Baptismal promises and God’s creative spirit

The Baptism of Christ

Gen 1.1-5 – Ps 29 – Acts 19.1-7 -Marc 1.4-11

The Very Rev’d Bertrand Oliver, Dean and Rector of Christ Church Cathedral, Montreal

It was incredible. Crowds were running from all over to listen to him speak, promising them a new beginning. Word of mouth had worked well and they had come from all over the country to be part of this great change, to be part of what seemed to be a historic moment. And they were jostling against one another to be closer to the one who brought them hope, so that they could hear better, be inspired, participate, take action.

I am not, of course, referring to the events of this week at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., events which shocked the world as the outgoing U.S. president tried at the last minute to use his power over conspiracy theory-loving fans to snatch a victory that did not belong to him.

Of course, John the Baptist was not a neutral figure either.

If he had a peculiar way of life, with his clothes made of camel hair and his diet of locusts and wild honey, he attracted crowds with his apocalyptic prophecies, which did not please the Romans in power, who were always afraid of a revolution.

John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin, was not a revolutionary in the political sense, but rather in the spiritual sense. He attracted all those who were seeking a stronger relationship with God by using the language of the baptism of repentance and the symbolism of water as a living and creative force. For those who listened to him, whose hearts were touched, and who were baptized by him, the moment was a turning point in their lives, the possibility of a new beginning. The turning point between the path leading to death and the path leading to life. In a certain sense, a promise of resurrection.

John the Baptist knew, however, that he was there to prepare for the coming of another, he was aware that the baptism he was giving was only a first step. To those who followed him, he was very clear: “He who is stronger than I am comes after me”. Certainly, a humility before the absolute power of God, a promise of a new baptism by the Holy Spirit, and also a preparation for the coming of Jesus.

The Gospel of Mark is quite brief about the baptism of Jesus. But it is clear that something significant happens when Jesus joins the crowds in the middle of the river. At the moment of his baptism, Jesus deeply embraces human nature in all its weaknesses, and when he rises from the waters of the Jordan, his divine nature is revealed.
It is also the moment when Jesus’ mission is clarified for him, the moment when he is sent to his task of transforming the relationship between people and God by proclaiming God’s love for all his people, the moment when he goes to withdraw into the desert for forty days and forty nights for his spiritual preparation.

The excerpt from the book of Genesis that we have read are the first lines of the Bible, and they remind us of God’s love for his creation. On a deserted and empty planet, God’s creative spirit, symbolized by breath or sometimes a strong wind, lovingly embraces his creation and seeks to bring order and beauty and delight to it. An order without judgment, an order where light and darkness exist in their duality.

This same creative and organizing spirit of the divine will is once again present, this time at the Jordan River with Jesus. This spirit present at his baptism envelops and identifies him as the Son of God, and accompanies him from now on.

And it is the same spirit that the twelve Corinthians whom Paul meets had never heard of and who baptizes them generously, opening up new possibilities, new life.

The experience of our baptism may have been very different. The church over time has embraced other practices, other traditions, and for many of us, baptism is a moment we probably don’t remember, a sacrament we received as a gift shortly after we were born when we were too young to understand. For those of us who came to Christianity later, and who chose to follow in Jesus’ footsteps as a conscious and thoughtful act, baptism is a moment that marked a change in our lives and perhaps more deliberately defines who we are today.

This day of remembering Christ’s baptism is a day to remember that our baptism was not an end in itself but rather a new beginning. Through our baptism, we – or our godparents for us – knowingly made promises of repentance – that is, promises of a change of life, promises to try day by day to be more conformed to God’s desire for us. Through this process of transformation, known in Greek as metanoia, we work to change our hearts and turn less onto ourselves and more onto others as we model our lives on Jesus.

Baptismal life is a joyful life, but it is also a dangerous life because we do not know where it can lead us. The consequences of opening ourselves to God are unpredictable as we become instruments of God’s creative spirit in the world, living examples of God’s love in action. And the world can be very receptive, but also very antagonistic, to this message. We see this clearly in the life of Jesus. And some Christians even today are still called to pay a very high price, sometimes with their lives, for their faith.
During this time of pandemic, we may sometimes wonder where God is and what our response should be in a world where we see so much suffering and distress. What might God be asking us?

For some of us, our baptismal promises and the work of the Spirit within us push us outward, taking personal risks to continue serving those in need, whether in hospitals, seniors’ homes, food banks, shelters, or other essential services, or even helping to break the isolation of those around us who find themselves out of touch, through telephone calls or online support groups.

For all of us in this time of confinement, God’s love for the world asks us to protect others, to follow public safety guidelines, and not to put our personal desires ahead of putting the safety of others at risk. Perhaps this enforced period of lockdown allows us a little more space and time for reflection, prayer, meditation, and thus to identify what is truly important and essential at the heart of our lives.

For almost a year now, our church life has changed a lot, the rites and traditions that were dear to us have been transformed or even suspended by the transition to digital, and it is difficult to plan ahead.

The passage from Genesis reminds us that God is master of the light and also of the darkness, and therefore God certainly continues to be with us even in our difficult circumstances.

And as Christians, our faith in the resurrection motivates us: we know that after darkness and even death there is always hope for new life. In these painful times for the world, let us take time to meditate on our baptismal promises, so that as we continue to transform and reshape our lives we can open our hearts even more to the creative power of the spirit within us, and thus be faithful active witnesses to God’s unconditional love for all of his creation.


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