Today we celebrate the baptism of our Lord and we’re (almost literally) diving into the waters of the Jordan and into Mark’s Gospel, a Gospel we will continue to read during our new liturgical year. For those of you who are interested, I will show a video after this service (you can also listen to it if you’re joining us on the phone), a video that presents an overview of Mark’s Gospel, the storyline and the main themes.
In a few words, Mark’s Gospel is the most ancient of the four Gospels, it’s also the shortest one. There is a reason for that. In Mark’s, Jesus is presented as a man of action: Jesus recruits his disciples, he heals, exorcises demons, feeds the people and is always on the move. We studied Matthew’s Gospel last year and we spent time on Jesus’s extended parables and teachings. Nothing like that in Mark! We go straight to the point. Jesus came into the world to save people and he gets on the job, he is always active and busy!
Another interesting feature in Mark’s Gospel is that the evangelist makes a point to show us Jesus’s humanity. It has been said by scholars that Mark’s Gospel is the most authentic, the closest to the “Historical Jesus” . Well, as Christians we believe that all Gospels are authentic and historical, but you could see the reason why most scholars have been upholding this Gospel as the closest to the first disciples’ experience: Jesus, although proclaimed the Son of God right from the beginning (as we see in this passage of the baptism) and in the end by the centurion standing at the cross, Jesus is presented as very human. For example, Mark’s Gospel makes many references to Jesus’ emotions: In this Gospel, Jesus gets often tired or impatient, sometimes afraid, and even moody or angry.
Far from disturbing us, I think those references to Jesus’s character are very important because they can help us to relate to him. Jesus, as we said again and again during the Christmas season, wasn’t in this world only “among us”, he was really one of us: The Son of God and yet a human being like you and me. It is very clear right from the beginning of Mark’s Gospel, in this first chapter: Jesus waits in line (a very human experience!) in the crowd, to be baptized by John in the wilderness, although, as John notices, John wasn’t worthy to even untie Jesus’s sandals – and then the heavens break open to confirm John’s intuition: This man, who looks like any other man, is also the Messiah.
And so this is one of the aims of Mark’s Gospel: To keep us wondering and questioning about this mystery: Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God and Jesus is fully human – From there, we see how Jesus can be an example, a model for all of us who want to follow him and be intimate with God, be God’s children. As we wonder who Jesus is, we question also who we are and this is I think a very important question. A question that a lot of people wonder about these days. This is at least the feeling I had this past week.
As I was watching the news, scrolling down articles on line and social medias, one of the things that struck me was the redounding comment a lot of people made. People, as they were reacting to the events that took place at the Capitol, asked again and again: “Is it who we are?”. Some said, most said: “This is not who we are”, or “This is not America”. But on the other way around, there were also many people saying, in response to them: “Actually, this is who we are” and “Take a good look, because this is what America is right now”.
And so, in the comments, declarations, interviews, there was a constant back and forth between people who couldn’t believe what was going on in the Capital Nation, because this didn’t look like anything they believed about themselves, the people and the country, and also people not so surprised by what was going on, acknowledging that this was the sad reality of what the country and the people were really about. To them, the veil was just lifted on people’s true nature in this time of conflict.
Between the two, who’s right, who’s wrong, is it who we are or is it really nothing like us, to that I don’t have an answer right away, but what I noticed is that because of the very disturbing events that took place this week, it’s like a lot of people seemed to start to question their own personal and national identity and were led to deeper questions:
Who is it that we are, really? Are we good people inside, is human (or American) nature good, or is goodness all just surface, an illusion, because when comes a crisis we realize our inner violence and folly? Maybe it’s a question you asked yourself too, and are still asking.
Well, if you would like to step back a little bit today, you may agree with me that this question is not new, and it is shown easily when we talk about what it means to be human. “To be human” both means, first, to refuse cruelty and injustices, like when we say “Treating others humanely”, but when we say “It’s human” or “We are only humans” we also mean that it is in our nature to make mistakes, to be weak, to contradict ourselves and to do bad things.
