Epiphany 1A: The Baptism of Our Lord
At first glance, today’s readings look like they fit into a theme quite nicely.
The first reading from the old testament is about the suffering servant, the anointed one who would be a light to all nations.
The reading from the Acts of the Apostles followed, that God wants the Good News of Christ preached to all people, not just the Jews.
So we would expect to see that same theme again in the Gospel, right? Yet today’s Gospel reading says nothing of the sort. Doesn’t mention it at all!
In today’s Gospel, John baptises Jesus, the sky opens, the end. It mentions nothing about other nations or the rest of the world. The only people mentioned are Jews.
John is confirmed as a prophet because Jesus came to him for baptism. Jesus is confirmed as the Son of God by a voice from heaven itself. Very dramatic events, but why do we understand them to reveal to us something about our theme of taking the Good News of Christ to the whole world?
We were given one answer in a gospel reading we had a few weeks ago when we heard the first part of the baptism story. I feel like a lot has happened since then, Christmas, Boxing day, New Year, but this week we finally took up the story again just at the last part where Jesus is baptised.
You see, Jesus wasn’t the only person coming to John to be baptised that day. As we were previously told, the Pharisees and Sadducees also came to be baptised, but Jesus said to them,
You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 9Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.
John isn’t holding back in telling us what he really thinks. No-one will be saved because of who they know, what they know, or where they were born. Repentance is John’s entire message, and it is open for anyone to hear.
History tells us what happened next. Christianity spread beyond the Jewish world, first to the Greeks and Romans then onwards through the centuries to every imaginable variety of language and culture and time and place.
Our understanding of Christianity as an evangelical enterprise makes it difficult today for us to see what all the fuss was about at Jesus' baptism. The idea that God’s revelation is for everyone, and not just a select few people, seems to be common sense now-a-days, doesn’t it? It seems obvious!
What would you say if I told you that it's not obvious at all, and that we are still acting the same way today as what John was railing against all those years ago?
Is anyone surprised? I’m saying that there are still people who today are not included, who are being left out. The reasons for it now are different from John the Baptist’s time, but the outcomes are exactly the same. Let's just say that John wouldn’t be happy about our situation either.
In the time of John, many Jews believed that God intended to exclude anyone who was not Jewish, but the Gospels say that just being Jewish alone is not enough. The other readings also make this clear.
Peter in Acts tells us that, “in every nation anyone who fears … and does what is right is acceptable”, to God. Indeed, if we’re given any warnings at all, what we’re warned about is precisely this - placing ourselves as the decider of who is and isn’t being called by God. We really shouldn’t do that.
It seems to me that, as Christians, excluding someone from church isn’t something that we mean to do, but our actions can end up this way. Sometimes people are excluded as a consequence of decisions that we make, even if that wasn’t our intention at all.
I have many friends who are not Christians or who are atheists and quite sceptical of Christianity. Throughout my life I’ve had any number of conversations about Jesus with people who do not believe, or are even actively hostile towards religion. I’m sure we all have. Some even blame scepticism and hostility from modern society as a reason that church attendance is declining. I’ve even heard Christians point at this as a sign that society is discriminating against us!
Yet in my entire life, I’ve never even once witnessed an atheist or sceptic stop someone from going to church. I’m sure you’ve had conversations like this yourself with similar people, but did you ever get to the end of a conversation with a sceptic and say to them: “Well, you’ve made some very good points so I think that I won’t be a Christian anymore, thank you for your help.” Did you? No. Atheists don’t stop people from going to church.
The point that is being made, again and again in today’s readings, is that it's not up to us to decide who God has or hasn’t called. The only people I’ve ever seen stop someone from going to church have been Christians.
Sometimes it is overt and obvious in a church. People are actively excluded for being perceived to be living in a state of sin that is somehow just a little bit “specially different” from all the sin that the rest of us encounter in life, so it means that those people are excluded - but conveniently our sin means that we’re not so that doesn’t apply to us.
Sometimes it's not quite as overt, but more social in nature. We think that some people simply wouldn’t fit in well with our church so even though we don’t actually tell them to go away, we don’t actively seek to make them welcome either, which also has the same effect in the end.
But the real problem is one that is even harder to see than that. As a community at the Cathedral we’re pretty good I think at not actively excluding people, so that’s great, and I’ve seen people welcomed here in all stages of life and circumstance, so well done to us there too, but the real problem is the one that remains almost totally invisible.
People are being excluded from our church today simply because we didn’t tell them we were coming! They just don’t know that we’re here!
How many times have you told a work mate that you “went to the movies with some friends” on Friday night, instead of saying “I went to the movies with some church friends”? Or, say, I’ll meet you for brunch on Sunday, instead of I’ll meet you for brunch after church on Sunday?
Why is this important? Why should I mention church when it's not relevant to the person I’m talking to? It is important because another form of exclusion is ignorance. If people don’t know we exist, they can’t recognise us when God calls them!
Notice that I’ve said that in a particular way, that they “won’t recognise us when God calls them.” See that I didn’t say that it's your job to call them? That’s right, I’m not saying walk up to everyone you know and ask them if they can hear God’s voice from the heavens then invite them to church. Not at all.
We can trust that every day, in every place, in every walk of life, God is calling to God’s people, that is, to everyone on earth. We can have confidence in that.
What we also need to have confidence in is that when someone hears God’s call, they will recognise in us that which they are being called to.
To my unchurched friends, or those who have not yet recognised their call, I always make sure to mention when something in my life is church related. Even if it's just socialising or helping in the community or any of the many things that are not unique to church people but that anyone does.
I just like to drop into the conversation when it's church related, because you never know when someone might find that extra bit of information interesting to them. There is more to our lives as Christians than simply what we do here for an hour on Sundays; we live and love and laugh just like everyone else, but we do it in and around a celebration of life and hope that together we call church.
As a mental exercise, when you’re out and about look at the groups of people surrounding you and imagine them in church instead. We all know some people we think would never come to church, or who we say the roof would fall in if they came inside. Just for a second imagine that person sitting across the pew from you right now.
What I’m saying is simply that since God is calling people all the time, people who don’t know about us are actually being excluded by us. It can be that simple. Instead of saying “I dropped of some clothes at the op shop” we should say “I dropped them off at the church op shop”. Instead of “We visited some friends” we should say “We visited church friends”, and take a second to imagine the person you are talking to here in the church, as you talk to them.
As Christians, we can’t talk someone into going to church. There are no words that you can say which will argue them into coming so I don’t think we should even try that approach.
As Christians however, we can recognise that God places a call on every person’s heart, and that our role is to be there for them whenever they hear that voice.
Sermon delivered by The Rev’d Grant Sparks at Christ Church Cathedral, Grafton, on the First Sunday after Epiphany, the 8th of January 2023.