Sunday, 9 January 2011

The Baptism of Christ: Power vs Love

To help with the context - this sermon was given at St. Mary's, Wythall this morning as they embark on an interregnum. Thanks guys for the welcome!

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness.’ Then John consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’


Matthew’s Gospel has some unique features in it that are not found in the other Gospels. Today’s Gospel reading includes one such feature as it is the only place where the dialogue between John the Baptist and Jesus is recorded.

What I’d like to do today is focus a little on that to begin with, and perhaps we ought to start by asking why Matthew included this dialogue. I think that there are three reasons; two practical, and one spiritual. Let’s think about the practical reasons first before we get to the more interesting spiritual side of all this.

From a practical point of view we have to get back into Matthew’s culture a little. Those who were there were well aware that Jesus had been baptised by John. At the time the Gospels were written there were still plenty of disciples of John the Baptist and it is quite possible that they were using the fact of Jesus’s baptism by John as a way for them to claim that John was greater than Jesus. By including this dialogue Matthew makes it clear that John declares his feelings that he should be being baptised by Jesus, not the other way around.

The second practical reason is that, once again those who were there may have been suggesting that Jesus felt that he was sinful and needed a baptism of repentance. Once again, John’s verbal deference to Jesus shows that wasn’t the case. However it is the third reason, the spiritual reason, which is the most important one to us, and to understand that we need to turn to the reason that Jesus gives to John.

He says, ‘Let it be so for now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness’. The words Jesus uses here are about an active doing of something in order that something..., that, ‘...all righteousness’, should be fulfilled, and in order to understand Jesus’s baptism and what it means to us, we need to understand exactly what he means by, ‘ order to fulfil all righteousness’.

I spent a long while reading around this, trying to get the taste of it, and I think that Tom Wright, the Bishop of Durham, puts it best. He says that Jesus’s decision to be baptised, and his description of it as fulfilling all righteousness, meant that Jesus was utterly determined to humbly identify with those who he came to save in every conceivable way.

Baptism is a mark of repentance, of turning away from the old life of doing what we want to do and turning to the Light, to follow God’s plans for us. By being baptised Jesus was, in all humility, sharing and taking part in our penitence, and Matthew includes all of this to show us what kind of Messiah, of Saviour, Jesus truly was and is.

You see many of the Jews at that time were looking for a political saviour; one who would come riding in on a stallion in power, to set the nation free from Roman oppression, but right from the beginning of his Gospel Matthew makes it clear that Jesus is not like that. Instead of coming to have power over his people, Jesus comes to identify with them, to live their life, to represent them, and ultimately to die for them.

Instead of coming from above in power, Jesus comes from within in love. I once heard a preacher draw the distinction between power and love saying that they are mutually exclusive. If you come in power, it is to make people do what you want them to do, but if you come in love, it is to set them free, to be the people they were created to be.

John’s words to Jesus declares him to be the one who comes from above, and John expects Jesus to come in power, but by his reply and his actions, Jesus declares he is one of us, coming in love to save us from ourselves and to set us free. Now before I apply that to our baptism, let’s take a look at what happens next.

Jesus comes up from the water of baptism and the Holy Spirit comes down upon him, like a dove, and a voice is heard from heaven, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’ We also need to understand this in order to apply it to our own baptisms, but I don’t think we need to go into too great a depth.

I have already described how Jesus comes in love, not power, and the dove confirms that, as the dove is a symbol of peace. The words of God, declaring his pleasure in his Son, confirm the words and actions of Jesus. Jesus comes to bring us the peace of God, and the Father declares that this is his will. By coming in love rather than power, Jesus is fulfilling his Father’s will. Now, what does this mean to us?

When we are baptised, we are baptised into Christ. This shows that our baptisms have more than one meaning. Clearly there is the washing with water to symbolise that in Christ we are washed clean of our sins. Also, as a sacrament, baptism is an outward sign, that we can all see, of an inward new reality; that this baptised person is joined to God in a way we might struggle to describe in words, but can experience in a similar way to how a married couple grow to experience each other’s love and presence.

But there is something else too. If we are baptised into Christ, we are also baptised into his ministry, and that is a ministry of love and of service; it is not a ministry of power. Maybe that’s one of the reasons we get so antsy about powerful Christian leaders: there’s something about their pushiness and power that seems at odds with Jesus.

Just as Jesus came to serve, and to love, and to identify with others, so we are also called to do the same. If we are in him, we are baptised with his baptism, and that means that if he identified with others in order to help them to be free to become who they were created to be, then we have the same mission; to help set people free.

Over the coming few months, and maybe more, as a church you will have to look to your own resources and your own gifts. Indeed that’s the great release that can come in an interregnum - that the congregation must look to what they bring to the church. It will give your next vicar some ready-prepared building blocks to begin work with. So as you start to think about what your gifts might be, here’s the question you can use to work out what to do with them. Can you, by the gifts you have been given, do something to set people free?

Or to put it another way, what are you doing to set people free, because that is what your baptism into Christ is supposed to make happen. Some of you are working in industry and maybe in positions of management and leadership. What’s your leadership style? Is it one of using your power to get things done, regardless of the cost to people?

Or do you come alongside your co-workers, valuing them for who they are. Managing people with a servant heart can be very difficult, but it’s not impossible. It can be hard because people can treat that kind of attitude with distain, seeking to take advantage of us. However, some people do respond well to it, because they see us living out the Gospel that we claim has made a difference to us and to how we live.

What about those of you involved in a more local community sense. The same thing applies. How can you be encouraging to those lacking in self-confidence? How can you involve the lonely? How can you, by your actions, help to set free those who have had their sense of self-worth taken from them by those who have had power over them?

If we are baptised Christians, then we are baptised into Christ. His calling to serve is therefore our calling. We, too, can trust in the Holy Spirit to help us, because so many of these things go against our selfish desires and are hard for us, but in Christ and through Christ we have a part to play in setting people free. That is our baptism and it is a worthy cause to live for, and one day I hope that we too will hear our Father say, ‘This is my child, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased’. Amen.

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