Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
A friend writes to say he has “lost his faith.” This can mean different things for different people, but for him, he explains, he “can no longer believe in the doctrines of Christianity.” What doctrines? He doesn’t say. The Incarnation, the Trinity, the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection? I don’t want to put him on the spot by asking, nor do I want to put myself in the position of doctrinal expositor.
But it does seem odd to me. Doctrines, I think, really come last rather than first in faith. First comes a sense of wonder, the asking of questions about the meaning of life, if life has meaning. And a close second comes some sort of personal contact, experience of a person of faith that makes one want to have what they have. I suppose it’s not coincidental that this friend of mine grew up as an only child, has never married, never had children, and has led a life sheltered from the ordinary interactions with other people – the daily ups and downs – that most of us enjoy (or suffer through).
For me, looking back, personal contact with people of faith would include a religious education director in the Unitarian church I attended as a child, who told wonderful stories in the children’s chapel and always had time for me. It would include the old black woman who cooked for my grandmother, who sat in the kitchen reading her Bible and was always there, gentle and joyful, living her life of segregated servanthood. And very soon, right on the heels of my mature asking questions about the meaning of life, it was the person of Jesus himself – Jesus in the gospels, Jesus in the Sacrament of the Altar, Jesus with me in prayer. As I say, not doctrine, but personal contact.
We don’t really know much about Jesus before he burst on the scene of history at the age of about 30, coming to the River Jordan with that crowd of seekers, to hear the fiery preaching of John the Baptist and to go down into those muddy, murky waters, emerging to begin a new life. We can only speculate about what brought him to this point. The evangelists were at a loss to explain why someone who was supposed to be sinless should undergo a baptism to wash away sins. To ask that question, though, gets us tangled up in “doctrines.”
My guess is that Jesus plunged into those waters of baptism as a sacrament of his commitment to (if I may use the phrase) “get down and dirty” with life. Maybe he’d held himself back those first 30 years, had a sense that he was special, purer than others around him. It would have been kind of a burden, after all, to know that your mother was a virgin, angels sang at your birth and kings from afar brought you gifts. And if, as we read in Luke, Jesus was fond of sitting at the feet of the teachers in the temple, he would have learned from them a religion based on strict rules and ensuring your purity – holding yourself back from involvement in common life.
My guess is that Jesus heard John preaching about “the one who is to come,” the “one who is to baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire,” and that suddenly he sensed that he was called to be that One – and that to be that One, he had to make common cause with all the suffering and confusion of the world around him. Not hold himself back.
Anyway, that is the Jesus, the personal Jesus, who has always spoken to me. That is the Jesus whose example inspires me as I fumble to make decisions about my own life. The Jesus who gives me courage when I’d like to shrink back or give up. The Jesus who comforts me in dark moments when I’ve messed up badly or when I lose my way. And that’s the Jesus who comes to me every week in the Sacrament of Holy Communion – something enormously intimate and personal for me, his presence here in our midst, in our sharing of his Body and Blood. It is through my experience with Jesus in all these ways that I can hear, however dimly and intermittently, the voice that Jesus heard there at the Jordan, “You are my son, my beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Thinking of my friend who’s lost his faith, I realize that in his church-going days he always went to a rather prim and proper Episcopal church, always went to the early “thee and thou” service, valued intellectual sermons and hated innovations like the exchange of the Peace and the use of home-baked Communion bread. And I realize why I’ve grown impatient with that kind of religion, why I like Holy Cross so much, where the edges are a little ragged, people aren’t keeping up appearances, where we know each other’s weaknesses and shortcomings but love each other all the same. To me, Holy Baptism plunges us into all this, is our commitment to making common cause with all the challenges of life, particularly the ones we might like to avoid.
For St. Luke, the baptism of Jesus was very much an act of the Holy Spirit (as was everything else in his life). Part of the sacrament of Baptism is the chrismation, the anointing of the newly baptized person with fragrant oil: “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism, and marked as Christ’s own forever.” When we commit ourselves to live the baptismal life, we yield ourselves to God’s Holy Spirit. We give up a measure of our control. We go where we are led – or sometimes driven – by God.
It is a mark of the Holy Spirit that he (or she) sometimes runs ahead of churchy things like doctrine and discipline. I wonder if Jesus didn’t sometimes have second thoughts about where he was going, those few short years after his baptism. I expect those were the times he drew apart and prayed extra hard with his Father. It doesn’t always make neat intellectual sense, this baptismal life in the Spirit. It’s about deeper things – love and hope, life and death, water and wind and fire, connection with the rest of Creation and with God.