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Homily - Baptism of the Lord - Bishop McKeown

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Sunday, 10 January 2021

The Gospels and the Church's year do not spend much time on the early life of Jesus. The Gospels of Mark and John tell nothing about Jesus until John the Baptist appears and says that the adult Jesus is near at hand. The Christmas stories in Matthew and Luke are only a prelude to the main work of Jesus' life, namely proclaiming the Kingdom of God, ending with his death and resurrection. Thus, the Baptism of Jesus by John in the Jordan marks the beginning of his public ministry – and it has clear implications for those who follow him through the waters of baptism and declare their readiness to be part of his mission that is aimed at healing the broken heart of the world. What does this feast say to me as we face into the uncertainties of 2021 and as we move into the centenary year of St Columba's birth?

Firstly, St Mark's Gospel is concise. Jesus is baptised, he is driven by the Spirit out into the desert to be tempted and then he begins to preach. All of that is covered in seven sentences. Mark is not concerned with showing off his literary skills but with introducing Jesus in the first few lines of his Gospel. Jesus was not baptised just to please his family. This is a momentous, life-changing event for the one known as the carpenter's Son. Whatever happened at his Baptism, he experiences his identity as a beloved Son of God and as the one who now begins to fulfil the role that Isaiah attributed to the strange figure called the 'Suffering Servant'. In fulfilling Isaiah's promise, he will know that he is infinitely precious to God but that he must take upon himself the sins of the world. Baptism with Jesus is a call to be adventurers for the message of the Gospel. The baptised are called to be creators of a graced world in Jesus' name and not merely defenders of one that keeps us cosy or smug. Like Jesus, we are called by name and sent on a journey that cannot but pass through Calvary. Serving the cause of right means suffering. St Paul will later write that we have to join Jesus in dying to ourselves before we can be born again with his risen life. Like Jesus we will be tempted to tone down the message for comfort's sake. But Jesus mission is to live in the truth and not merely to flattered by popularity. Being his missionary means allowing ourselves to be led by the Spirit, into many places where we think God must have got it all wrong because we know better.

Secondly, names in the Bible often have special significance. The name John in Hebrew means 'God is gracious'. Jesus means 'God saves'. And Columba means 'dove', the image used for the Holy Spirit. Baptism celebrates the time when a person receives their 'Christian' name, the name by which we are known by God. Baptism and your name celebrate the graciousness of God who saves and the Holy Spirit who anoints you. We have a deep need in this community for healing on the other side of the bitter stormy waters of conflict. As with Columba, who took his baptismal calling very seriously, grace and graciousness can help us move from a place of painful memories to a more peaceful life-giving place of hope. Peace does not come from denying the past, fighting over it, or glibly glorifying it. Peace will come from facing the realities of the past together and acknowledging the pain that conflict has caused, especially to the weak and defenceless. But Columba would tell us that the baptised do not need to know where their one faith, one Lord and one baptism will lead them. You and I need only allow God to call us by name to come and see where he dwells

Thirdly, we are not sure where our baptism call will lead us in the concrete circumstances of today. But what we do know is this is not a merely heavenly mission. The words of Isaiah are clear about justice and the nations, light for the blind, hope for the crushed and the captives. And when Jesus introduces himself in the synagogue in Nazara, he quotes another passage from Isaiah about good news for the poor. Jesus understands his mission as being of heavenly and earthly significance. The God who made the heavens is passionately concerned about human beings made in the divine image and likeness.

Life is difficult for many people and the closure of churches for public worship is very painful for some. It is not always easy - in church and outside - to balance the demand for personal rights and the need to preserve the Common Good. There is a temptation for some to demand that their rights are respected in one area of life and denied to others in a different area. For people of faith, the question is always about the rights of the least of Jesus' brothers and sisters and never merely about my rights or our rights. My rights, right or wrong, is a dangerous slogan in church and civic life, because it prioritises me over us. A few days ago, a colleague said, "We need to listen to Covid the teacher." It is dangerous to assume that our personal theological or political interpretation of the current crisis is correct. John the Baptist and Jesus and Columba would tell us not to be over-confident that we know the divine will at this time, or that we can decide definitively who is acting in good faith and who is not. That is why many Christians see the current restrictions, not as an alienation from or abandonment by God but as a divine invitation to cross the sea by putting out into the depths for a catch.

Today we celebrate the beginning of Jesus' public ministry. Next Sunday we will hear Jesus inviting the first of his disciples to come and follow him in that ministry of his. Baptism is the beginning of a journey. For us that journey calls us to minister in the middle of a pandemic and the right or wrong political decisions about how to respond to that reality. None of us knows what God will ask us to deal what in the future. The baptised are asked only to pray intensely for the Holy Spirit to descend on us so that we can 'act justly, love tenderly and walk humbly with our God. When Jesus is Lord, our personal agendas and fears pale into insignificance. Today, through St Mark's Gospel we begin our journey of discipleship with hope and trust. We are called by name and trust that Jesus has overcome the world. And on that journey of discipleship, we are assured that we will draw water from the wells of salvation.

+ Donal McKeown


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