Friday, January 9, 2015

The Pattern of Ministry (Baptism of the Lord, Jan 11 2015)

Homily:  Yr B P1 Baptism of the Lord, Jan 11 2015, St Albans
Readings:  Gen 1.1-5; Ps 29; Acts 19.1-7, Mk 1.1-11

Beginnings matter.  Good writers know this.  They know that the way a book or a story begins can set the tone for what is to come, can alert the reader to significant themes and characters and can set up patterns that are important and may be repeated as the story plays out.

Many of the great beginnings are familiar to us:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

“Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.”

And from today’s reading,

‘In the beginning when God created the heavens of the earth, the earth was a formless void, and darkness covered the face of the deep, while the Spirit of God swept over the face of the waters.”

This is of course, the first of the great beginnings.  It introduces the main character, God, and it sets up an air of expectancy as we look to God to act, to make something happen out of the formless void and darkness.  And as we read on in the first five verses of Genesis, God does act and there is a pattern which is set up:

The Spirit of God comes down to our world.

There is a voice:  God speaks.

That voice creates a new reality:  God said, ‘Let there be light’, and there was light.

And God surveys what has come into being and sees that it is good.

In today’s gospel, Mark the evangelist, picks up on this pattern as he begins his story.  His first line echoes the beginning of Genesis:  “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

Then there is a prologue, a reference to the prophesy of Isaiah, and an introduction to John the Baptist, the precursor of Jesus who sets the scene for us in the wilderness at the Jordan River.

But the story really begins with the baptism of Jesus, as Jesus is coming up out of the water.

And here the pattern of creation that we saw in Genesis is repeated:

The heavens are torn apart and the Spirit comes down on him.  The voice of God speaks.  That voice creates a new reality, and God sees what he has created and declares it to be good.

Baptism is both an act of creation and an epiphany.

It is an act of creation, because when God speaks a new reality is created, something new has been formed from the dust of the earth.

And baptism is an epiphany, a revelation, or if you like, an “aha” moment, because it reveals to us the truth about ourselves, the truth about who we are, and who we are in relation to God.  We are not just flesh and bones, we are something much, much more.  The heavens are torn apart, and we see something that we may not have seen before.

What we are, who we are is both created and revealed to us by the Voice.

“And just as Jesus was coming out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.  And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

What a gift, what a moment of grace.  Because when you think about it, here is everything that is most essential to us as human beings, all wrapped up in one declaration.

There is the gift of identity.  “You are my Son.”  From this moment on, Jesus knows who he is.  He is a child of God, God’s Son.

There is the gift of belonging.  “You are my Son and you are loved.”  You belong. You are beloved member of the family of God.

And there is the gift of affirmation.  “With you, I am well pleased.”  Unwavering, unconditional positive regard and acceptance.

This is the gift, this is the new reality, this is the insight that Jesus received at his baptism.  Gifts of identity, belonging and affirmation.  And these become the foundation of his ministry.  The gospel of Mark makes it very clear that this is the foundational event of Jesus’ ministry.  There are no birth stories in the gospel of Mark, no stories from Jesus childhood, nothing is thrown in that might confuse us or distract us from the fact that Jesus’ baptism is the foundational event of Jesus’ ministry.

And with this event, a new pattern is established.  Jesus, having received these gifts in baptism, these gifts of identity, belonging and affirmation then becomes the one who gives them to others.  Jesus’ ministry, at its most essential, boils down to doing for others what was done for him at his baptism, telling people by word and by deed that they are God’s beloved children with whom God is well pleased. 

That’s why Jesus’ ministry is tilted towards the outcasts and the marginalized, towards the ones who have been told that they are no good, the ones who have been told that they don’t belong, the ones who have been told that God rejects them.  He will go to the leper on the outskirts of town and touch her and heal her and invite her back into the community.  He will see a paralyzed man, who has been told all his life that he is being punished for his sins and he will say, “Son, your sins are forgiven”.  He will turn to the woman who has been suffering with a hemorrhage and hasn’t been allowed out in public for twelve long years and say to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well, go in peace and be healed.”  He will call Levi the tax collector and he will go and eat at Levi’s house with the tax collectors and sinners.  In these and many other encounters, Jesus will do for others what was done for him at his baptism.  He becomes the voice that says “You are a child of God, you are loved, and God is really pleased with you.”

This is the pattern of Jesus’ ministry.  This is the pattern of Christian ministry.  In baptism, you too were commissioned for this ministry, given the opportunity and encouraged to follow this pattern.

Because at your baptism, there was a voice that said to you, “You are a child of God, you are loved and God is really pleased with you.”

Now, I know that when I say this it might raise some questions.

Some may wonder whether that voice was only meant for Jesus, and not for all of us.

Some may wonder what that means for those of us who were so young when we were baptized that we don’t remember our baptisms.

And some who can remember their own baptism may be thinking to themselves, “I don’t remember anything like the heavens being torn apart, and I certainly didn’t hear the voice of God.”

And it’s true that most of us didn’t experience anything in our own baptism as dramatic as the story that Mark tells us in today’s gospel.

But remember the pattern of ministry that we’ve been talking about.  Jesus hears the voice from heaven, and he in turn becomes the voice that speaks the good news to others.  God doesn’t need to speak from heaven every time, because he has all of our voices to do the speaking for him.  You see, when you were baptized you were given the gifts of identity, belonging and affirmation.  But you were also given something else, and that is the gift of ministry.  It’s now your job to do for others what God has done for you.  That’s the pattern.

So it’s time to practice.  We all need to hear the voice, we all need to know that we are God’s children, loved by God, and that God is really pleased with us.  And, as the baptized, we all need to practice the pattern of ministry.  And so I’d like us all to do something.  I’m going to start by telling the people nearest me the following:

“You are a child of God.  You are loved, and God is really pleased with you.”

When you’ve heard it, take a second to receive this as a gift, and then you can turn and tell the same thing to the person standing beside you.  And so on, the pattern will repeat, until everyone in this room has heard this voiced at least once.
This is how we do ministry.  We receive the grace of God, the gifts of identity, belonging and affirmation, and we in turn give them to others.  That’s the pattern.  It’s the pattern that Jesus followed, it’s the pattern that we are called to follow as the baptized people of God.  And when we do this we become the voice of God in the world.


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