Baptism of Christ: Unmerited Love

8 January 2012

Baptism of Christ (First Sunday after Epiphany)

St. John United Church of Christ

St. Clair, MO

Unmerited Love

Based on St. Mark 1: 4-11

By Rev. James Semmelroth Darnell

            So many of us long for acceptance in our lives – to know that we are accepted and loved for who we are. We seek to be accepted by friends, co-workers, peers, and colleagues, by our significant others and spouses – and often most especially, by our parents. The acceptance we do or don’t receive from our parents can often either bless or haunt us for the rest of our lives. I believe that is at the core of this morning’s passage from St. Mark’s gospel.

If you were with us through Advent, you may remember that we heard very recently the first half of this morning’s text on the second Sunday of Advent. We come back to John the Baptist this morning. Wearing camel’s hair, eating locusts and wild honey, John proclaims a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Repentance, as I remarked several weeks ago, is akin to turning our lives in the direction God seeks for us. John’s followers come from all around the countryside and even from the metropolis of Jerusalem to the River Jordan in Galilee to be baptized. Clearly, many were eager to receive both his message and baptism. There was something about John’s call to repentance that rang true for these people, an authenticity and directness they were not receiving from the temple leaders. But John also reminds his followers, ““The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

John is clear that he is not the messiah, but is preparing the way. It is at this point that Jesus comes on the scene and is baptized himself. Even though John claims he is not fit to untie the thong of Jesus’ sandals, Jesus requests that John baptizes him. Once again, this is the story that begins St. Mark’s gospel. This is the beginning of the Good News for St. Mark. And the occurrence of Jesus baptism is clearly important as it is told not only here, but the gospels according to S.S. Matthew, Mark, and Luke, as well as the Book of Acts, and St. Paul’s letter to the Romans. Not even Jesus’ birth receives that much coverage in Scripture, so Jesus’ baptism must have been a decisive moment for the early Church.

Jesus and John had a prior relationship. St. Luke tells us that Mary, the mother of Jesus and Elizabeth, the mother of John were cousins. Luke offers that while they were both pregnant and visited each other, Elizabeth proclaimed to Mary, “”Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! Why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the voice of your greeting came into my ears, the baby leaped in my womb for joy!” Even before they were born, the cousins Jesus and John were acquainted. They likely had much contact growing up. Some scholars suggest that Jesus either began as a follower of John, or was a partner in his ministry before John was arrested.

Now, you may wonder why Jesus was baptized. This is something that theologians far more wise than I have addressed through the ages. It would seem contradictory that Jesus, who is without sin, is baptized by John, who is offering a baptism of repentance. Jesus doesn’t have anything to repent of, it would seem. But as repentance is turning toward God, Jesus doesn’t seek forgiveness of sins as much as aligning himself fully with the Creator. Jesus Christ and the Creator are both God, but Jesus, both human and divine, puts himself in alignment with the Creator and Spirit, to fully engage his mission.

So Jesus goes into the river, John has likely dunked him – and as Jesus comes up out of the water, he sees “the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Here we have the Son of God, being told by the Creator, the eternal Father and Mother, saying to Jesus, “with you I am well pleased.” This is before Jesus has begun his ministry, before he turned water into wine, before he healed lepers and the blind and the lame, before he cast out demons, before he welcomed women and children, before he challenged the powerful, before he took all our sins to the cross. And yet God says, “With you I am well pleased.” We don’t really know what Jesus was doing before this, but we do know that his ministry had not yet begun. But it is at this point that the Spirit comes down like  a dove and the Creator’s voice calls out to Jesus, and Jesus is affirmed and accepted before he does anything. This is God’s unconditional and unmerited love for the Son, for Jesus Christ, and also for us. This is the kind of acceptance we often long for in our human relationships – to be loved and accepted, not based on our achievements, social status, jobs, or possessions, but on who we are as children of God.

This is where it all starts – Jesus is affirmed in his role as God’s Son even before he begins his formal ministry. His ministry begins with this simple, beautiful affirmation. This is what is always done in baptism. God says to us when we are baptized, “You are my beloved child, with whom I am well pleased.” Particularly when we baptize infants, we celebrate the beginning of their lives by welcoming them into the Body of Christ and affirm them as beloved children of God. We do this often before they can talk or walk or even sit up on their own, and certainly before they’ve proved themselves as productive members of society – because it is precisely what God does. He does it with Jesus and does it with us. God loved us and called us by name when we were still in our mothers’ wombs. God loves us and accepts us right out of the womb, and there is nothing we have to do to earn that. When we baptize a youth or adult, it includes John’s baptism of repentance and forgiveness of sins, but it again affirms what God did long ago in accepting and loving that person. Swiss theologian Paul Tillich famously wrote that, “”You are accepted!” … accepted by that which is greater than you and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask the name now, perhaps you will know it later. Do not try to do anything, perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything, do not perform anything, do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted.”

Faith is that – to accept that you are accepted. The acceptance we seek from those around us really comes from God, and there is nothing we have to earn it, just to accept that we are loveable just the way we are. God says to each of us that we are God’s beloved child.

Remember this is a message so important that it is included in the Bible six times. Our early Church fathers and mothers wanted to make sure that those who followed them would know that even before Jesus begins his ministry he is accepted, and that even before we begin our journey of discipleship we are accepted. In baptism, God says a great big “Yes!” to us, “and with you I am well-pleased!”

The mission statement of this congregation describes this church as “an open and accepting Christian environment.” In fact, we are the only such church in this community of 27 different churches, that offers such an inclusive welcome. Sadly, no other congregations in this community come close to offering the same kind of openness and acceptance that we do. As such we have a great role set before us – to proclaim acceptance and love in this community in ways that no other faith community is willing to do. This is our niche and strength that will help us grow numerically and spiritually. There are so many in our community desperate for the alternative message that we offer – people who don’t get enough acceptance and love from their own families or peers, people struggling and hurting who need shown just a bit more love, people who have been rejected and alienated by other faith communities, people who struggle to love and accept themselves. So our call is to share this message of love and acceptance, letting these people know that they are indeed loved and accepted, that we welcome them and that God says, “You are my beloved child, with whom I am well-pleased.” There could be no better news. Good news indeed.

+To God be the glory. Amen.

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