The Second Sunday of Year B

There is a common misconception that when the Church talks about vocation, being called, it is referring to the call to ordained ministry, to be a deacon or a priest. Nothing could be further from the truth. While this call is an important one, there remains a fundamental call which comes to us all in our baptism: the call to follow Christ. Each and every one of us is called to be a disciple of Jesus, to listen to what He says, and to let this call affect our lives. It is both a daunting prospect, and the most normal and natural thing in the world. 

Our first reading this morning tells the story of the call of Samuel, a young boy serving at the sanctuary in Shiloh with the high priest Eli. After his mother, Hannah, had prayed to God for a child whom she would dedicate to God as a Nazirite, she became pregnant and Samuel was born. Nazirites were not allowed to cut their hair, drink wine, or touch a dead body. Eli’s predecessor, Samson, the last of the Judges in the Book of Judges, was also a  Nazirite. Samuel is called three times. Each time he goes to Eli, whom he assumes is calling him. Eventually Eli tells Samuel to reply, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant hears.’ (1Sam 3:9). So Samuel responds to God’s invitation, and it totally changes his life. Are we willing to take that risk, and answer God’s call?

Ancient Corinth was something like a cross between London and Las Vegas. It was a rich trading centre with a reputation for sexual immorality. This morning’s second reading from St Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, is an attempt to argue that our embodied existence, that is how we live our lives , matters. Often, we become what we do. It is therefore important to do the right thing, and not the wrong. Paul’s argument leads to his conclusion:

You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body. (1Cor 6:19-20) 

We are not our own, we belong to God, who bought us with the price of His Son, Jesus Christ. The world likes to tell us that we are autonomous, that we can do whatever we want to, but at a fundamental level we are God’s people, and belong to the God who made us, and who redeemed us out of love for us. God sets us free to love Him and serve Him, so how we live our lives is our response to that love and an act of loving service. We can choose to glorify God, not that God needs our glory, but because it is how we should live our lives, in love and service. Our faith affects our lived existence.

In today’s Gospel we move beyond the Baptism of Christ to the events of the following day. John has testified that Jesus is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, and that He is the Son of God. When John sees Jesus walking by he again exclaims ‘Behold the Lamb of God’ (Jn 1:36). The phrase looks back to the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 52-53 who is led like a lamb to the slaughter. The beginning of Jesus public ministry points to its end on the Cross. Jesus is the Messiah and He will die to take away our sins. Two of John’s disciples hear him saying these words and follow Jesus. When Jesus asks them what they are looking for, the disciples answer ‘Rabbi’. They acknowledge Jesus as a teacher, and ask Him where He is staying. Jesus replies, “Come and you will see.” (Jn 1:39). Jesus invites them to follow Him, to see where He is staying and to spend time with Him. These two disciples of John become followers of Jesus, literally and metaphorically. The Church continues to make the same invitation to the world, to come and see, to follow Jesus. These two disciples stay with Jesus, they listen to Him, they eat with Him, and begin to have a relationship with Him. We then discover that one of the men is Andrew, and that he has a brother, called Simon. Andrew is convinced that he has found the Messiah and brings his brother to Jesus. When Jesus meets Simon he says,

“So you are Simon the son of John? You shall be called Cephas” (which means Peter) (Jn 1:42)

Jesus gives Simon a new name. He calls him Cephas, which means ‘rock’ in Aramaic, Petros in Greek, from which our name Peter comes. Peter will be the rock upon which Christ will build His Church (Mt 16:18). The name Jesus gives points to Peter’s future role as the leader of the Apostles. Jesus takes the initiative and begins to sketch out a future for the disciples who are following Him. It is quick, and matter of fact, and yet momentous. Jesus is gathering people to help Him with this ministry.

The Church therefore begins with a few Galilean fishermen following a rabbi whom they recognise as the Messiah. Thanks to them, and their faith in Jesus, we are in the Church today. Faith, where we put our trust, is an important thing. It affects both who we are, and how we live our lives. Faith turned Peter from a fisherman into a leader of the early Christians, and it has continued to transform lives for the past two thousand years. 

