Sunday, January 31, 2016

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

Luke 4
“Truly I tell you,” he continued, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown. 25 I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. 26 Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. 27 And there were many in Israel with leprosy[g] in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian.”
28 All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. 29 They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff. 30 But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way.

100 years since women in Manitoba won the right to vote—an idea that soon spread across the Dominion—but it would take another 13 years to settle the question of whether women were ‘persons’ at all.

The Persons Case involved who could be appointed to the Senate. Even though women were being elected to legislatures across the country, there were no women appointed to the Senate, owing to the assumption they were not ‘persons’ as described in the BNA Act.

And while it seems absurd that men of the day would use such a flimsy argument to exclude women, the Supreme Court of Canada agreed with the men: women were not persons as described in the Act. So the Famous Five took the matter to the British Privy Council—seems colonialism wasn’t all bad—and won. In 1929, Canadian women were recognized as persons.

This remarkable bit of our history was commemorated on the $50 dollar bill, until the last government saw fit to replace the Famous Five women of the Persons Case with a picture of an icebreaker. If you have one of these bills, and you find the change to an icebreaker offensive, I suggest you put it on the offering plate and we will give it back to the bank for you.

I share this because our passage today is one of those way-points on the journey from exclusion to inclusion, an early example of challenging the traditional assumptions about who belongs and who does not. It marks the beginning of Jesus’ prophetic ministry, seeking to expand our understanding of grace and who can be described as a person of faith.

The passage begins innocently enough. Jesus is invited to read the lesson, and shares a well-loved passage from Isaiah. Everyone seems pleased for the moment, with some comments at the back about this being Joseph’s lad and how well he’s doing. And then Jesus adds a bit of commentary.

First, he mentions Capernaum, and alludes to his growing fame as a healer. He suggests that ‘prophets are usually not welcome in their hometown, and then he mentions a couple of stories that seem to push everyone’s buttons: the widow in Zarephath and Naaman the Syrian. He is threatened with great violence, then somehow he manages to escape the angry crowd.

So what is it about these two stories that make seemingly happy people really mad, really quickly? In the first story, Elijah and the widow of Zarephath(1 Kings), the exiled Elijah reaches out for help. He finds it in a most unexpected place, through a foreign woman, and the encounter generates two miracles: Feeding those present and eventually raising the widow’s dead son to life, the first example of such a miracle in the Bible. The next story is Naaman the Syrian, another foreigner who is the subject of a miracle, this time healed of leprosy by a prophet of Israel when no one in his own land could treat or cure the illness.

Both are Bible stories, both familiar to a congregation that read through the Bible in worship. Yet somehow the promise of God’s healing in Isaiah and a reference to God’s decision to heal people outside the covenant made people really mad. We have to assume that these stories were easy enough to ignore, until Jesus decides to set them in the same context—the new age.

And that takes us back to the original reading, the part before the part that Judith shared, the feel-good passage that made the good people of Nazareth happy before Jesus’ comments made them so mad. He opened the scroll and read:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

We have to assume that the congregation heard these promises and saw themselves or people they knew: poor, imprisoned, blind, oppressed, and in need of release. They lived in the shadow of Sepphoris, one of the new Roman towns that provided a few jobs but mostly reinforced their status as a conquered people. When they imagined the fulfillment of promises—healing and freedom—they though that it would be for them alone. They weren’t prepared to be reminded that God decides who receives the Lord’s favour.

So a theme is born. Jesus spends time with tax collectors and sinners. Jesus’ parable extends grace to the prodigal when the older brother was the loyal one who stayed home to tend the farm. Jesus engages with men and women, teaching and learning as he steps outside traditional boundaries.

And it doesn’t end there: Peter has a vision of the foods permitted in this new age as he welcomes a gentile household into the family of God. Paul and Silas take the Gospel to Europe, and the very first convert is Lydia, a businesswoman, who allows the household to baptized and insists Paul and Silas remain in her home. But the real shift will come in Syria, in Roman Antioch, where the mission to gentiles is most successful.

Antioch is one of the greatest cities of the age, with half-a-million inhabitants and a proud heritage that goes back to one of Alexander’s generals. It’s the New York City of it’s day, enjoying favour from emperors as the centre of imperial power shifts to the east. And it has a very large Jewish population, which soon means it also has a large Christian population too.

