The readings on which this sermon is based can be found at:

s113g12  Baptism of Jesus 8/1/2012

‘he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending’   Mark 1.10

This is the beginning of the gospel according to Mark, and perhaps it is also the end of the gospel too.   The good news is that the heavens are torn apart and the descent of the Spirit on humanity.  

Mark has nothing of the early birth narratives of Matthew and Luke, and no pre-existent theology of John, but nevertheless Mark sees just as clearly as the other writers that Jesus’ coming means a different relationship between the divine and the human.   What was once thought of as separate and distinct is now merged and identical.   No longer can we look elsewhere for the deity; the Spirit is alive and present with Jesus, and because the separation between heaven and earth is shattered, the divine is present with all of humanity.

And I point out that it is the heavens that are ruptured, not the earth.   As we in Christchurch New Zealand look to 2012 as a year when the earth around here will be rather more settled than it was last year, this is very pertinent.   We have had enough of earthquakes and disruption, thank you very much!

Jesus’ coming is not about changing people - getting the irreligious to repent and come to church and be like us - it is about a whole new relationship between the sacred and the secular.   Those who opposed this new relationship were the orthodox and the devout, for it meant that others were included, others have to be exalted rather than marginalised, included rather than alienated and made first in the kingdom rather than condemned.   So ‘the heavens’ - so carefully defined and protected from ordinary folk - are torn open.   It is the orthodox and the devout who are invited to repent, to rejoice that this is so.

I wrote recently about those who proclaiming the name of Jesus seem to think that this excuses them from not treating others as they themselves would wish to be treated.   Further to this I realise that this is so similar to those who pontificate about the essential nature of God in their theological ivory towers - apart from others.   The HEAVENS are now torn apart.   Again, Jesus came to say something not about how humanity has got to live up to some new (?) standard, knowledge or understanding, but how God has acted to release us from eternally (but just as inevitably unsuccessfully) trying to worship in the correct manner, to understand God in orthodox manner, to believe in God sufficiently strongly or to live up to what God wants.

I have also written recently about the dangers of believing in a hell and today’s gospel tells us that it is as dangerous to believe in a heaven which is ‘up there’, unchangeable, a haven of security.   If our straining for heaven means we avoid contact with other folk then we condemn ourselves to a hell which is as much a figment of our imagination as is heaven.   We don’t do anyone else any good straining for a personal heaven any more than when we condemn others to a non-existent hell - let alone doing something for God.

One of the things we say when someone is baptised is that they are re-born.   By far the majority of folk, including good and orthodox folk think that this is some change in the essential nature of the person having been baptised.   But the real change is that in baptism the whole of humanity and the whole of creation is open to the newly baptised.   Creation and humanity itself has become heaven.   Instead of baptism making us members of a ‘holy huddle’ distinct from the rest of humanity, baptism joins us with the rest of humanity, including the marginalised, the alienated and the condemned, as when the heavens were opened and the Spirit descended on humanity.   For, as I point out, it is only this that will actually be of some benefit to others.   This is and will be heaven.   And if heaven isn’t this - if it doesn’t include other people here and now - if it actually condemns society to more division and conflict - it doesn’t seem to me to be worthwhile - indeed it seems to me to be positively demonic.

And hence baptism is all about ministry, because each and every one of us has a unique and vital contribution to make in our acceptance and care for those around us.   If our ‘ministry’ is one of marginalization, alienation and condemnation, who is magnified?   God?   Hardly!  Others?   No!   Of course it is those who do the marginalising, alienating and condemning who are magnifying themselves.  

So baptism marks the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, where he didn’t hide behind a holy huddle but was always out and about, going from one town to the next - the hapless disciples struggling to keep up and wondering where next he would lead them.   His journeyings were to take Jesus from his sojourn in the wilderness (1.9), to where he perhaps had a house in Capernaum (2.1), to his home town of Nazareth (6.1), the country of the Gerasenes (5.1), crossing the sea back and forth to the towns of the Decapolis (7.31), Galilee (1.28), to Genesaret (6.53) and Bethsaida (6.45), then to Tyre and Sidon, where he met the Syrophoenician woman where he had to remind himself that the was sent ‘only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel’ (Mat 15.24 // Mark 7.24) and so began to return, including a trip to Dalmanutha (8.10), the villages of Caesarea Philippi (8.27), the region of Judea beyond the Jordan (10.1), to Jericho (10.46) and eventually to Bethphage and Bethany (11.1), Jerusalem (11.11) and crucifixion.   For a person on foot, Jesus covered an awful lot of ground.

So Jesus’ itinerant ministry was to include all; to leave no one out.   If he was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, it was because these would deny and have him killed.   Had he not returned to the centre of devotion and orthodoxy, but had travelled even wider, he would have been accepted.

It was precisely the broadness of his ministry that offended the separated ones.   It was precisely those who wanted to maintain their religious superiority over others, who maintained the integrity of heaven as distinct from earth, who decried secular society as unclean, unworthy and damned, who opposed Jesus and finally had him killed.

The christian message is incarnation - the tearing apart of the separation between heaven and earth - the breakdown of the division between sacred and secular.   And ultimately this is that which the orthodox and the devout would deny.

In the end the reason for the condemnation of those different, the marginalization of women, the alienation of gay and lesbian persons is all about maintaining the separation and the division.  This is why the issue is so heated, so crucial.

The christian task is ever towards the lost sheep of the house of Israel, to the orthodox and the devout of every age and religion who want to deny that the divine is found anywhere other than through their rituals, anywhere outside their holy huddles, and they are just as numerous in ‘christian’ and Anglican circles to this day as anywhere else.

As ordinary folk celebrate the birth of Jesus as a sign that they are blessed in their humanity, so I suggest we celebrate the baptism of Jesus, because this is a sign that secular society is similarly blessed, and know that we are called to join in our communities with acceptance, courage and love.

Back to: "A Spark of the Spirit"