The readings on which the sermon below is based can be found at:
s034g08 Sunday 1 the Baptism of Jesus 13/1/2008
'with whom I am well pleased' Matthew 3.17
I recall preaching on this text some years ago, the general thrust of which was that Jesus had done nothing to deserve this affirmation by God. The Baptism of Jesus marked the beginning of his public ministry; the time when Jesus actually started to do things that I assumed constituted the coming of the kingdom. But as I reflect on these readings to prepare this sermon, I realise that this discounts entirely the thirty or so years of his early and unrecorded life. During these years, Jesus lived among ordinary people as another ordinary person. Jesus was associated with the tax collectors and sinners that he was charged with by those who would later criticise. In this sense his life was continuous. He didn't change. He didn't set up a monastery to withdraw from society, like the authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls who existed about this time, did. While Jesus spent some time alone in the wilderness, his ministry was primarily public and proactive in a way perhaps different to John the Baptist, whose ministry was centred away from city life. People came to John the Baptist, whereas Jesus travelled the countryside, from town to town, to meet and associate with all people.
The words of God, that Jesus was the Son of God, occured twice in Jesus' lifetime. The synoptic evangelists, Matthew, Mark and Luke, all recount this happening at his baptism, as well as at the transfiguration on the high mountain.
Therefore we can assume that this information was important for God to impart, since such direct pronouncements are indeed few and far between. This has often been thought that primarily this relates to the nature of the Saviour that he was, in Trinitarian terms, both divine and human.
However this is to avoid precisely what Jesus did and the scandal (that precipitated his death) that he associated with others. These pronouncements are God's imprimatur on what Jesus did associating with others and therefore impel us to do likewise. We too are not to retreat into obscurity, spiritually, physically, ethically or morally.
The greatest threat to world peace comes from those who in the name of God consider others less than human, that they are unclean and not worthy of association. Most of us, as good Anglicans, we consider our own prejudices as minor and inconsequential. However every time we excuse our own prejudices we implicitly allow terrorists to retain their own prejudices. If we cannot put aside our own prejudices, inconsequential as they may seem to be, how can we expect someone else to put aside their prejudices when they are in the midst of what they see as a fight for survival?
Now this has very important implications for the Church. The Church is not the gathered community but the dispersed community! The Church is not the building, nor the ritual that surrounds our worship, but our ability to leave this place and worship and associate with others in the name of God. Those of the Church are those who follow Jesus, and specifically those who follow Jesus in associating with others.
What a constant temptation it is to retreat from the world! As a divorced priest, it is probably my most constant temptation. After visiting in two hospitals I come home each night mostly content to be an 'after-hours' hermit :-)! I don't watch much television at all. But this is, I am happy to admit, not a healthy situation. It is not good for a man or woman to be alone. One of the most frequent characteristics of mental illness is the separation it brings from other people.
As Christians we are meant to be in relationship with others not at loggerheads with others. Those who seem to be happiest in this life are those who are happy to relate to other people, whoever they are. Some of the most unhappy people in this life are religious people who marginalize and alienate others. Sadly, in the Anglican Communion, presently we are engulfed in the debate over women and sexuality. Those who marginalise and alienate women and gay people, accuse those who would associate with these to be marginalizing and alienating them - for whom separation is an article of faith!
In the end it is a matter of breadth over narrowness. I recall that lovely verse in the psalms: 'The LORD is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot. The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; I have a goodly heritage.' (Psalm 16.5,6) Salvation in the Old Testament is literally 'enlargement' 'the broadening of horizons' (Exodus 14.13, 15.2, Psalms 34.6) 'The Dictionary of the Bible' J. L. Dow Collins p512. So we are not saved from the world but saved into the world.
So it is significant that the first issue that faced the infant Church was about the appropriateness of associating with Gentiles, which is the subject of our reading from Acts today. St Peter, after a long and involved journey, was led by God to the household of Cornelius, the Gentile. Had he known where God was leading him, he probably would have gone more reluctantly. But this journey, accompanied by visions, both to Peter and to Cornelius convinced Peter that 'God shows no partiality', that all are worthy of association. The whole journey was inspired by God, it was not some personal crusade that Peter undertook because he thought it was a good idea. He had not turned into a 'lily-livered liberal' scripture tells us that he was given no choice whatsoever but to take this journey and to recognize its implications. Similarly St Paul was given no choice but to stop persecuting others in the name of God.
All this implies that God is well-pleased with the creation, which has obvious echoes of the story in Genesis chapter 1. We too ought to be well pleased with God's creation, even when parts of it do not think like us, act like us or believe like us.
Jesus, as God the Son, shows us what God is truly like, and Jesus shows us that he was well pleased with creation by his ready association with others. Those who had Jesus killed believed that God was not well pleased with creation, that God was only well pleased with themselves and their compatriots.
So we too are given the choice, though being a Christian means that the 'choice' is made to associate with others. If we wish to be displeased with the creation, if we wish to be at loggerheads with anyone and everyone who is different, then God will allow us, but I am quite sure that this is not God's preferred choice for anyone!
Back to: "A Spark of the Spirit"