Somehow Antioch becomes sharply divided between those who want to simply welcome gentile converts to the way of Jesus and those who want to have them become Jewish first and then follow Jesus. And the mark of this is circumcision. Obviously painful for adults, it was a troubling barrier to welcoming gentiles into the community.

Then the story moves to Jerusalem. In the first church council, representatives of the churches gather in Jerusalem to settle the question. On one side is James the brother of Jesus, making the case for become Jewish first, and on the other side is Paul, making the counter-argument.

Described in Acts 15, Peter speaks, Paul and Barnabas describe their mission, and finally James speaks, convinced by what he has heard. He agrees that the Spirit is suggesting it should not be difficult for gentiles to join the church, and—in good meeting fashion—they draft a motion to be sent to the churches.

And so the exponential growth that the church sees over the next centuries can be traced back to this decision. The Spirit cannot be contained, an the life-giving message of new life in Christ spreads throughout the known world. Yet somehow the instinct to exclude rather than include remains, despite the best example set by the Council of Jerusalem.

Even in so-called Christian societies, we are challenged to include rather than exclude. From a dispute that begins in the church in Roman Syria to a refugee crisis that forces Syrians to flee to the west, we still witness the clash between voices that would open the doors and voices that are content to let those in peril remain there.

And it’s doesn’t need to be as dramatic as the largest refugee crisis since the Second World War. Wave after wave of immigrants to this country faced various degrees of hostility until the next wave came to take their place. One hundred years ago it would not be uncommon to see a sign in a shop window in our city that said “no dogs, no Irish,” or my father’s experience of being labelled a DP and invited to go home in language too colourful for church. Or the Italians that followed, and the West Indians, and finally people from all parts of Asia—each wave assuming the mantle of unwanted newcomer as the previous wave was largely accepted.

And through each of these waves—when the church was at it’s very best—we are the counter-cultural voice. Beginning with the teachings of Jesus, following through on the Council of Jerusalem, even supporting Famous Five member Nellie McClung—an elder of the church. When we at our best we are the voice of acceptance and inclusion.

May God’s Spirit continue to move through the churches, that we be an example of mercy and love, now and always. Amen.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Third Sunday after Epiphany

Nehemiah 8
And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up. Then Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, ‘Amen, Amen’, lifting up their hands. Then they bowed their heads and worshipped the Lord with their faces to the ground. So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.
And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, ‘This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.’ For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. Then he said to them, ‘Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.’

We all have it, but it’s not clear how it works.
We use it everyday, but it helps transcend the everyday.
It makes new things, but it seems to build on the old.
It exists beyond what we can see, hear, or touch.
Without it, we would likely not be here.

As I give you a moment to guess what I’m on about, but I should tell you that one of my professors at York described a paper I wrote as “oblique, vague and self-negating.” Then he gave me a D+.

If you guessed ‘imagination,’ then take the rest of the day off. We all have imaginations, even though some of you will think that you’re not that imaginative. And for something that we all possess—and use everyday—it seems astounding that we don’t know how it works.

Everyone from psychologists to literary theorists have taken a go at it. Those who teach education refer to it endlessly, but even they concede that the ability to enhance or stimulate imagination is the subject of theory and not fact.

Somehow imagination allows us to inhabit a new world, something that we create that allows us to escape the everyday and see an alternative for ourselves and the world around us. The new reality it creates could be something as simple a solution to a common problem or something completely new, like a fictional universe.

Certainly it begins in the senses, in the ordinary world that we can see, hear and touch, but then it moves beyond the factual and literal and moves into the new. For this reason I suggest we likely wouldn’t be here without imagination, because overcoming defeat is one of the gifts of imagination, and one of the things that allows us to carry on.

So if just now you can’t imagine how all this fits with Nehemiah at the Water Gate, I will explain. Let me know if I do better than a D+. We begin at the moment they open the book:

So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.

The casual reader can be forgiven for not spotting the revolution that is happening in this moment. Some call it the very first sermon, the first time the scriptures are interpreted before the people. This may be true, but I think there is more. This may well be the first time that imagination is applied to the text, in this case summarized with the careful phrase “they gave the sense.”