In our baptism, God in Christ invites each and every one of us to follow Him, to ‘come and see’, as the first disciples did, and to invite others, as Andrew invited Simon Peter. To come and see who Jesus is, to get to know Him, and start a relationship with Him. This begins with our sharing in His Death and Resurrection, and ends in the glory of Heaven. Where we, and all the Church, give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen. 

Baptism of Christ

The Baptism of Christ by John the Baptist in the River Jordan at the start of His public ministry is one of the events found in all four Gospels (the others are the Feeding of the Five Thousand, and the account of the Lord’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection, from Palm Sunday to Easter Day). Each gospel contains accounts of the beginning and end of Jesus’ public ministry, as well as a miraculous feeding. If we take a moment to consider both what baptism is, and what it is for, we may come to understand why all four  gospel writers included it in their account of the life and teachings of Jesus. 

Baptism is symbolic washing with water for the forgiveness of sins. If Jesus was baptized does that mean that He sinned? The answer is, No. So, given the fact that Jesus committed no sins, did He need to be baptised by John? Again, the answer is. No. You may begin to wonder what is going on here? Why would Jesus begins His Public ministry in Galilee with a redundant action? If Jesus does not need to be baptised, what is the point of it? What is Jesus doing and why is it important for us?

Unlike all human beings, who commit sin, and become estranged from their relationship with God, Jesus is God become man. He is perfect, sinless, and united with God the Father, and the Holy Spirit, a Trinity of love. There is no need to restore the relationship, because it is one of perfect love. Mark’s account of the Baptism is prefaced by the words of John the Baptist:

After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” (Mk 1:7-8)

John the Baptist is linking Christ’s baptism with the redemption of humanity in His death. The very beginning of Jesus’ public ministry points to the Cross, where salvation and freedom will be offered to all who turn to Christ. John baptises with water, but he looks forward to Jesus, who will baptise with the Holy Spirit. This is the baptism of the Church, to save and redeem humanity, by sharing in Christ’s Death and Resurrection.

Once Jesus has been baptised by John, extraordinary things happen:

And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” (Mk 1:10-11)

At the moment of Jesus’ baptism we hear God the Father, and see God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. The fulness of God is manifest to humanity in the Trinity. We can see and hear God’s saving work. Jesus does not need to be baptised, but does so for three reasons. Firstly to demonstrate His humility, and obedience to the will of the Father; secondly to sanctify the waters of baptism, and finally to act as an example for us to follow. Thus, God sends the Holy Spirit to demonstrate the bond of love between the Father and the Son. The Father speaks to demonstrate that Jesus is the Son of God. He is beloved of the Father, and His obedience and humility is pleasing in the sight of God. Jesus shows us the way back to the Father. By our own obedience and humility, by our repentance, and turning away from the ways of sin and the world, we return to the God who loves us. This is the message of the church: that God’s grace is available to us, to everybody, even though we haven’t worked for or earned it, even though we have done nothing to deserve it, God’s love and mercy is there for us. In Baptism we receive adoption, and become part of the family of God. Through Baptism we are born again, of water and the Spirit, we are ‘in Christ’, clothed with Him.

The unnecessary nature of the act of Jesus’ Baptism discloses something profound about the nature of God and His love for us. God gives us more than we ask for, because it is in God’s nature to be generous in a way which astounds us. There is something reckless, extravagant, utterly over the top, about the love of God, which should prompt us to love and care for others in a similar way.

John’s baptism of water prepares the way for the baptism of the Holy Spirit in Christ, through which we enter the Church. It shows us a new way of living. Life in the Spirit, life with God, has a profound effect on us, who we are and what we do. It opens up the possibility of living in a new way, a way of love, which mirrors the generosity shown to us by God. This way of life shows us in the Church what it is to be truly alive and how to live in a new way. It points to another act of God’s extravagant love: when Christ dies on the Cross, to take away our sin, to carry our burden, which separates us from God and each other. Our wounds are healed, the relationship is restored so that we can live the life of the Kingdom of God here and now: living out that self-giving, reckless, extravagant love and forgiveness in our own lives, and in the world around us.

