January 12, 2014, Year A, Baptism of our Lord
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“…Suddenly the heavens were opened to him and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’”
The Baptism of our Lord. In my own little world, this story, found in each of the four Gospels, is central to the Christology that shapes my life in relation to God, the world and everything. What does that word mean, Christology? ___ the branch of theology relating to the person, nature and role of Christ. Its about every theological and philosophical detail about the who, what, where, when and how of the Second Person of the Trinity, Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Who was He, where did He come from, how does He relate to God and the Holy Spirit, how does He save us, how do we get to know Him, how, why and when is He returning. Those kinds of questions. Some of this comes from historical sources, some of it is just traditional, some of it comes from scripture, how we think about Jesus Christ. Some ways of understanding Christ take a PhD to understand, some ways take being part of a Christian community to find, some of it just takes some time searching the Bible, praying, searching your own heart. Your Christology is what you believe, what you think and pray and hope who Jesus Christ was and is, how Jesus Christ works, and what role Jesus Christ plays in your life and your whole story of everything, your own personal systematic theology. The Unitarians have a great adult education program called “Building Your Own Theology.” Katherine Hostetter and I have talked about this and someday we’ll put together a course on “Building your own Christology.”
This kind of thinking, this kind of theological thinking can certainly seem esoteric or inaccessible or downright inapplicable to our daily lives. The fully human/fully divine nature of Jesus Christ. That the Holy Trinity of Three Persons of One Substance. “…begotten, not made, of one being with the Father…” the whole Creed, for that matter and why we are now saying that the Holy Spirit “…proceeds from the Father” and not “…proceeds from the Father and the Son” like we have for 1675ish years. A strong case can be made that those ideas, these technical ideas don’t really matter, that what matters is being a better person in deeper relationship with God in Christ and with our neighbor, a kinder, more generous person, a more patient and forgiving person, a better member of a community. True that. Who we are, how God lives in our hearts and in our minds and in our hands is so much more important than having the right ideas, the proper beliefs or the accurate theological-philosophical suppositions. Completely. Utterly. And yet… The very act of us being here on a Sunday morning; the liturgical structure that these very words are framed by; the songs that we are being blessed with by the choir; the prayers that we offer to each other and the world through out the week, the work that we do to relieve suffering in the world and cease the structural sources of suffering; the fact we are sitting, not standing: all of that comes from two thousand years of careful, prayerful contemplation and thought on these esoteric notions, these seemingly inapplicable theological-philosophical details which in the end, matter very deeply indeed. For these ideas, ideas of theology and Christology, it is not about being right or wrong, about how orthodox or heretical your ideas might be, but it is about how we bring all of ourselves to bear on that which we profess to be the most important thing, God. It is about how we apply our hearts AND our minds, our feelings AND our thoughts AND our gut AND how we put our backs into it all.
Read C.S. Lewis’s Surprised by Joy. It is the story of Lewis’ conversion to Christianity by immersion in theology. You can see his whole universe enliven, the very stars in the sky brighten as he delves deeper and deeper into the life of Christ, led on by a life of the mind. It is beautiful. Read The Seven Story Mountain by Thomas Merton. It is the story of Merton’s journey from Flushing, Long Island to the monastery and into a life of Christ. He was driven, maybe dragged there first by ideas. And then, when these men met God in the Eucharist, when they encountered Christ in Christian community, when they were moved to action by the Holy Spirit, their vision was completed and they saw in Technicolor what a wonderful world it could be. Theology. Christology. These things matter.
So, “…Suddenly the heavens were opened to him and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” What can we make of this story? What do you make of this story? Does this inform your Christology?
The opening of the heavens. It happened twice, in the flood and now here. Remember, we’ve talked about this before, a long time ago. Much of the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, was written or at least assembled in Babylon during the exile. The first creation story in Genesis, the seven days, the ruah, the breath of God moving over the deep, the dome of the heavens, that story, not the Garden of Eden. The seven days story was in part borrowed from the Gilgamesh epic of Israel’s Babylonian captors. Ask me sometime, I’ll tell you that version of the story. But God, YHWH erects the dome of the heavens to wall out the watery chaos of primeval existence. And later in Genesis, things haven’t gone so well in the creation plan, manifold wickedness abounded, so the window in the heaven opened and the waters, the deep, dark waters of the abyss poured forth and covered the earth, washing it clean, all but Noah and his cohort. That’s the story, our story.
So what does it mean that here, for only the second time, the window of the heavens opens in that dome and not a flood, but the Holy Spirit comes through? And it is not deluge of spirit pouring forth, but the Spirit descends “like a dove.” And a voice, the voice of God presaged by the prophet Isaiah, announced by John the Baptist is heard, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” What does that make you think about the nature of God and the world? How does this story enliven your imagination about how Jesus Christ comes to alight upon you? Maybe what was walled out in that primitive story was maybe not as bad as our ancestors thought? Maybe everything we are seeing inside this dome isn’t as real as it may seem? Maybe we can’t handle the truth, our relationship with God was so broken in the fall? Maybe we can’t handle the truth of God, can’t even see the kingdom of God that is at hand so God’s only begotten Son is sent, sanctified by the Holy Spirit descending like a dove, God in God’s self intersecting with humanity in time and space, fully human and fully divine to lead us to right relationship with God in a way that we understand, that we can comprehend?
We’re in the stratosphere now, but what a beautiful place it can be. We can stretch and grow, we can lean into new ideas, reexamine old ones, try one simply preposterous ones and what do we have to lose? Really, what do we have to lose but perhaps a chance for deeper relationship with a Lord and a Savior and each other? A chance to steel our spines to enter into the righteous conflicts that have been laid before us? A chance to soften our hearts and let the sun shine in, acnd out?
“Let is be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” It didn’t make sense to John the Baptist and it does not all have to make sense to us. The point of all of this is that we have a responsibility, we are called by God to bring all of ourselves to bear on this religious journey we have found ourselves together on in this community. This community is not a music and social club; though we make a lot of beautiful music and have a lot of friends and fun here. It is not a social service agency, though we offer a lot of help to the least of these. This place is not a retreat from the troubles of the world, though we all find some refuge here. What this community is is the body of Christ alive in the world, and we exist soley to proclaim the Good News of repentance and to make real the Kingdom of God. And to join together in work that profound requires that we all bring all of ourselves, body, mind and spirit to the table, to this table, that exists under that opening in the heavens that God in Christ revealed to us so long ago. May it be so. AMEN.