Benediction Online

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Obedient unto Life

One of the most important days of my life was the day when I got to “fly up” from the Brownies to the Girl Scouts. I don’t remember much about it but I think two Brownies made an arch and those flying up ran through the arch and then around the outside of the circle before getting their “wings”. It was a day I had longer and hoped for – a day when I was ontologically changed – the very core of my being changed. Never again would I be a Brownie – now I was a Girl Scout.

I mention this because it was the one of the most important rites of passage or initiations of my life. In today’s gospel, Jesus experiences an initiation. One which has a little more cosmic significance than my flying up to Girl Scouts! He gets baptized.

Immersion in water was commonly used in the Jewish tradition of the time for purification. So it made a lot of sense that John baptized those who were repenting of their sins. As they chose to change their way of life so they would be immersed in the river as a symbol of their purification. John’s baptism of repentance is a bridge between the purification baths required both for new converts to Judaism and to remove certain kinds of uncleanliness, and Christian baptism in which we are joined with Christ in his death and resurrection.

Why did Jesus get baptized? After all, the writer to the Hebrews tells us that although Christ was tempted like we are, he did not sin. (Heb 4:15). If he did not sin, he did not need to repent. If he did not need to repent he did not need to get baptized. So why do it?

Some theologians have argued that Jesus was adopted as God’s Son at this point. They argue that when the voice from heaven says "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased." this is proclaiming that now Jesus has become God’s Son. The tradition that we belong to says that Jesus was God made flesh from the moment of conception. So God-made-flesh comes to the man John to be baptized.

This is the first time we see Jesus as an adult. No longer is God-made-flesh a baby or a boy arguing with his teachers. Jesus is an adult. His baptism marks the beginning of his adult ministry. After his baptism he goes into the desert and spends time in deep spiritual work, and then he emerges to preach the reign of God. So this is important. Its importance is emphasized by the voice from heaven. This voice only speaks three times – here at Jesus’ baptism, at the transfiguration, and shortly before his death.

If Jesus was fully human he had free will, which means he could have chosen not to live a selfless life of preaching and teaching. He could have chosen to become a fisherman or to set up a carpentry business in Capernaum. He could have avoided confrontation and lived a quiet long life. But that’s not what he did. I think we tend to take that for granted. We are so used to the idea that Jesus lived and died and rose again for us, that we don’t think about whether that’s what he wanted to do.

The early church understood this much better than we do. In Romans, Paul writes, “by the obedience of one [man] shall many be made righteous.” (Rom. 5:19) and the early hymn found in Philippians says “And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death--even death on a cross!” Jesus was obedient to his calling.

I think that in today’s gospel we see that obedience. Jesus’ choosing to get baptized even though he didn’t need to is the first time that we see him obedient to his calling to be fully human even though as God he doesn’t need to do this. As God he doesn’t need to repent and be baptized. As God he could have simply stepped down from the cross, or even disappeared before he was arrested, but instead he chose to remain with his human limitations. “being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself.”

Words like obedience and submission are very unpopular in our culture. Yet they are a profoundly important aspect of our spiritual lives; one which we see here modeled by Christ. The human Jesus chooses to align with the divine Christ. The human Jesus chooses to be baptized and in so doing indicates that he is willing to be obedient to the intention of God, that he is willing to “submit” to God’s will.

This is very different from my initiation into the Girl Scouts. That was not about submission in any way shape or form. I was ready to be done with little girl things and to get on to the exciting stuff of learning knots and going camping.

But I suspect that spiritual initiation always involves obedience and submission, because it involves a step away from our human inclinations towards comfort and laziness, and a step deeper into our alignment with divine purpose. Many of us long to come closer to God and yet we are held back by our own unwillingness to be obedient to our calling. We imagine that it means giving up things that we like, and doing things that we’d much rather not.

There is certainly some truth in that… we remember Jesus’ words, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (Matt.16:24). But that’s only part of the picture. Each one of us was made with the potential to be Christ-filled and Christ-like. We are at our most fulfilled when we are following our calling, when we are obedient to the voice of God, when we submit to the highest plan for our lives. Do you really think that the God who loves us extravagantly and unconditionally would ask you to do something that was not going to ultimately make you more fulfilled and joyful?

Baptism by water and the spirit is the full initiation into the Christian church. But when we celebrate the Eucharist together we are re-upping the submission and obedience which led us to the waters of baptism and to participation in Christ’s death and resurrection. When we come to the Eucharist we are saying, yes I choose to be part of the Body of Christ, I choose to follow my calling to be part of God’s reign, I choose to repent and turn away from those things which prevent me from fully following Christ.

Submitting to our calling rarely means taking big heroic actions. It rarely means going off to a foreign mission field. Much more often it means continuing the quiet work of cooperating with Spirit to clear out of the way all the blocks which prevent us from fully loving God and our neighbor as ourselves. So as we approach the tablet together today let us do so in submission to our calling to live as the daughters and sons of God and to bring God’s reign on earth.


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