The readings on which the sermon below is based can be found at:
s093g08 Advent 2 7/12/08
'a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins' Mark 1.4
Repentance is often associated with soul searching, owning up to past mistakes in order to receive forgiveness, relieve our consciences and make us acceptable to God. But the problem with this is that it can make a virtue of soul searching and owning up and make us more holy, more humble, more religious, more accepted and acceptable than others. I was a touch amused, reading Henry Chadwick's: 'The Early Church', his description of Clement of Alexandria's view of the church 'as a 'school', with many grades and differing abilities among its pupils, where all the elect were equal, but some were 'more elect' than others.' (p98)
The text 'a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins' is theological shorthand, the sense of which is lost unless we know precisely what Jesus means by repentance for he does not mean soul searching and owning up to past mistakes. If he had meant this then he would have been made high priest, not crucified.
In chapter 15 of St Luke's Gospel Jesus illustrates what he means by repentance, and in those three parables, the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost son, repentance is all about rejoicing with someone because someone else has been found. Repentance is all about the acceptance of the other person. It is not about things we might have done wrong, but our relationship with others. So the devout in Jesus' day saw their devotion as setting themselves apart from others. Only their contributions to God were acceptable. Anything that others might give had to be made acceptable by the moneychangers and even then was unimportant. That Jesus would have noticed the widow putting in her mite was surprising enough; it was scandalous to suggest that her mite surpassed the contributions of the devout. I mean she was a woman! If there is any argument for the ordination of women and the acceptability of their sacrifices, this ought to be it.
So repentance involves a death to self and an opening up to others. This is what new life is about. It is not primarily an abnegation of self, except insofar as one considers oneself superior to others. So baptism is not baptism into the Anglican church, or the Catholic church or the Christian church, a baptism that separates us from others - so by implication baptism is into the whole of the human family.
It is only in this way that we too follow Jesus who was killed because he associated with 'tax collectors and prostitutes'.
So our forgiveness of sins comes as we accept others, as St Peter says: 'Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins.' (1 Peter 4.8)
But why on earth should God institute baptism, if we are already born into the human race by being born? Of what earthly use is this? I wonder if the same thing could not be said for the command to love. Why on earth should God command something that, by and large, most of us try to do? To talk about love at a marriage, for example, is an exercise in supererogation it is superfluous. The couple being married surely know all about love. (Mind you I'm not sure I did at the time :-) But the trouble is that often it doesn't happen. In the history of humankind, baptism has been viewed almost universally as baptism into something out of this world, into a supernatural family, into a 'better' society!
I point out that this is the message of John the Baptist, as well as Jesus. In fact, of course it is the message of the gospel in its entirety, the message of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation, it is the will of God - for all to be a part of the community of humanity.
If one interprets the whole of the 'gospel' in the light of John 14.6: 'no one comes to the Father but by me' as if Jesus stands between us and God, separating 'christians' from the rest of society who are condemned to eternal punishment, then we haven't got the message of the gospel, the message of the Bible, we have mistaken what the will of God is. And if we are following someone else's will rather than God's it is more than likely a demon's will, and it will only do us damage, and damage others as well.
How does it damage us? Well it causes us to focus on our own performance. It is interesting, when I do my cello practice at home, I don't do too badly. But when I go to my weekly lesson with my tutor, I get self-conscious, I try too hard and make lots more mistakes! Somehow I have both to be mindful of what I am doing, but not so self absorbed so as to stumble over the notes.
This afternoon I attended worship at the little Church at Byng near to Orange. And the theme of the service was being prepared for the Lord's coming. And the preacher talked about a governor visiting a gaol at midnight to see how it was being run. He came at an unexpected time to find out how it really was. If the gaol had known he was coming then everything would be spick and span and he would not have found out what it was really like. And it made me think that the real question is not how clean and tidy our houses are, but whether we are at peace with others. If our religion makes us self absorbed then we might have immaculate residences but not notice the beggars at our gate. We will be judged how we really are, and not on the pretences that we might put on, and this will involve the wideness of our mercy, which ought to match the wideness of God's mercy. And it is a life long thing. We need to live lives being part of humanity. Someone said once, your children won't thank you for keeping the house spick and span, and I would add, nor for going to Church!
But this is unduly negative, for being part of humanity is a liberating thing.
We do not have to be 'better' than anyone else, or everyone else. Trying to be perfect is exhausting and in the end pointless. The Bible, John the Baptist, Jesus and God invite us into the world, to enjoy life and to enjoy one another. And this invitation comes with the added bonus that our sins are forgiven.
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