This is where, I think, is the connection with today’s Gospel, because those questions were Mark’s, those questions were Mark’s people’s questions and have been Christians’ questions for centuries: Looking at Jesus, they wondered what it meant about themselves. They wondered: Who is it that we are? What does it mean to be human? What does it means to be human in front of God? Do we believe that we are wretched sinners, a fallen race, called to repentance, in need of being cleansed, and forgiven, or is there something inside of us that gives us a special connection to the divine, “Sons and daughters of God” and, as in our passage today: “Beloved by God”, people with whom “God is well pleased”?
What do you think? Do you believe that God is well pleased with us, or do you believe that our true nature is to be rebellious against God, false and violent?
Well, to answer this question, Mark simply, and beautifully, introduces Jesus, the Son of God, a Son of God who, throughout Mark’s Gospel, takes hold of his humanity, steps in the waters of baptism with the sinners, shares a table with the tax collectors and the prostitutes, and at times shows himself highly emotional, subject to anger, fear and suffering. And yet as the Gospel unfolds, Jesus proves right everything that was prophetized about The Messiah: Jesus behaves like the Son of God. He is compassionate with the poor, heals, feeds and sets free, resists evil powers, tells the truth to his opponents at the cost of his life. Jesus shows us what it means to be baptized, filled with the Holy Spirit.
And so, to me, the very interesting point is that Mark, in his Gospel, as Luke in the Acts of the Apostles (as we read in our 2nd reading) shows us that as Christians we can hold altogether this dual, and for many conflicting, reality: We have to be baptized in water because we are sinners, and we can also be baptized in the Holy Spirit, because we are the Son and daughters of God.
We are up to the worst, but we can also accomplish the best.
And it is not because we have an inner nature that is good, or because we have an inner nature that is bad. Or both in the same time. To me it means that we have the choice. We have the choice. As human we can choose who we are. If you’ve ever studied a bit of philosophy, you know that this was the Creed of existentialism: There is not a definition of what it means to be human. Human beings can be whatever they want to be. Something we often hear in this country, right? In America, you can be whoever you want to be.
Yes, we have the choice.
We cannot take for granted who we are. We have to choose ourselves again and again, choose who we want to be. After his baptism, Jesus is sent by the Spirit in the wilderness and will endure many temptations: Greed, power, glory. Jesus, didn’t fake it as a man in this world. Jesus as a child of God, also had to choose who he wanted to be, not only on this one day in the waters of the Jordan, but every day. He endured many temptations: He was discouraged, attacked by his enemies, left on his own, misunderstood by his friends. Jesus suffered a whole lot emotionally and physically to continue to do the right thing, to be compassionate and kind, to show’s God’s love and embody what it means to be God’s child.
How do we do that? That’s a question we may need to ask ourselves, as I said, every single day. But the Gospel and the book of Acts reminds us today that we have two “tools” (if I may use this expression) that are at our disposition: A baptism of water, a baptism of repentance, and a baptism of fire, a baptism with the Holy Spirit.
The baptism of water is on us, as it was on John and on John’s people. Repentance in Greek means “to turn around”, to “change one’s mind” and it is very interesting because in this world it’s often not seen as a good thing to change our minds, we’re afraid it’d make us look weak, undecided or unreliable, or maybe it would just make us look like an idiot. But to God, it’s never too late to do the right thing, and it’s never ridiculous or shameful to acknowledge that we have strayed and made mistakes, that we have hurt people. We just need to say that we were wrong and that we are sorry. We spend a lot of time commenting people’s behavior, but what about our own? The Gospel tells us again and again that we are ALL in need of repentance.
The second “tool” we are given is the baptism of fire, the baptism of the Holy Spirit. We have power to decide the good, to choose life and life giving ways, but we often don’t have the strength, or the will to carry on, especially when life becomes difficult. That’s when we are reminded by John that this baptism is the Messiah’s job, it is God’s job to sanctify us. Jesus didn’t come only to experience what it was to be human, or even to show a beautiful example of what it could mean to be a human being, leaving us even more helpless and desperate about out own sinfulness. Jesus came so we can be “adopted” by God, full human being and yet God’s children because we would be filled with the Holy Spirit.
So I invite you now, after the hymn, to renew with me your baptism’s promises. Because we need to make the choice, again and again, of who we want to be.