Today’s sermon began with yesterday’s story about Noah’s dove…
Is this what Jesus meant, when he told his cousin John that he must be baptized to fulfill all righteousness: that he would have to go back to the beginning, when the Spirit of God brooded like a bird over the waters of creation; through the Flood, when the watery chaos was release and began again with the flight of the dove; through the wilderness, where living water was struck from the rock to slake the thirst of the people of God and save them; that he would fulfill all righteousness by redeeming all of history through the cycle of water which runs from the beginning to the present moment, the waters that run deep and fall from the sky, in a living representation of the relationship of heaven and earth? *
I once attended a baptism where most of the congregation were strangers to the church, yet they gathered around the font ready to celebrate the anointing of their child, their beloved, his adoption into the family of the church and the setting of Christ’s seal upon his head as the beloved child of God. Despite their own day-to-day ambivalence about the stories of faith and their brooding feelings of uncertainty about God, the symbols of water, of oil, of the cross and the dove were strong enough to pull them in with their gravitational forces and bring this family to the font. Sacraments are powerful things; stories have a strong grip.
Anyway, at the end of the service, the announcement was made that there would be a retiring collection. A receptacle had been placed at the back of the church, in the porch, or the narthex if you like, to receive the people’s monetary offerings. I was there to serve as acolyte, altar guild and general factotum, so I got everything squared away and then I went next door to the vicarage for a cup of tea. The priest who had performed the baptism was quite frustrated with his unchurched congregation, it turned out, because on their way out of the church, looking for the receptacle to receive their retiring collection, they had lit upon the holy water stoop and decided that this must be it. Whether they confused it with a wishing well or why they thought they would be expected to place their donations in water, who knows? At any rate, they had generously filled up the thing with their filthy lucre, and my friend was now fulminating about the need to empty it and refill, restore and reconsecrate the whole kit and caboodle.
His wife, herself a priest, and I looked at one another and wondered together why it should be that the money should profane the holy water, rather than the water consecrating the money?
It is true that the energy of sin will try to push back the power of the water to cleanse and to refresh. It wasn’t long after the waters of creation were separated from the earth that sin stalked the land; it didn’t take long after the flood for Noah’s family to find new ways to fall short of the ideal; it didn’t take long for the Israelites sustained by living waters in the desert to forget the Lord their God and dance before golden idols. We introduce our own baptism by rejecting sin and Satan and turning away from wickedness, only to remember right away in our baptismal covenant that there will be occasions when we will indeed fall into sin, and will need God’s help to repent and return to the Lord. We know it. We know ourselves Sunday by Sunday to be washed clean by our worship, only to head back out into a world fraught with opportunities to spill sin on ourselves.
But sin will not win. Jesus submitted to the baptism of John and to the history of the living waters of God so that we know, wherever and whenever we are, that we who are born of water and of the Holy Spirit are consecrated, cleansed, redeemed, and sealed as Christ’s own forever. No matter what happens, no matter our doubts, our shame, our mistakes, nothing can pollute the Sacrament that has sealed us as beloved children of God. Instead of seeing ourselves profaned by the world in which we live and move and have our being it is our call, as those consecrated to God, to spread that holiness into the world, to use our sanctification to share the Spirit of God with those who need it.
In the story, God said that there would never be another flood to cover the whole earth with the waters of creation and begin again. Instead, there has been a lot of hard work, on both sides of heaven, day by day to restore and refresh and repent and return, and the work continues. We are called day by day to live into our own baptismal covenant, our own post-flood promises to continue in prayer, in proclamation, in protecting and upholding the dignity of the poor and those in need, in repentance. We are called to the work of sanctification, to spread the holiness that we have received, the love of God, to the corners of our world where it is tainted by discrimination, injustice, suffering and sin.
And Jesus, descending into the water and rising again, seeing the heavens opened, tells us that in every drop of water that we drink, in every lakescape that we see, in every sweat that we wipe from our brows, he is with us, reminding us that we are beloved children of God, made for holiness, washed clean and set free to proclaim the glory of God.
There may be, if you will allow one more flight of imagination, a postscript to the dove’s story. It is three years later, and she has found herself once more cooped up as she was in the ark, amongst the bustle and crush of other birds and animals, supervised by a gaggle of anxious humanity, in an enclosed space. She hears a voice, strangely familiar, and there is and a ripple, a wave, a rush of sound rising towards her. The people scatter, the cages crash and splinter; freed from her captivity, she flutters up to find her olive-skinned saviour breathing heavily among the remains of the money-changers tables and chairs. The temple courtyard is open to the sky, and she flies out once more, forever seeking new beginnings, new life, in a world washed clean.
*Tertullian, On Baptism, http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0321.htm