with our calling.  And that end, because it is always love, will move us, as it moved Jesus,

            Into another intensity
            For a further union, a deeper communion.

            Drawn by love and the voice of this calling.  Isn’t that what Jesus discovered along the River Jordan?  Isn’t this, too, the purpose of our journey, “a further union, a deeper communion” with God, with one another, with ourselves? 

            Drawn by love and the voice of this calling the journey takes us “through the vast waters,” down into the depths, through the dark cold and empty desolation of human suffering and sorrow, down into the depths of the waters, down, down, down, then through and up and out of the waters—not unlike baptism itself!    For, “With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling/  We shall not cease from exploration.”

[1] See Ian Bradly, Pilgrimage:  A Spiritual and Cultural Legacy (Oxford:  Lion Hudson, 2009).
[2] T. S. Eliot, The  Complete Poems and Playa, 1909-1950 (New York:  Harcout, Brace & World, 1962), 145.
[3] Eliot, 129.
[4] Probably taken from Revelation of Divine Love (1413).  It was also the motto of Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-1587), “En ma fin est mon commencement.”

Image:  "Baptism" by Nina Lagervall, member of Catonsville Presbyterian Church. 


Richard Micklos said...

Insightful and beautifully written. I appreciate your use of Eliot's poetry especially since his earlier poems, such as "Prufrock" and "Waste Land," leave people with an unfinished picture of his "journey."

Kenneth E. Kovacs said...

Many thanks for your comments, Richard. Glad the sermon resonated with you.