More than helping the passage read ‘make sense,’ Ezra somehow applied the reading to the setting, to the moment that the passage was being shared and the situation in which the people found themselves. It was an imaginative exercise, one that meant more than the simple application of rules, but rather ‘the sense’ that might bring the scriptures to life.

But before we continue, some background. Ezra was an exile, part of the population that was carried off to Babylon the period after 586 BCE. While there, two things were happening. The religion of Israel was being formalized, mostly through writing, and young men like Ezra were busy learning.

On one level, it seems counter-intuitive. We equate defeat and exile with punishment, and not the ability to regroup as a religious community. It seems oddly generous to allow bright young Israelites to go to school and join the Babylonian civil service, but that is exactly what happened. Ezra was learning about the heart of his religious heritage and learning statecraft, two things that would serve him well when we arrive at that day at the Water Gate in Jerusalem.

So the exiles returned, and were given permission to rebuild the Holy City. Leadership fell to Ezra and others, schooled in public policy and steadfast in their belief that this was a second chance, an opportunity to begin again. It was commonly held that defeat and exile were the result of disobedience, and Ezra and his generation were going to lay a foundation to ensure this would never happen again.

Of course, there were some large problems to be solved. First of all, the city was in ruin. Luckily, the bright young people who had no aptitude for public policy were likely sent off to engineering school, and returned with the knowledge needed to rebuild. Problem solved.

The second problem, the more vexing one, was how to reintroduce religious practice among those who were not carried off into exile, those who had not experienced the revival that happened among the newly religious elite. Some the non-exiles had taken foreign wives, and were experimenting with their foreign gods, and the whole situation had disaster written all over it. Somehow the renewed religion would need to be reintroduced to Jerusalem, and it would need to be done with care.

Back at the Water Gate, Ezra and his companions were busy giving the sense of the law of Moses, and we get to listen in:

‘This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.’ For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. Then he said to them, ‘Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.’

It requires imagination to confront a crying crowd, grieved as they hear of all the ways they have failed to keep this law that only now is being reintroduced. It requires imagination to confront fear and sorrow and redirect it to something life-giving and creative. It requires imagination to begin again when the people seem paralyzed by the past and all that has happened during the exile.

The imaginative answer was to sanctify the moment, important enough that Ezra says it twice: “This day is holy to the Lord your God.” Do not mourn or weep, do not be grieved. This is a new beginning, that much was obvious, but imagination allowed the prophet to declare it the Lord’s day, a day to be met with joy. To be met with joy and an joyful response: eating and drinking, and sharing with those who have none.

Imagination allowed Ezra to sanctify the moment, to begin again in the context of a loving God who always wants us to be joyful as we begin again, trusting in God’s abiding presence. It’s a remarkable vision, one that we ought to carry forward, using imagination to face the future. So what does that look like today?

Here we are, one year from Inauguration Day, and I don’t want you to imagine President Trump and Vice-President Palin taking the oath of office. That might be more a failure of imagination, but stranger things have happened.

I fast-forwarded to the ‘stranger-that-fiction’ story unfolding in realtime because to illustrates the power of imagination to capture our attention. And the power can be used for good or for ill. On one hand, we have an imaginary wall build along the border with Mexico, which they will somehow pay for, at the same moment that eleven million people are being expelled from the country, and a religious test is being applied to everyone seeking to enter the country, even for a visit.

On the other hand, we have what can only be described as a dream of Canada, with Sen. Sanders describing free health care, paid maternity leave, and a higher minimum wage, things that most Americans find as preposterous as a giant wall. It is a campaign of extremes, with the people in the centre feeling ignored and dislocated from the campaign they once understood.

Imagination, you see, lends itself equally well to fear or hope. It can be used to speak to our basest instincts or our greatest aspirations. It can help us create a weapon or a tool, and in this way it is remarkably mixed. Like fire, the imagination can power our dreams or destroy everything, and we get to decide.

