The Bulldog and the Paragon
When my children were growing up - not yet knowing about Skaneateles - we lived in White Plains, downstate. We had a wonderful pet English Bulldog named Punky. Punky was a classic English Bull. Big head, massive shoulders and chest, small hips. But in her own way, very lady-like. And, very high consciousness. In some ways, Punky was more human than many humans. Let me give you an example. The vet lived just across the street and down the next block. Punky was a favorite of the vet's staff, and no matter the reason for her visit, she was treated to a manicure and pedicure. I believe Punky thought of the vet as a spa. This was a plus and a minus. The good news is Punky loved going to the vet. The bad news is she would head off to the spa by herself when the mood struck her. You ladies will understand. Punky would trot down the lawn, carefully cross the street, then amble down to the vet's. Scratching on the door, she would trot in and look up expectantly. We would get a call and bring her home. No amount of "bad-dogging" discouraged her, although she knew this was not the correct way to behave.
One day, sensing Punky had gone missing, I opened the front door just as she reached the curb. Punky must have heard the door open, because of what happened next. She darted behind a "No Parking" sign, and cocked her head so her eyes, one over the other, were both hidden behind the thin upright post of the street sign. She couldn't see me, and I think assumed I could not see her behind the skinny sign post. If you ever wanted to see a picture of acknowledged sin, remember massive Punky, eyes obscured, hiding from her accuser.
The Congregational Church in White Plains was a natural choice for my first church. I was a fallen away Jew, and my wife was a lapsed Catholic. We looked for a neutral place to enroll our eldest son in Sunday school. It was a sin for Jews to read the New Testament, so my mother said. And so, other than snippets of Luke at Christmas and John at Easter, the New Testament was a mystery. But in that Church, I heard the Gospel and Romans read for the first time, and the idea that all this could be true dawned on me.
Well, I read the New Testament cover to cover, and suddenly Isaiah made sense to me. I understood and believed. I believed that God poured himself into human form and became one of us, to rescue us from being lost and anxious, and to show us the way to peace and human fulfillment. So my first authentic exposure to Christianity was in a church very much like ours. Now, better than the lights of Hanukah, I happily celebrate the light of Christmas.
Today is the last day of Christmas. Tomorrow begins what the Church calls “Ordinary Time.” Ordinary time is the English translation of the Latin phrase tempus per annum, which literally means “time through the year.” The Church divides the whole year into seasons; Advent, Christmas, Ordinary Time 1, Lent, Easter, then finally Ordinary Time 2. The Church year began with the mystery and hope of Advent followed by the Octave of Christmas, the wonder and miracle of the very inconvenient barnyard birth of a Jewish baby destined to become the Savior of the World. Christmas proceeds with the Epiphany, or revelation of the Savior to the gentiles, signified by the adoration of the three Magi from Iran. The Christmas season is capped off today by celebrating the adult Jesus presenting himself for immersion in the Jordan River by his cousin, John the Baptist.
So, this day we celebrate the Baptism of the Lord. Jesus, born without sin, nevertheless presented himself for John's Baptism. Now, I thought Baptism was to wash away sin. The natural question is, "If Jesus was the Son of God, and Baptism is to wash away sin, why did Jesus have to be baptized by John?" In the Gospel of Luke we are told, as Jesus presented himself to John for Baptism in the Jordan, John said, "Better I be baptized by you." Jesus response, as we read this morning, was, “Let it be so now; for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” And then: Jesus was baptized, the heavens opened as he came up out of the water, he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and alighting on him; and a voice from heaven, saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” Jesus’ humbly submitted to the Baptism of John. Jesus was now ready to begin his ministry.
Exactly what is Baptism anyway? We all know it is a rite of the Church, one of the two sacraments in the Presbyterian Church. It’s usually useful to look at the Jewish roots of Christianity and Jewish rituals to get a better understanding of Christianity and Christian sacraments. Baptism is an ancient Jewish rite. The Old Testament as well as the New is filled with water symbolism. Water is a symbol of passage, of transformation and spiritual cleansing all throughout the Bible. The root of water Baptism starts in the second sentence of Genesis, where the Holy Spirit of God spreads her wings and hovers over the primal waters.
