Below is an audio link and text for the sermon by The Rev. Posey Krakowsky on the First Sunday after the Epiphany and the Baptism of Our Lord.
Baptism of our Lord
Church of the Ascension
Jan 12, 2019
So here’s an odd question for you. Does anyone else have conversations about faith with friends via text, or am I the only one? Feels like it happens to me all the time. Of course, I have face to face ones as well, but given technology and how busy everyone is these days, theological texts have become a new thing for me. I also get occasional Facebook messages with theological questions. Not something I would have anticipated in my seminary days, back when I was urged to sign up for Facebook by my younger classmates so that we could be in touch.
One friend recently texted me about the Netflix film — The Two Popes. We both really enjoyed the movie. The acting was great, and the theological conversation was even better. Too often I find that in TV shows and films, the writers and directors have not done their homework. But in this case, they really seem to have done it well. Which is not to say that the way the film depicted events was actually true — it was not. But the debate that the two men were having was one that rang true and felt plausible — not only for these two particular men, but more broadly, for the community of those who wrestle with their faith in any and all religious traditions.
“How can Pope Benedict believe that God is unchangeable?” my friend texted me.
It’s a good question. And one I can imagine many of our fellow monotheists asking as well. Having that question in the back of my mind primed me to hear today’s gospel passage in a new way. Because out of all the Baptism of Jesus stories, it is Matthew’s version that most directly answers that very question.
Let’s back up a bit and consider how we Episcopalians speak about baptism. Because ff we take our own theology seriously, then Jesus emerges from the water of baptism changed. As Episcopalians, we are part of a tradition that takes the sacraments seriously — that states right there in the words of the liturgy, that we are changed by baptism, sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever. For us, baptism is regenerative: a means of Grace, a visible, outward sign of an inner transformation. It is an ontological change, not merely a signifier. In the baptismal rite, we are having an encounter with the living Christ, present in this moment. Our baptism is not a historical re-enactment of the story in the gospel today. Instead, we assert that we experience it as a current, actively grace filled encounter.
Just ask anyone who was baptized as an adult — they will tell you — something happens. I was baptized as a baby, so I don’t remember, but I do know I had that same kind of experience at ordination, another rite that we, as a church, speak of as an ontological change. Something happened, just as it does in baptism.
So — does baptism make us better? Well no, not necessarily. We all know baptized persons who behave in ways that are clearly not loving and who choose not to “be best.” So too do we know ordained persons who are also not better, much less best. Baptism and ordination are both beginnings, not endings. They mark the start of change within us, and we always, every day, make the choice anew to live into those baptismal vows — or not.
Matthew’s story of the baptism of our Lord, got me thinking about the ways that baptism is a transformation, a change, a rebirth. One of the many reasons we are changed by baptism, is that baptism itself is a kind of conversation — a recognition that God is calling us, here and now, into encounter, into relationship. And one way we respond to God’s call is by choosing to be in community — to be with others who also seek to answer that call. As Christians, we intentionally mark the choice to wrestle with and live into these questions in community by an entrance rite using water and the invocation of the Holy Spirit.
That baptismal rite starts a conversation that continues throughout our lives — one that takes us into places we might never expect we’d go. Here’s an example: have you ever had the experience of being in a conversation with someone who is emerging into adulthood from a childhood steeped in a more strictly constrained Christian tradition? If we pay attention, we can see the person slowly finding their way out, as we all do, no matter what tradition we come from, of the belief system they were given by their parents, teachers and mentors.
And at some point, it becomes clear to them that there is no definitive answer to some of the theological questions they are wrestling with. More than that, it also becomes clear that such uncertainty, such unknowing, is okay. And that the process of wrestling with the questions, in and of itself, is a right and good and joyful thing. Suddenly, there is a world of possibilities that has opened up for them. And this sense of opening, of being willing to stay in the conversation and to wrestle, holding things in tension, is also to realize that “not having to know for sure” is ultimately a way of going deeper into their spiritual journey.
Having all of this in mind, reading Matthew’s version of the baptism of Jesus this time felt different: it was the first time I noticed that it is the only version that includes a conversation between Jesus and John. Mark’s version, as one would expect, is bare bones — “In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.” Period, full stop. Luke says: “now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized…” Again, no conversation between Jesus and John. In John’s gospel, John the Baptist does speak, but he testifies — it isn’t a dialogue, it’s an extended prophetic proclamation. Jesus doesn’t speak at all in the baptism section.
But in Matthew’s, he does. Matthew has the two cousins conversing together before the baptism even takes place. Why? Many of the commentaries I have read on this passage emphasize that John and Jesus were initially rivals, and that this passage was written specifically to solidify that Jesus is the true Messiah, thereby diminishing John.
What if we consider instead that perhaps Matthew, who was fully steeped in the Jewish tradition of midrash — and therefore used to dialoguing with, commenting on, and wrestling with the Hebrew scriptures — what if Matthew was continuing that kind of dialogue in the gospel? Matthew writes that Jesus say to John, “it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” FOR US. Not for Jesus alone. FOR US. So we are hearing the story of a conversation: a conversation about the most important conversation, which is the story of God’s love for God’s creation. Matthew reminds us that God desires that conversation to be a partnership, a continuing partnership. Because even God cannot have a conversation alone. A conversation assumes a dialogue — it assumes there are at least two parties involved. And that there is mutual listening, attention, and presence.
The other day, I happened across a beautiful ode to language and conversation by philosopher David Abram. It expresses the mutuality of presence brilliantly:
“Oral language gusts through us—our sounded phrases (are) borne by the same air that nourishes the cedars and swells the cumulus clouds. (…) the power of language remains, first and foremost, a way of singing oneself into contact with others and with the cosmos—a way of bridging the silence between oneself and another person, or a startled black bear, or the crescent moon soaring like a billowed sail above the roof. Whether sounded on the tongue, printed on the page, or shimmering on the screen, language’s primary gift is not to represent the world around us, but to call ourselves into the vital presence of that world—and into deep and attentive presence with one another.”
Now finally, circling back to my friend’s original text — and I’m sure you thought I would never get there — we once again ask: how can Benedict think that God does not change?
And I will respond: if we are indeed in a conversation with God, then of course God changes.
Because it isn’t really a conversation if one side knows in advance everything the other side is going to say.
It isn’t really a conversation if one side is inflexible and immovable.
It isn’t really a conversation if there is no space of unknowing where possibility can take root and grow.
Being in conversation means that God changes, just as we change.
God changes because God responds to us and to creation.
God changes because where real love is present — change is as well.
But wait, you might be thinking, what about all those hymns we sing about the unchangeable God? What about hymn 423?
“We blossom and flourish, like leaves on a tree, then wither and perish, but nought changeth thee.”
Good question. And there is, I humbly submit, one crucial aspect of God that scripture tells us, over and over again, is completely unchangeable.
That crucial aspect is the faithfulness of God’s love for us— in Hebrew, the word is Chesed. Chesed can be translated so many ways, but here are a few: faithfulness, steadfastness, loving kindness, mercy. God’s love for us and for all of creation is never in question.
My friends: in these troubling times and at the end of a week when there were more than rumors of war, it helps me, and I hope it helps you to remember — God changes with us, and God finds ways to make things new, even when we are unable to see how that will happen.
And God does so for one reason, and one reason alone. God does so out of love.
God asks us to join God in creating the kin-dom of Heaven here on earth.
“Let it be so for now,” Jesus says, “for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.
May it be so.
The Rev. Posey Krakowsky