May God fill our hearts with a divine imagination, seeing hope rather than fear, and imagining together a world made new. Amen.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Second Sunday after Epiphany

John 2
On the third day a wedding took place at Cana in Galilee. Jesus’ mother was there, 2 and Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. 3 When the wine was gone, Jesus’ mother said to him, “They have no more wine.”
4 “Woman,[a] why do you involve me?” Jesus replied. “My hour has not yet come.”
5 His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”
6 Nearby stood six stone water jars, the kind used by the Jews for ceremonial washing, each holding from twenty to thirty gallons.[b]
7 Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water”; so they filled them to the brim.
8 Then he told them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the banquet.”
They did so, 9 and the master of the banquet tasted the water that had been turned into wine. He did not realize where it had come from, though the servants who had drawn the water knew. Then he called the bridegroom aside 10 and said, “Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now.”
11 What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

I was saving these “wedding mishap” stories for my autobiography, but why wait when the lesson for the day fits squarely under the same theme?

Like the very first wedding I was part of—assisting my supervisor on a hot day in July—when one of the groomsmen fainted in the heat. If you think repeatedly slapping someone who has just fainted only happens on television, think again. Apparently it happens in greater Sudbury too.

Or the wedding in the Thousand Islands, with numerous guests arriving by ferry, with the usual delays that occur when a crowd all try to get the same ferry at the same time. Time passed, and the prematurely opened bar didn’t add to the solemnity of the occasion. There is a moment when the rule that says you must be sober to get married is at risk of being violated and the minister will finally say “we’ve got to have the service—right now!”

Or the wedding at which the brother of a famous Canadian got married, where everyone was required to sign a confidentiality agreement pledging that we wouldn’t reveal the time, the place, the identity of the famous Canadian or any mishaps that may or may not have happened. That’s all I can say about that.

Or my favourite story—we’ll call it a mishap averted—where the Roman Catholic bride and the Jewish groom set the goal of a banquet hall wedding with a rabbi and a priest attending. Finding a traveling rabbi was easy, but the priest proved impossible. The bride and groom finally decided to hire an actor, dress him up like a priest and hope for the best. As the bride was describing this madcap scheme to her hairdresser a light went on and the hairdresser said “wait, I know a guy—he’s a United Church minister. He can pretend to be a priest!” I did my very best.

Of course, wedding mishaps are as old as weddings themselves. If you ever find yourself seated beside a minister—say at a wedding—and the conversation becomes thin, simply ask for a funny wedding story. Ministers collect them like kids collect hockey cards.

How appropriate then that the meat of John’s Gospel begins with a wedding mishap story:

On the third day a wedding took place at Cana in Galilee. Jesus’ mother was there, 2 and Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. 3 When the wine was gone, Jesus’ mother said to him, “They have no more wine.”
4 “Woman,[a] why do you involve me?” Jesus replied. “My hour has not yet come.”

This seeming protest in the face of the missing wine mishap is short-lived. Jesus follows his mother’s command and proceeds to turn water into wine. And this, of course, precipitates the moment when the sign is revealed and the master of the banquet says “Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now.”

As we begin to look for meaning in the ‘miracle that follows the mishap’ we are caught between the suggestion that somehow the meaning is obvious and the equally convincing suggestion that the meaning is largely hidden—and it will take skilled interpreters to reveal it.

So the first suggestion is that perhaps it’s an allegory. What’s an allegory? In an allegory the literal meaning points to a more complex layer of meaning that may not be readily obvious. Think George Orwell's book “Animal Farm.” On one level it’s a delightful children's story about a group of animals who take over a farm and try to run the place on their own. But Animal Farm is also a detailed allegory representing the history of the first 30 years of the Soviet Union. It’s a book that any 10 year-old will enjoy, but a book that few 10 year-olds would read and say “this character, 'Old Major,' he must represent Vladimir Lenin.”

So some argue that the water represents the end of Jewish purification rituals, rendered null and void by the first sign of water into wine. Some interpreters highlight Mary in the story, and name her the 'new Eve,' or a representation of the church. The wedding becomes the advent of a new era in Israel's history, with God as the bridegroom and the church as the bride. The water is baptism, the wine is communion, and the meaning-making goes on and on. Even the biblical literalists get in on it, arguing that any passage that portrays Jesus as a winemaker must always be symbolic and not literal.

It is a kind of scholars' rite of passage to write a commentary on John's Gospel. That’s why they number in the hundreds. New Testament scholars will inevitably lend their voice to the choir of voices trying to find meaning in the signs presented throughout John. It's easy to get overwhelmed by the variety of interpretations and forget the very intuitive act of reading and trying to understand the story.

