Sermon for High Mass – Baptism of Christ Sunday 7 January 2018
Sermon preached by The Vicar, Fr Alan Moses
THE BAPTISM OF OUR LORD, 2018 HIGH MASS
Readings: Genesis 1.1-5; Psalm 29; Acts 19.1-7; Mark 1.4-11
Fr. Michael’s Christmas present to me was Professor Peter Marshall’s new history of the English Reformation: “Heretics and Believers.” I’m not sure whether he thinks I’m a heretic or a believer; too reformed or not reformed enough. Well, it’s a 600+page blockbuster and I’ve only managed the first chapter so far. If I burn the midnight oil I might get it finished by the time he’s back from Australia.
Popular protestant histories of the Reformation tend to assume that there was no interest in reform or in the Bible at all until Martin Luther suddenly discovered them; appearing rather like John the Baptist in the wilds of north eastern Germany, beyond the River Elbe, to nail his theses to the church door in Wittenberg.
The real history, as it usually is, is more complex. There was both a great deal of concern for the reform of the Church – in both head and members – the clergy from the pope downwards and the laity – and much interest in scripture. The latter had been given a boost by increased knowledge of the biblical languages which was a side effect of the fall of Constantinople to the Turks and the flight to the West of Greek scholars.
One of the leading figures in both developments was the Dutchman Erasmus. He spent time in England, was a friend both of John Colet, Dean of St. Paul’s and Thomas More, who would become Henry VIII’s Chancellor of England and then die for his refusal to accept Henry’s religious policy. For Erasmus and others, the source of renewal of the Church was to be found in an imitation of the Christ found in the gospels which should be available for all.
The official text of the scriptures was St. Jerome’s Latin translation, known as the Vulgate – its name reflecting the fact that it was once the language of the people – but that was no longer so. Study of texts and words revealed that this contained many errors – most of them of no great significance – but some were crucial. Jerome should not be judged too harshly for this: he carried out the task single-handed. The King James’ version required the cooperative efforts of a network of committees.
One error which Erasmus seized upon was Jerome’s rendering of the Greek word metanoia as “do penance.” This was of major significance. Jerome’s version had made the passage a proof text, a theological support, of the sacrament of penance or confession which had been made mandatory for all, once a year. Erasmus pointed out that metanoia did not mean carry out some work after confessing one’s sins. It means “repentance,” that is a turning around, a radical re-orientation of one’s life, a facing in the opposite direction; a turning away from sin, yes, but also a turning towards God.
John the Baptist’s preaching of repentance had its roots in the prophetic call for such a whole-hearted return to the Lord. His dress and ascetic lifestyle, neither eating meat nor drinking wine, link him with earlier prophetic figures. His location in the wilderness recalled the desert wanderings of Israel when God gave them the law and formed them as his own people. The Jordan recalled their entry into in the promised land and its waters those over which the Spirit hovered in creation.
There was, too, some precedent for his practice of baptizing people – Pharisees did something like this with Gentiles preparing for conversion to Judaism and the Qumran community included it in its rituals. But John’s use of it as a sign of repentance for ordinary people, in preparation for the coming of the Messiah, seems to have been both unique and to have been a powerful draw – even if “the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem” going out to him is a bit of an exaggeration. For Mark, the stir created by John is a foretaste of the mission to the whole world which we hear of at the end of the gospel (13.10).
Many submit themselves to John’s baptism to acknowledge their sins and turn back to God, but this is not the main event. The words of the Baptist shift attention from himself to the mightier one who would come after him. For all the greatness of the Baptist, the messenger of God sent to prepare the way of the Lord, a gulf lies between messenger and the one he announces. Untying the master’s sandals was the demeaning task required of a slave. To be unworthy of even such a task was to lower oneself below the status of a slave. John looks back, “I have baptized you with waer,” and forward, “but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
It is now that Jesus appears and goes down into the waters of the Jordan. As he emerges from the waters, he sees and hears something unique: the heavens torn open in revelation, the Spirit descending, and the voice of God, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well-pleased.”
Here we glimpse the relationship between Father, Son and Spirit in the Trinity; that relationship into which we are baptized, “In the Name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit.”
In the baptism service, as we will be reminded at the Easter renewal of baptismal vows, we:
- Reject the devil and all rebellion against God;
- Renounce the deceit and corruption of evil;
- Repent of the sins that separate us from God and neighbour.
But then, the priest asks:
- Do you turn to Christ as Saviour?
- Do you submit to Christ as Lord?
- Do you come to Christ, the way, the truth and the life?
Baptism means not just a negative rejection and renunciation, but a positive acceptance and entry into a new life in which we are enabled by the Spirit to share in the relationship which Jesus has with the Father – the relationship of the Beloved.
Midway, through the Gospel of Mark, the heavens will be opened again, this time on the Mount of Transfiguration. This time the disciples who are with Jesus will hear the voice from heaven which declares: “This is my beloved Son,” and then goes on to say, “Listen to him.”
Mark writes his gospel and we hear and read, as we will be doing at Mass on most Sundays this year, so that we might do just that; so that we might not only turn away from sin and evil – a continuing necessity of which we are reminded each time we come to Mass by the confession and absolution at the beginning – perhaps that’s why some people are always late! We need, too, the positive grace of scripture and sacrament, worship and prayer, preaching and teaching, through which the Holy Spirit completes the “heavenly work of our rebirth” and we are helped to be faithful to our calling as “God’s adopted children.” So, if we are looking for a New Year’s resolution, there’s more than enough there for us.