Sermon for Williamstown
13th of January, 2019
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
Today we celebrate the Baptism of Jesus or, as I like to think of it, ‘Divine Solidarity’ Sunday. On this Sunday in previous years I have talked about the strangeness of Jesus coming to be baptised by John. In Advent we hear the beginning of today’s story, with John coming as the Prophet Isaiah foretold, ‘proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’. Since Jesus, Emmanuel, God-with-us, lived his life in full relationship with God, he had no sins of which to repent. Sin is not primarily about what we do, or even about what we think or feel, but about separation from God, not living up to our potential to be the people God created us to be. Repentance is about turning around, returning to God, behaving like the prodigal son and going home to the Father who runs to meet us. But Jesus never turned his back on his Father. In the language of John’s Gospel, the Father and the Son were One. Jesus did not sin, and had no need to repent. Since John is baptising for repentance those who confess their sins Jesus had no need for baptism.
Luke ignores the strangeness, unlike the author of the Gospel of Matthew he gives us no discussion between John and Jesus about what is happening. We are simply told that Jesus also had been baptised and was praying when ‘the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove’. That seems to be what is important to Luke, the baptism in water by John is simply the occasion for the descent of the Spirit. But Jesus’ baptism itself is of absolutely vital importance. It’s another aspect of the Incarnation, God’s amazing, unique intervention in history that we celebrated at Christmas. In the Incarnation, God became human, in the most wonderful act of solidarity with humanity, and in his baptism, Jesus, God-with-us, continued to act out that solidarity.
Jesus didn’t need to be baptised. But by submitting to John, by plunging into the waters of the Jordan, he gave us an example and modelled for us our own baptism. We human beings do need everything that baptism means, to go through the waters, to die to our old lives and be reborn to new lives, to repent and return to God. We do this in imitation of Jesus, who did it before us.
When we follow Jesus into baptism, we are baptised into his life and his death, and into his relationship with God. The Eastern Orthodox Church calls our journey to God ‘deification’ – God became human so that we might become God. That sounds very strange to our Western, Protestant ears, sacrilegious, as though we are trying to become something we were never meant to be. But we are created to be in relationship with God, to be drawn into the love that is the Trinity, to become part of the community of the Father and the Son and the Spirit. We are created to be the beloved children of God. Just as the voice says to Jesus after his baptism, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased,’ so God says to every one of us in our own baptism and forever afterwards: ‘you are my child, the beloved’. Jesus’ baptism reminds us that as faulty and sinful human beings we need the cleansing of baptism, and conversely that as human beings we are God’s beloved children, made in God’s own image.
Last Saturday I was in St Kilda at an event to counter a meeting that Blair Cottrell of the far-right white nationalist United Patriots Front had called, ostensibly to discuss the ‘African gang problem’ which the Victorian Police say doesn’t exist. In the lead up to that ‘meeting’ there was a lot of discussion on social media about what the correct response to a racist rally organised by a convicted criminal should be. I went because a couple of women I respect, a Sudanese lawyer and a Noongar writer, both said that as women of colour they didn’t have a choice about whether or not to confront racists, they were already and always their targets. One wrote on Twitter: ‘if you [white people] want to stop people [of colour] suffering get between the fascists and their targets. It really is that simple.’ So that’s what I tried to do.
All that is just background to explain that I was there in St Kilda and I saw the crowd Blair Cottrell attracted. So when Queensland Senator Fraser Anning says that there were no neo-Nazis there and that the people making Nazi salutes, wearing Nazi symbols, and shouting Nazi slogans were those who opposed the meeting I know that he is wrong. Senator Anning is charging the tax-payer $2852.80 for attending a far-right, white supremacist, rally. The Senator says that he attended because there is an ‘African gang’ problem in Queensland. Like the Victorian police, the Queensland police say there isn’t. Subsequently Senator Anning has used the picture of a UK rapper in an image claiming that Australia is allowing criminals to immigrate here.
Why am I talking about Fraser Anning? It’s because of an exchange I had on Twitter about him with a couple of philosophers I follow. One of them said of the Senator, ‘On the one hand, I’m sympathetic to the Kantian argument than human beings are ends in themselves, and valued in terms of dignity not market or fancy price. On the other hand, wouldn’t he be better as a paperweight?’ Our local member, Tim Watts, replied to the original tweet, ‘OTOH a paperweight would be better than him’. While I sympathise with both of them, as a Christian I’m not allowed to say that. I responded, ‘As a human being even @fraser_anning is of worth, made in the image of God. But he should recognise that the same is true of all other human beings’ and the philosopher answered, ‘I’d like to rephrase that in atheistic terms, but I’m not sure how to.’
My apologies for spending so long on Senator Anning, but I think that it is him and people like him that most challenge us when we proclaim that all human beings are the beloved children of God. In a congregation like this we don’t need to be challenged to see people of other races or nationalities or sexualities as our neighbours. The challenge comes when we have to recognise racists, white supremacists, and neo-Nazis as our neighbours. This year is the liturgical year of Luke, so later in the year we will hear Jesus tell the parable of the Good Samaritan, and we will be reminded again that the Samaritan who was caring for the Jewish traveller was caring for someone who discriminated against him, despised him, and saw him as lesser. It is a parable about a Sudanese-Australian caring for Blair Cottrell or Fraser Anning. When Jesus tells us to ‘love our neighbours’ that is what he is demanding of us.
When Jesus was baptised in solidarity with humanity, he was baptised in solidarity with all humanity. All of us are in the same need of the cleansing bath of baptism, and all of us are the beloved children of God. Since we are aware that we are all sinners, we can’t feel superior. Since we are aware that we are all the beloved children of God, we cannot accept racism, sexism, homophobia, or anything else that defines some people as ‘less that’. We must resist that, but as Martin Luther King reminds us, that protest must come from love, not hate. In the baptism of Jesus God acted in solidarity with all humanity; following his example let us stand in solidarity with each other. Amen.