“Sometimes,” Freud said, “a cigar is just a cigar.” In other words, we sometimes get so caught up looking for symbolic meaning that we neglect to enjoy the story (or the cigar) in front of us. Imagine Jesus goes to a party and people are having such a good time that the wine runs out. The LCBO is closed (of course) and Mary (well aware of her son's unusual relationship with the physical world) asks him to fix the problem. As with any loving mother-son relationship, he gives her a bit of a hard time, and says “my hour has not come.” She ignores him (another feature of their relationship) and tells the servants to follow his directions. Water becomes wine and the party continues. As a clever end to the story the caterer stops by and says “why serve these drunks the good wine now, isn't it wasted on them?” It's easy to imagine wide grins on the faces of mother and son.

At some point we stopped enjoying scripture and became far too serious. Grim-faced interpreters don't laugh when Jonah gets eaten by a whale or wee Zacchaeus climbs a tree to get a better look. We forget to read joy into a joyous occasion such as the wedding at Cana and instead burden the text with all sorts of deep and vexing meaning. Well, no more.

Or at least not as much. John is, after all, the “signs Gospel,” a Gospel that is filled with signs of the new age. And what is the new age? The new age is the beginning of a new relationship with God, a new way of being in God's world. Some will argue that the new age is still to come, that the Kingdom and its promises are yet to appear. But not John. For John the new age is here and we need only see the signs. Listen to part of his famous prologue:

10He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him...but to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.
14And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

And we have seen his glory, full of grace and truth.
And we have seen his glory, described in stories of joyfulness and humanity.
And we have seen his glory, revealed in moments of compassion and release.
And we have seen his glory, shown in moments of healing and new life.
And we have seen his glory, full of grace and laughter, playfulness and love.

We are called to read these stories with new eyes, to find the divinity and the humanity, to see the zeal for justice and the desire to laugh. Tears of sadness and tears of joy. We are being invited into a new relationship for a new age. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

The Baptism of Jesus

Luke 3
15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16John answered all of them by saying, ‘I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’

21 Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved;* with you I am well pleased.’

I want to be the last guy I know to see the new Star Wars movie.

It’s not that I’m opposed to it. I’m sure I’ll love it. It’s just that sometimes you don’t want to follow the crowd—literally a crowd—when the question on everyone’s lips is “have you seen it yet?” And don’t worry about the absence of my $12 to the films total—it’s already made $1.6 billion worldwide.

If just now you are thinking “Star Wars, I don’t know this Star Wars” then let me catch you up. It began back in 1977, in a “galaxy far, far away” with the first (of the now seven films) subtitled “A New Hope.” It’s the story of a rebellion against an evil empire, with knights, a princess, and a “dark lord” named Darth Vader.

It has many elements: it’s a coming-of-age film, it’s political, and at times it feels like the old west. Since it’s an American film, it should not surprize you that many in the evil empire sound British and the rebels generally American (except Sir Alec Guinness—odd). And there are themes that seem to relate to ancient Rome, with the shift from republic to empire being part of the context.

Then there is futuristic spirituality, with the “the Force” playing a central role in to story. It’s a type of supernatural energy, that various characters draw on to further the story. And, of course, it can be used for good or for evil, with the seeming assumption that people begin good and some “give in” to the “dark side” of the Force.

Underlying the whole story is the contest between good and evil. And there is a soundtrack for both. One is quite up beat and inspiring, and the other rather malevolent (and weirdly reminiscent of “A Spoonful of Sugar” from Mary Poppins). There is almost no moral ambiguity in this particular universe, a kind of cinematic comfort food that will carry us for two-hours at a time.

Of course George Lucas didn’t invent good versus evil, he just monetized it. Flip open your Bibles and we find it throughout, both Old and New Testaments. Pharaoh is another Darth Vader, chasing the rebel Hebrews until the Red Sea becomes an aquatic death star for the Egyptians. Herod, like Vader, is guilty of killing the innocent, though not on the scale of blowing up Alderaan. And Jezebel, like Vader, goes after the leading Jedi of the Bible (the prophets) in order to destroy the religion once-and-for-all.

And all of this relates back to a very human instinct—black and white thinking—and the extent to which we enjoy clear categories. Good versus evil, right versus wrong, clean versus unclean—all of the binary thinking we engage in comes very naturally to us.