Back in our first reading this morning the prophet Isaiah looks forward to the coming of the Messiah with a proclamation of extravagant generosity:

Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters” (Isa 55:1)

This invitation is also the invitation of the Church, for people to enter it by baptism and share in the unsearchable riches of Christ. Today we remember that salvation is offered to the world through baptism. We give thanks for the rebirth of our own baptism, and hope to share it with others. Baptism reminds us of the hope which we have in Jesus Christ, hope of new life, and eternal life with Him. Whatever is happening in the world, or in our own lives we can trust in who God is, and what He has done for us. In this trust we can live out our faith so that the world may be transformed and believe and give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen. 

Epiphany 2021

We start this new year of 2021 in a Tier 4 lockdown, with our movements and our freedom to associate severely curtailed by law. Government control of people, their movements and whereabouts, is, however, nothing new. Mary and Joseph were forced to travel about 90 miles from their home in Nazareth up to Bethlehem in order to comply with the census regulations. It was a hard journey, at the end of which Mary gave birth in what were far from ideal circumstances as the guest houses were full. One cannot help but compare with those being treated in hospital corridors as there are no beds available.

Some time later the Holy Family receive some unexpected visitors. The wise men travelled over 500 miles because they observed a celestial phenomenon, a star, which they interpreted as signifying a royal birth in Israel. They travel to Jerusalem, the capital city, and see the king, and explain why they have come. Their news, rather than being a cause for joyous celebration, is interpreted by the Jewish king as a threat. So, Herod consults the religious experts who explain, following the prophecy of Micah, that the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem. Herod sends the wise men off to do some reconnaissance, before reporting back to him, claiming that he wishes to come and worship the child. However, the wise men are warned not to return to Herod, but to take a different route back home.

Matthew’s Gospel presents a story characterised by fear, rather than celebration. King Herod is worried that he will be removed from power. Fear is everywhere: fear of the Roman overlords, of threats to the ruling dynasty, or of popular uprising. It is a tense world, far removed from familiar domesticated images of Christmas and Epiphany, and yet such is God’s coming into our world. God comes into a world of fear to bring hope and love to people who long for healing and reconciliation. 

The wise men bring Jesus presents. Indeed, it is because of them that we give each other gifts at this time. We follow their example, and try to manifest something of the love and generosity which characterises this season. Unlike the wise men, we have not been able to travel this year, and we may have presents which we have not been able to deliver or send. It doesn’t matter. The wise men were not concerned about when they would arrive with their gifts. What mattered was that would see the King of the Jews, worship Him as God, and give Him treasures. They offer Jesus gold, a sign of His Kingship. They give incense, because Jesus is God become man, to whom worship is due. And they offer myrrh, used to anoint the dead. Even at Christ’s birth it is recognised that He will die for us, reconciling God and humanity. At the beginning of Jesus’ earthly life we see signs of how it will end: in Jerusalem, on a Cross, with a crown of thorns and a mocking inscription which proclaims the truth of God’s love for humanity.

God comes into a world of fear to bring hope, and joy, and love. In taking our flesh, Jesus shares our experience of human life and all that that entails. God can not only empathise but also sympathise. God, in Christ, experiences our fears and frailties. This wonderful news is declared to the world at the Epiphany, Our Lord’s Manifestation to the whole world. Epiphany fulfils the prophecies of Scripture: our first reading this morning from Isaiah Chapter 60 is full of details which are picked up in the account of the visit of the Magi. This is important in that it shows us that Jesus is the one who fulfils prophecy, He is the Messiah, the King of the Jews, God with us, Emmanuel. The fact that His birth is recognised by both local shepherds and wise men from outside the Jewish world shows that God’s salvation is for all, for everyone who turns to Him. This is Good News. God loves us and makes this manifest to the whole world in the birth of Jesus. 

To a world filled with fear we can proclaim a message of hope, and joy, the good news that salvation has come to humanity in Jesus, born in Bethlehem, recognised and worshipped by the wise men because He is God. We can rejoice with them because we share their joy and wonder that God is born to save us. We can trust His promises, and know that whatever difficulties we face, whatever fears assail us, that God is with us, with a message of salvation for all people. 

So let us be filled with hope and peace, may we live lives of joy, and love, and service of God and one another, which proclaim in word and deed the love of God to the world. May the whole of creation resound with the praise of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen. 

James Tissot, The Magi travelling