Israel passed through the waters of the Red Sea to be free of Egyptian slavery. Joshua led Israel dry shod over the Jordan River to enter the Promised Land. The Prophet Elisha directed Naaman the Syrian commander to immerse himself seven times in the Jordan to be cured of his Leprosy. Immersion in the Jewish ritual bath, the Mikvah, cleansed not only from specific sin, but purified the soul. The Essenes, writers of the Dead Sea Scrolls, immersed themselves in cold water every morning for purification before pronouncing the name of God. Water both cleanses and frees us. In order for a new proselyte to be admitted to Judaism there were three acts that needed to be performed: a sacrifice, circumcision and Baptism. The final act, immersion in water, was a seal to complete the transformation of the former pagan into the community of Israel.
So, we begin to understand why Jesus submitted himself to Baptism. We can see the connection between the Holy Spirit hovering over the primal waters in Genesis and then the same Spirit descending like a dove on Jesus at the moment of his Baptism in the waters of the Jordan. Jesus himself was symbolically sanctified and sealed by his Baptism, and at the same time, Jesus sanctified Baptism itself by his submission to it.
Our knowledge of Jesus' ministry begins here, with his baptism. We don't know much about Jesus life before his Baptism. All we know of him as a teenager is the event where his parents unknowingly left him behind in the Jerusalem Temple, where the wisdom of his questions astounded the learned rabbis.
Jesus ministry begins with a miracle at Cana, and it was symbolically a water miracle. Jesus first miracle was performed reluctantly, but, his mother pushed him into doing it. Mary did more than give Jesus birth and raise him up as a devout Jew. She “kick-started” his ministry at this wedding reception in a neighboring town. Mothers have an even more important role in our lives than we realize. Jesus and his mother were guests at a wedding celebration up in the hill country near where they lived. You remember; the wine ran out. Few things are as embarrassing as having the bar run dry at a party. So Jesus' mom, socially sensitive, pointed the problem out to him. Jesus hesitated. He said it wasn't his time yet. But mom said to the waiters, "Do what my son tells you to." Jewish mothers speak with authority. Jesus went along. He instructed the waiters to fill six big Mikvah jugs with water. The Mikvah jugs were used for filling the ritual immersion baths taken by Jewish men and women for purification. The waters of the sacramental Mikvah bath did two things; the waters cleansed a human from physical reminders of his animal nature, and in purifying a man or woman from his sinful animal nature, made the person ready to continue the journey to holiness.
Jesus first miracle symbolically transformed the ritual Old Testament purification water into the saving new wine of the New Testament. This was a forerunner of the powerful miracle of Baptism made freely available to us today. It was an announcement of what is to come as Jesus began his ministry. And we begin our own ministry.
Reverend Lindsey begins every Sunday service, as we did this morning, with a ritual pouring of water into the Baptismal font. This is a graphic reminder of our own Baptism for each of us. Whether our Baptism was as an infant, later confirmed at Confirmation, or as an adult, each of us has been Baptized into the Church, the expanded Community of Israel. This simple ritual should remind us of our sinful nature and constant need for God’s Grace, which is poured out for us at Baptism.
John the Baptist immersed Jews in Judea’s river, not in a ritual bath house. John was doing something different. He was immersing people not just to cleanse them from specific impurity, but in recognition of their personal repentance from our complete no-win human condition. He baptized in recognition of each person’s desire to be transformed into something new, something better. Once baptized, one is washed clean, and now ready to begin the road to salvation, to holiness. Baptism is a preparation for the journey, the beginning.
Two things happen at the moment of Baptism. Both prepare us to begin the Christian journey. The first thing that happens is the miraculous opening to God’s Grace. Baptism marks an acceptance into the body of Christ by the Grace of God, the symbolic entry into the Community of Israel. The second thing: Baptism also marks a release of one’s soul from sin, rejection of evil; repentance from our former state of self-seeking human nature. It is contrition and forgiveness for all past sins. It is also freedom from the guilt caused by our human condition and from the guilt caused by the bad stuff we did in the past.