And in fact, we’ve been doing it from the beginning. A million years ago we used black and white thinking to survive. Being chased by a sabretooth tiger? Run away and survive or stay and get eaten were your only two choices. Remember those berries that made you sick last week? Eat them or don’t eat them, you really have only two choices. We were well served by binary thinking, until we overcame most danger. Then we had to develop new ways of thinking.

Yet even in the midst of developing new ways of thinking—which began somewhere in pre-history—we would occasionally retreat to the comfort of binary thinking. Again, in the Bible we find lots of examples. Jesus said “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other.” (Mat 6) He also said: “All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” (Mat 25) And a third example:

[At Ephesus, Paul] found some disciples and asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?”
They answered, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.”
So Paul asked, “Then what baptism did you receive?”
“John’s baptism,” they replied.
Paul said, “John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. (Acts 19)

So two baptisms, one from John and one from Jesus, with an obviously bias toward the latter. The Christians at Ephesus had been burdened with the wrong baptism, something Paul is eager to correct. And in correcting them, and baptizing them once again, we learn more about the early church and the role of baptism.

But we also receive some commentary on the passage Jenny read this morning. The story of the baptism of Jesus, the event we mark each year at this time, is found in all four gospels, directly in the first three, and indirectly in John. In Luke’s version (along with John’s) we begin with some confusion about John the Baptist’s role. Some wonder if he is the chosen one, and he is quick to correct them: “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

Somehow fire is omitted in Paul’s later conversation in Ephesus. We learn this baptism is the natural follow-up to the baptism of repentance. Baptism in the Holy Spirit, and eventually in the name of Jesus, will become the gold standard. And then John adds more: “His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

You might think this is not the Jesus you know, but think again. If you remember serving two masters, and separating the sheep from the goats, you get a glimpse of this other Jesus—the Jesus of the hard sayings and the ‘tough love’ that appears from time to time in the Gospels. Again, it is seldom either-or, and more often a both-and.

So John giving us his hope for Jesus, more threshing and less considering the lilies, and then they meet. In the other Gospels there is a moment of “me baptize you? You should baptize me” but not in Luke. Luke quickly takes Jesus below the water, the Spirit descends, and a voice comes from heaven, saying ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’

In years past I have mentioned the ‘embarrassment theory,’ usually about this point in the story, because it all sees rather odd. Jesus the Christ, son of the Most High, present with God at the very moment of creation, submitting to a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. If it doesn’t seem to fit the narrative, or seems potentially embarrassing to the early church, then it is far more likely to have happened as described.

So why submit? In traditional theology, Jesus is without sin, and therefore a poor candidate for a baptism of repentance. We can debate the sinlessness of Jesus at some length, but better to go with the traditional assumption and look for another reason. And for me, I might look to C.S. Lewis. One of his best summaries of the goal of the Christian life is to become like Christ, “little Christs” as he was fond of saying. If we are to become little Christs, then we turn to Christ as our model, both in ethical conduct and the unfolding of our story.

If Jesus submitted to a baptism of repentance, than we ought to too. Now, many of you will say “it’s too late for me—I’m already baptized” and I see the problem. For those, like me, who are already baptized with water and the Holy Spirit, we have the opportunity to reframe what occurred and imagine ourselves with John in the desert.

We can imagine joining the crowd seeking new life through repentance, them later affirming this with a baptism in Jesus. But we had both. At the moment of your baptism, you set aside the former ways of sin and brokenness and received the gift of the Holy Spirit, reborn in Christ, one with him.

Just now you are thinking, “yes preacher, but I was a week old—my sins were minimal at best.” And of course I would have to agree. But if we are going to become one with Christ at baptism, we need to be all in. From the very beginning Jesus carried the sins of humanity, releasing the broken, forgiving the weak, embracing those society hated—carrying them for the sake of our collective well-being. So the moment we become one with Christ in baptism, the moment we go below the water that we might die with him and be resurrected with him, we are participants in the redemption of all humanity. We are the little Christ’s C.S. Lewis wished we might become.

So we set aside binary thinking: it isn’t this baptism or that baptism, it’s both. By the time Paul writes his famous letter to the Romans, he too makes a case for both, maybe regretting the tone of this conversation in Ephesus. I’ll give him the last word: “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of God, we too may live a new life.”(Rom 6) Thanks be to God. Amen.