The Baptism of Our Lord: profession and practice

Let this be quite clear to us: the killing of innocents anywhere is not a religious act, not by the definition shared by Christians, Muslims, Jews; not by anyone who understands religion as the pursuit of God, the seeking out and searching for the divine amongst us. God Almighty, God who is great, is not worshipped by carnage.

As tragic as the news out of Paris has been this week, the news out of Nigeria, where Boko Haram has massacred of hundreds of families, is perhaps beyond even our scope of understanding.

There is an argument to be made that extremism is its own religion; if we take a functionalist view of religion, then whichever values govern our lives become our religion, regardless of whether or not they worship God.[i] The Westboro Baptist Church, for example, may call itself Christian, but its practice is not one we would recognize as mimicking the values of Christ. But if the values which define our daily function are ipso facto our religion, then the bombing of an NAACP office in Colorado, which also happened this past week, might even be thought of as an act of religious violence; for some people, racism is a governing article of faith.

The religion which is practiced by any of us, by all of us, is not always the same as the religion that we profess.

All of this, as academic as it sounds, is thrown into sharp relief when we come to consider our baptism, as we do today: baptism, which forms us first as Christians. Baptism is one of the two sacraments that Jesus gave us and directly commanded us to continue; that he himself participated in and initiated for us. It was the way, from the earliest church, that new Christians entered the church, the household of all believers. We see from the encounter with the Ephesians in Acts, and even from the event of Jesus’ own baptism, the coming together of an act of repentance, of cleansing from sin, on the part of a believer, which Paul names as John’s baptism; and the grace of God freely flowing through the gift of the Holy Spirit, received by Christ and Christians everywhere.

We make baptism very safe, with our fancy fonts and our silver shells and lace christening gowns; but religion is not safe. In the baptism of Jesus, in that river, he fell down under the running water, twisted by its currents and submerged by its strong stream, the Word silenced by the Flood; and the waters of the chaos before creation witnessed once more the Spirit of God brooding over them like a dark bird; the Spirit of God seeking out Jesus like a dove, so that the moment he broke through the surface, gasped a breath, it was there to fan new life into his lungs.

That moment of crisis, when we renounce evil, the ways of the world and the devil, and turn instead to the new creation in Christ, that kingdom of God; that is a dangerous moment, when chaos swells to overwhelm, and is beaten back once more by the Spirit of the living God, beating its wings against the waves. Even when we don’t see it, in our safe, warm churches with their candles and their fonts, the struggle goes on, a strong undercurrent.

Our baptism is not a tame religious rite; it is fierce enough to equip us to deal with the conflicts of the world and its chaos, with the help of God and the anointing of the Spirit.

And this is where I left you last week; at the Baptismal Covenant which we will renew together shortly. It is a covenant in which we attempt to explain to ourselves what is happening here; in which we try to explain to ourselves what our religion is, and what it does.

We begin, yes, with the assurances of the doctrines of our faith: that the God who made creation made us all, and loves us, redeeming us from our sin and squalour, even from the pain of death through Jesus Christ; that we will be resurrected, at the last, with all the saints; that we shall know justice, and the peace that passes all understanding.

That’s where it begins; with the Creed; but it goes on, at least in the Episcopal Church. We name a covenant, a set of commitments, that both demonstrate and promise the new life that we have entered through the rushing river, echoing through the font; a set of active and proactive values on which to base our daily lives; our functional religion.

We promise to sustain ourselves and our religion by participating in the community of the church. We need that community to check our fringes, to keep us from disappearing down rabbit holes; to save us from extremism.

We promise to live out the Gospel; to live it out loud.

We promise that when we fail; not if, but when; we will repent, and return, own up, not hide away. That practice of living in community, with its fallings out and reachings out and forgivings might help with that one.

We promise to seek and serve Christ in all persons; this is the difficult one which encompasses loving our enemies, and praying for those who persecute us.

Sometimes it seems incompatible with this last: striving for justice and peace, and upholding the dignity of every human being. How can we love and pray for those who destroy the dignity of so many, for the purposes of extremism, racism, fanaticism? Only with the help of God, and the knowledge that God’s grace can turn even the worst offender to repentance; for that we can pray.

In baptism we are made new creations: whole creations, whose hearts and minds can be in concert with our hope, and our wills, with God’s help. We get to marry our beliefs to our actions, our professed faith with our professions.

In that context, some of you have asked me about Heather Cook, the Suffragan Bishop of Maryland, who has now been charged (but not convicted) with vehicular manslaughter, DUI, driving while texting, and leaving the scene of an accident, in the death of cyclist Thomas Palermo over the Christmas break. I don’t know any more about Heather Cook or about the events of that day than is shared in the media; but she herself preached a prescient sermon last fall, called “Be Prepared,” during which she reflected on that Scouting motto and its implications for moulding and honing our habits, our reactions and responses, so that when an emergency occurs, we will be prepared to respond appropriately. So that, we might say today, we will be prepared to act on our baptism, to act out our baptism. The short timeline from pulpit to press conference might conceivably illustrate how difficult it can be to practice what we profess; that none of us is defended by position or by piety from the dangers of falling short.

Each of us knows from our own lives how close beneath the surface chaos lives. That may be why, if you were wondering, we do this over and over again, season by season, making the same promises, breaking the same bread , so that we can break the surface of false religion, and breathe the oxygen of God’s love for all whom God has made. So that we can be restored, recreated, reunited body and soul, the religion that we profess with the religion that we practice; our faith with our lives; our promise with our hope.

We know from bitter experience that the chaos was subdued but not destroyed by creation; but, we remind ourselves and one another, the Spirit of God still broods over the water. The song of the dove – you know that incessant cooing of pigeons, completely inescapable and irrepressible? – the song of the Spirit still counters the clamour of bad news, if we will listen, if we will let it.

We will, with God’s help.

[i] William T. Cavanaugh, The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict (Oxford University Press, 2009), esp. pp. 105-118

About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing , and Whom Shall I Fear? Urgent Questions for Christians in an Age of Violence, both from Upper Room Books. She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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