‘Oh Brother, Where art Thou’ is a movie set in rural Mississippi in 1937. The main characters are three convicts on the run. They come across a congregation all dressed in white moving down to the river for a baptism ceremony. Delmar, one of the convicts, is totally taken in by this. He rushes down to the water, gets baptised by being immersed three times and then rejoins his mates. “Well that’s it, boys. I’ve been redeemed. The preacher’s done warshed away all my sins and transgressions. It’s the straight and narrow from here on out, and heaven everlasting’s my reward … The preacher says all my sins is warshed away … Neither God nor man’s got nothin’ on me now. C’mon in boys, the water is fine.”
It all comes across as very funny and comical, but Delmar’s take on baptism is not that far removed from our popular understanding of it, namely that it’s the shedding of an old, tired life, the washing away of our sins and an everlasting reward in heaven. There’s a lot of truth in this but it doesn’t go far enough. For instance, it doesn’t explain why Jesus got baptised? How could the sinless one join a line of sinners to be immersed in the Jordan? The baptism of John was clearly a confession of sins and an attempt to put off an old, failed life and to receive a new one. How could Jesus do this? How could he separate himself from his previous life and start a new one?
There is a little prayer said silently by the priest at the Offertory, which I think should be proclaimed aloud from the rooftops. ‘By the mystery of this water and wine, may we share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity!’ Jesus didn’t just come by helicopter to have a mere look into our lives, see how we are doing and then fly off again. He entered fully into our lives, immersed himself into all the messiness of our darkness. In a wonderful act of solidarity, he joined that line of sinners, taking with him all our sins as he entered the waters of the Jordan, and in doing so cast all our sins to the bottom of the sea. But this is only half the story. His whole purpose in doing this was to raise us up to a new life – so that we could share in the divinity. When he emerged from the waters the heavens, which were closed ever since Adam was expelled from Paradise, are now torn apart and opened again. Finally, those magical words from heaven, ‘You are my beloved.’
The washing away of sins that Delmar was so excited about is only the beginning. What’s really magical about baptism is that we are all addressed as God’s beloved sons and daughters. We no longer belong to ourselves but to God and therefore it’s incumbent on us to live lives worthy of God. Hence today’s first reading today where God warns us against the danger of flitting away our lives in frivolity. We are not to quench our thirst or satiate our hunger with what will not satisfy: “Why,” he asks, “do you spend your money on what is not bread, your earnings on what does not satisfy?” God wants to give us good things to drink and eat, things that will be good for us; while we sometimes use our resources badly, we use them for what is useless, indeed, for what is harmful. God wants to give us above all himself and his Word: he knows that if we distance ourselves from him we will soon find ourselves in difficulty, like the prodigal son of the parable, and most importantly we will lose our human dignity. And for this reason he assures us that he is infinite mercy, that his thoughts and his ways are not as ours — how fortunate for us! — and that we can always return to him, to the house of the Father. Moreover, he assures us that if we welcome his Word, it will bear good fruit in our life, like the rain that waters the earth.
For us to bear fruit we need to dwell on the Spirit given to us in baptism. The early Christians were convinced that in order to follow Jesus it’s not enough to be baptised by water or some such ritual. It’s necessary to live drenched by his Holy Spirit. The Baptist himself was aware of this when he says: “I have baptized you with water, but he (Jesus) will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
Because they were living in times of great cultural change and danger, the early Christians felt the need to be guided, sustained and strengthened by the Spirit. The Book of Revelation, written at the critical time when the Church lived under the emperor Domitian, repeats over and over to those Christians: “Let anyone who can hear, listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches”.
Today we are living in a time of profound and unprecedented cultural change. The tragic events that unfolded in Paris last week are but the latest hotspot and reminder in this clash of cultures. This unprecedented cultural change in which we are living is asking of us Christians today an unprecedented faithfulness to Jesus’ Spirit. Of course it’s all too easy to throw in the towel and say that there is nothing I can do. But this is a cop out and certainly not the worthy response of a Christian. So instead of beating our breast over and over about our growing secularization, we need to ask ourselves what are the new paths that God is searching out today in order to meet the men and women of our day? How do we need renew our way of thinking, speaking, living our faith so that God’s Word can reach out to the questioning, doubts, fears that arise in their hearts.
The time has come to learn to be the Church of Jesus for all, and only he can teach us how. We need to look more like Jesus, allow ourselves to work for his Spirit. Only Jesus can give the Church a new face. Every crisis presents new opportunities. As we speak conditions are being created where what’s essential in the Gospel can resonate anew. A Church that is more fragile, weak and humble can bring it about that Jesus’ Spirit be understood and welcomed more truly.
11 January 2015