Christmas V – The Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord
2020 – Cycle ABC
Isaiah 42:1-4, 6-7; Psalm 29; Acts 10:34-38; Matthew 3:13-17
For almost 20 years now we have found ourselves mired in, embarrassed and dispirited by the sexual abuse scandal; but have you ever considered what the first scandal in the life of the church was?
It was the event in Jesus’ life that we mark today to complete the Christmas feasts; the baptism by John in the River Jordan. Have you ever considered why Jesus, the Word made Flesh and splendour of the eternal Father, the one who is Son of God and Son of Mary, needed to submit to a baptism for repentance and in today’s Gospel even insists on it? For the Christian community to remember and to keep this embarrassing story alive doesn’t make a lot of sense, does it? Scandals, I suppose, don’t make much sense.
The English word ‘scandal’, comes from the Greek, skandalon, which means, “stumbling block,” to literally, “trip someone up”. The abuse scandal has understandably become a stumbling block for many people to question why they should remain in the Catholic Church. Well, so was the baptism of Jesus by John. Consider the scandal of the crucifixion – a suffering, dying God – or the teaching of Jesus that unless we eat his flesh and drink his blood we will have no life in us [See John 6]. Even in Jesus’ day, people walked away.
An aspect with some ongoing scandals is that after a while you simply become used to them and they no longer cause outrage. Consider the scandals of mass shootings in our country or the abusive and inequitable treatment of women in our contemporary society. Why in the 21st century, is there a #Me Too Movement at all? I want to talk to you today about such an ongoing scandal in the church. It is a scandal that has been with us in various forms since Paul and the Corinthian Church; I refer to the scandal of our divisions.
Jesus seems to have foreseen this since his last prayer in the garden of Gethsemane was that we all might be one as the Father and he are one [See John 17:20]. I bring this topic up because Saturday, 18 January begins the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.
The Ecumenical Movement began among the Protestant branches of Christianity in the beginning of the 20th century. In the 1960s, the Catholic Church through the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council for the first time not only boldly addressed this issue of disunity but from a very different perspective. Orthodox, Anglican and Protestants observers were invited to the Council and in the Decree on Ecumenism there was the admission that people on all sides were to blame for the divisions within the body of Christ, the Church. No longer was the movement to be one of Orthodox and Protestant communities returning home to the Catholic Church but that all Christian believers were to move together toward Christ, the only source of our unity.
As I said, we can get used to scandals and I think we have. We’ve experienced Christians of various denominations working side by side in food pantries and meal sites and on moral issues from abortion to civil rights; from war to the environment. Seminaries and religiously founded universities share faculties and reflect on each other’s theologians. International and National Dialogues have produced documents on the issues of authority, Baptism, ministry, and the Eucharist. Did you know that in 1999, 20 years ago, a Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification was signed by the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church which essentially resolved the conflicts at the root of the 16th century Reformation? Yet why does organic unity evade us?
There is the often heard the comments, “But we all believe in the same God” or “At least my child is believing in something and going to some Church” are used to easily brush under the carpet and not deal with all the complex and difficult historical and theological issues that divide Christians from each other. Have you not considered how scandalous it is that within one block in Oneonta there are Catholic, Orthodox, Episcopal, Baptist and Presbyterian Churches! As Paul will ask, “Is Christ divided?” Surely he is. And who lays claim to the authentic Christ?
So where do we go from no longer being scandalized by our divisions to moving beyond the status quo? The Vatican Council decreed that, “Concern for restoring unity pertains to the whole Church, people and clergy alike.” All of us then need to take up the example of Jesus and regularly pray for unity within the Body of Christ. Prayer first of all changes the person who prays. And “there can be no ecumenism worthy of the name without a change of heart…newness of attitudes, self-denial and unstinted love…”
And of primary importance is relationship building. Too many of the past divisions in the church occurred because of a growing distance from which arose misunderstandings between people.
The misunderstandings between the Greek Eastern Christian experience from the Latin West; the experiences of northern Germanic peoples from Mediterranean Christians, along with language, geography, politics which eventually resulted in the continued misinformation and separation among Orthodox, Protestant and Catholic Christians.
Relationships allow for questions, listening and learning. Relationships break down the walls of fear. Knowing our common Christian history assists us in not repeating past mistakes and horrors within the Body of Christ. Rapprochement, due to lack of trust and the need to heal memories, is always a slow progress. But the greater the unity of Christians, the better the world knows the Gospel.
Today we mark the scandalous baptism of Jesus by John in the Jordan. A dangerous memory we have kept alive. Yet, it is the Sacrament of Baptism for the forgiveness of sins that Christians have unanimously agree upon.