They didn’t have psychiatrists in Jesus day. They had Rabbis. And the rabbinic solutions to human guilt were oriented to legal justice rather than daily or weekly forgiveness. The Jewish people believed that while God was merciful as well as just, you had to make a physical sacrifice at the Temple to seal your forgiveness. Today, Jews look to the Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, to confess their sins and hopefully, through the mercy of Hashem, The Name, be inscribed in the Book of Life for another year.
Christian forgiveness is actually similar, but the one-time cosmic sacrifice Jesus made at Easter is a sacrifice God made himself. And he made it for us, to outweigh our sins and our sinful nature. All that a Christian needs is sincere contrition and repentance from sin. Sin, of course, as Peter teaches, is doing something you know to be wrong, and having the wisdom to know it is wrong. Sin makes you feel guilty. And it should.
Our weekly unison confession of sin, and our assurance of forgiveness is important, but don’t overlook the power of confessing specific sin and guilt to be free of it. Confession, whether to a Pastor, a shrink, to your family doctor, to an understanding friend or spouse, confession is very powerful. Confess it, repent of it, be forgiven of it. Drop it. Then get up, free from the heavy bags that have been weighing you down. Get ready to roll.
Now, like Jesus, we are ready to begin our ministry. Each person’s ministry takes a different form – some in service, some in philanthropy, some in health ministry, some in guidance, teaching, evangelism. Others in music, others contemplative quiet prayer. Whatever your ministry, the aim of ministry is different from the aim of Baptism. Baptism is for YOU. Baptism is for the freedom of YOUR soul. MINISTRY, the Christian journey, is for the salvation of OTHERS. Ministry is to assist other creatures and all of creation, and to assist them in Love.
Peter’s Letter teaches that Love covers a multitude of sins. Actions, thoughts or attitudes of love weigh heavily in the balancing scales of heaven. Yes, sins are heavy, but sins are feathers compared to the tremendous mass and density of love. Jesus cosmic sacrifice was for you and your good. Your ministry is for others and their good. Never underestimate the potency of one person’s love. Jesus taught faith moves mountains. Your faith, expressed in attitude, prayer and action for others, your ministry to others, will move mountains.
Every ancient icon of Jesus shows him with two fingers extended. This illustrates that Jesus, like us, has two natures; one animal and one divine. And that’s why Jesus submitted himself to the Baptism of John. Humble recognition of his humanity. As his mother, Mary, in humility accepted the angel’s word and her unnatural, shocking pregnancy, so Jesus, beginning with cleansing Baptism, in humility showed the way. It was “fitting that it be so” for Jesus to submit to John’s Baptism in full acknowledgment of his humanity. God himself then said, “This is my Son, with whom I am well pleased,” affirming Jesus divine nature. Now, Jesus was ready to begin his Ministry, his Ordinary Time. Jesus showed us the way. Jesus was saying to us, as we begin our Ordinary Time, “You can do this, too. Follow me”
One final thought as we wrap up. Congregationalists also have a unison prayer of confession. One day in a committee meeting – yes, the Congregationalists also have many committee meetings – one of the long-standing, upstanding paragons of the Church complained about this unison prayer of confession. It offended him, he said, to have to confess his guilt and sin when, he assured us, he had done nothing wrong.
"I haven't committed any sin," the paragon said. "why should I have to make a confession of guilt and sin when I don’t have any sin?" I was really struck by that statement. Forget the trouble this pompous paragon was causing in the church, the idea of anyone thinking themselves above sin stunned me. Think of Punky, the high-consciousness bulldog, clearly understanding and acknowledging her wrong-doing, her sin, hiding her eyes in contrition. Contrast that with the "virtuous paragon" who thinks he is perfectly okay as he is.
If I had to bet on who gets to heaven, I'm betting on the bulldog.