At the start of the year the Church’s lectionary takes us straight from the Christmas themes of angels, shepherds and wise men to Jesus’ baptism. This is partly because there is almost nothing recorded about Jesus’ childhood and partly because the start of our journey as Christians is marked by baptism. We’re used to celebrating the baptism of both children and adults but it’s odd to think of Jesus being baptised.
Physical and Earthy
Jesus joins the queue of penitent sinners waiting to be baptised as a sign of their repentance and desire to turn their lives around yet we believe, as did John the Baptist, that Jesus had nothing to repent of! Jesus stands in line with poor peasants and middle-class folk from the towns all of whom knew that confession and repentance is good for them. This was no inner spiritual private experience, but something spiritual that is outwardly, publicly, expressed. It involves the very earthy substance of water coupled with a desire to change.
Mark probably didn’t know the doctrine of the Holy Trinity nor how baptism would become central for the life of the Church as he was writing his Gospel pretty early on in the Church’s development. For him his task was to proclaim Jesus as the suffering servant of God. Jesus is declared to be God’s son at his baptism. God does not remain hidden in the heavens, or even veiled in the person of Jesus but the heavens are ripped open to declare who Jesus is.
Again and again in Mark’s Gospel Jesus is declared to be God’s son:
The heavens open and Jesus is declared to be God’s son at the Transfiguration.
- Demons who realise who Jesus is are commanded to be silent.
- At Jesus’ trial it is the title “son of God” that means he is accused of blasphemy and
- the Centurion recognises that Jesus is the son of God on the cross. Golgotha confirms the title given in the Jordan.
So being God’s son meant much for Jesus. Not glory and fanfares, but suffering and discipleship. From his obedience in being baptised, through his ministry of healing and radical preaching to his death on the cross, the divine sonship of Jesus is revealed in suffering. The victory of Easter morning and the ascension into heaven is only seen truly through the lens of suffering which is the Cross. Jesus is only truly seen through he is through suffering.
Previous generations of Christians had a different attitude to suffering than we do. In ages before widespread effective medicine people had to put up with more suffering. Many Catholics of previous generations were told to offer up their sufferings – to unite them with Jesus’ sufferings on the cross. Of course much of this was a distraction from tackling the causes of suffering in the first place – but it did link suffering and the Christian life in a way that we’re not comfortable with now.
Jesus suffered – of course Christians often like to spiritualise that suffering, and say it was necessary for our redemption and concentrate salvation in the cross ignoring the birth of Jesus and his resurrection in the greater scheme of things.
Now there is nothing great about suffering but life, sometimes involves some suffering. We may suffer with an illness, suffer through disappointment in relationships, suffer because we can’t find a job – or a job that is well paid enough to make a decent living. We may have suffered because of our faith, our health, our sexuality, our class or our gender.
Jesus suffered because he spoke truth to power and the powers didn’t like this.
In our covenant prayer that we will be using in a little while we read the striking phrase:
Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will;
put me to doing, put me to suffering;
which brings us up short. We have all experienced what it is to suffer and we would never ask God to make us suffer more. Indeed, we would have an odd view of God if we believed that we should ask Him to make us suffer. So what do we mean by this part of the prayer?
The Buddhists may be onto something when they hold that suffering comes from selfish desire – it’s not the whole truth but there is a lot of truth within that statement.
We are used, in our world to doing what we want. If we have even a modicum of a reasonable income we can get easy credit to buy what we want whenever we want it. The miracle of the Internet means we can have instant communication – why send a letter that may take a few days to arrive when an email arrives almost as soon as it’s been sent? We’re not used to waiting and when we have to we think we’re suffering! To follow Jesus is to go against the norms of our society – and it’s a pledge we made if we were baptised as adults or a pledge made on our behalf if we were baptised as babies – a pledge renewed as adults at Church Membership and in services like this.
- When we follow Jesus
- we realise that it’s better to give than receive
- we learn that our money isn’t our own and that we have to give some of it away.
- we realise that true strength is seen in weakness.
- we realise that God is found on the edge, on the margins not in the centre of things.
- we may find that in rejecting the values and ways of our society we end up being different – that may mean suffering.
The Buddhists thing that suffering is caused by selfish desire, when we say to the Lord “put us to suffering” we’re recognising that we may suffer if we try and stop our selfish desires. It’s hard to do without some of our money, it’s hard to point to a different type of society; it’s hard to love unconditionally. When we do this we may find ourselves experiencing some suffering.
The Covenant prayer is all about our will – we choose to make our will subservient to Christ’s – this is hard, this causes us some pain, some inconvenience and some changes to our lives. I am reminded of a story of a college student staggering back to his room early on Sunday morning after a very long night out. The weather was awful and he bumped into one of his college tutors who was out early that morning too. She, however, was just going out, he was coming in. He asked his tutor where on earth she was going in such awful weather – she replied “church.” He asked: what on earth made you decide to go to church this morning? She replied that she didn’t decide to go to church that morning, but when she became a Christian many years ago.
Following Christ means submitting our will to His, just as he submitted his will to the Father’s. Following his Father’s will meant that Jesus suffered, following Jesus means that we must be prepared to suffer as we struggle with our will, our selfishness, our desire for an easy life.
However, in doing this we respond to the call of Christ who gives us the energy and the strength to do what we’re called to do. Responding to Christ’s call helps us work for a better world, a world where the Kingdom comes, and where selfish desire, injustice, oppression and sin are no more. This we celebrate at the start of this New Year and this is what we pledge ourselves to in the words of the covenant. Amen.