Readings: Isaiah 43:1-7, Acts 8:14-17, Luke 3:15-17
Have you ever wondered why Christ was baptised with water, why Christ was baptised in the Jordan River, or why we bother baptising anybody? As a person who is paid to think about these things, I have wondered about all three and today I’d like to suggest three answers for those three questions on this day when we celebrate the Feast of the Baptism of Christ. The Baptism of Christ is one of the three central themes of this Epiphany season, together with the arrival of the Kings and the miracle of water into wine. I want to draw on Sergei Fyodorov’s 2004 fresco in the North Transept to illustrate what it might mean for us now, with my three answers to those questions. First – why was Christ baptised with water, or chaos, then why was Christ baptised in the Jordan River, or chaos reclaimed through the Spirit, and finally why baptise anybody, or commission to ministry. One leads to the next, and at the beginning of a New Year, should see us well as we look forward.
So first why was Christ baptised with water, or chaos. In the upper part of Sergei’s fresco, Christ is being baptised in the River Jordan. Here, the iconographer has used a Byzantine genre, rather than a Slavic one, as in Slavic iconography, Christ, as the second Adam, is naked when being baptised. In the centre of the picture is the bright blue of the River Jordan, which belies the brown muddy stream of today. Remember that frescoes and icons are theological statements, not freestyle art. The centre of this composition is therefore the water of the Jordan receiving Christ the Creator of the Universe. This is called typology, and the image being used here is the watery chaos at the beginning of creation in the book Genesis. As you know, there are two accounts of creation in the book Genesis. The first one pictures the primeval state as a watery abyss, and the second pictures the primeval state as a waterless desert. They seem to have their origin in different creation narratives from different sources. Both are very ancient and go back to the dawn of recorded history. This one probably draws on Sumerian and Babylonian accounts, which we know of from the fourth millennium before Christ. The people of Sumeria and Babylonia depended for their lives on the unpredictability of the waters of the Tigris and the Euphrates, in Mesopotamia, or modern-day Iraq. These waters, like all water, were at the same time both life giving and death dealing. Water represents both life and, potentially, death. That’s part of the reason why the Hebrew rhyming phrase “toho ve Boho” is used to describe the formless void. In those formless waters lurks chaos. This is a synonym, of course, for the human person, in whom lurks chaos. When we name this chaos, then we have power over it, and it no longer has power over us. Any priest or clinical analyst knows this well. When we name our demons, then they no longer have power over us. We name it and own it, that it may not own us. One of the demons with which we live is violence – either the actual violence on our streets, or the violence in the ether of our political discourse as maps, alliances, and friendships are ripped up before our eyes. The violence and disorder of the human person is symbolised by the water, and Christ enters it by going down into the water. The Christian Church, I would suggest, has a particular perspective on the importance of confronting the chaos within all of us, and naming it. This is our starting point with the water of baptism. The destructive force, the Tsunami within every person, is named, claimed, and in the process transformed. If this is true for us as individuals, it is certainly true of the international order. This is Christ entering the water – the verb baptizein means simply “to submerge.”
Now why was Christ baptised in the River Jordan? My answer for this is chaos reclaimed through the Spirit. In the Gospel we heard of the baptism of Jesus by John in the Jordan River. You know, of course, that the Jordan or Rift Valley is the lowest place on the earth’s surface – 1,000 metres below sea level. The same point about entering the chaos is being re-enforced, this time through sacred geography. Early icons of the baptism of Christ show demons in the water, which Christ is transforming through his baptism. The Rochester fresco shows them very clearly, portrayed this time slightly after the manner of classical water Gods. The symbolism of the Jordan Valley is equally obvious – down to the lowest place of human need comes our God in Christ. The water and the chaos is transformed in the new creation. If you now fast forward on the theological time zone, you come to Christ creator of all Things (Pantocrator) completing creation on the cross with his words “It is finished.” And what happens? A spear is pushed in his side, and blood and water come out – the blood of the Eucharist, the continuing life of the Church, and the water of baptism by which we enter the new creation and reclaim the chaos in the water. Every baptised person is also a spirit bearer. This is why we symbolically anoint with oil at Baptism. In living churches and Christian communities, this mysterious grace can be seen again and again in the lives of individuals as they grow into that Pentecostal authority and dignity which is given through baptism. I’ve been privileged a few months ago to see the baptismal authority of our brothers and sisters in Christ in Iraq, who themselves have been displaced by the most barbaric violence and brutality under the so-called Islamic State. Those people have the baptismal authority of the anointed person, the Christ bearer and Spirit bearer. I also see this daily in my own church as the many trafficked people reclaim their innate authority and dignity through their baptism. The same can be true for each and every one of us. This is the new life of the baptised. It’s always fresh, always new. Unlike us, it never grows old, and when it’s really working it can be seen especially in the lives of older people as they are continually renewed by the Holy Spirit. The chaos within is then given new perspective, as its energy, potentially destructive, is channelled into this new Pentecostal life. Chaos reclaimed through the spirit, and baptism in the Jordan River at the lowest place on the earth’s surface.
And finally, why baptise anybody or Baptism as Commission to Ministry. “Baptism represents life-long growth into Christ… and “baptism is commission to ministry.” Our Baptism is not simply for us as individuals, but also commissions us to active ministry in the world. It calls us to exercise that innate baptismal authority in work for the common good. We see this in the fresco, not only in the baptism of King Ethelbert of Kent by Augustine, but also by the baptism of large numbers of Saxons in the Medway after which they are immediately given Communion by Bishop Justus, first Bishop of this Diocese. As in the fresco, so it should be with us. We are led through this commission to ministry into new ways of doing things and new ministries all the time. One of the principal jobs of any priest, must be to release the baptismal energy of the communities we serve. It’s fascinating right now to see how new and more diverse forms of ministry emerge. For example, the recent and dramatic growth in the Filipino and Iranian communities who form part of my responsibility, though I know neither language. Or take the willingness of many, not all believers, to contribute their energies and resources to the work of the Church, as it renews itself and as you have done with the building here in Rochester. People get it. They see the relevance and importance of having a building which speaks of God to the community through being open, in top condition, and used daily from morning till evening. We need to harness this energy and willingness. So, at the beginning of a new year, I think it no bad thing if we ask ourselves the question, as we ask it as a community, “into what new areas of ministry is God leading me?” This is baptism as commission to ministry, or why we bother to baptise anybody.
In summary, we recognise and name the chaos, we transform it by the Pentecostal energy of the Holy Spirit through baptism, and we move on to exercise that commission to ministry in new and surprising ways. We see all of this in Sergei Fyodorov’s fresco and how fortunate and blessed is this Cathedral to host it. I hope reflecting on it gives us all new energy as we recognise God speaking directly to each one of us in these words “You are the beloved. With you I am well pleased.”