Sermon given at Matins on the Baptism of Christ 2012
8 January 2012 at 10:00 am
The Reverend Professor Vernon White, Canon in Residence
In the rhythms of the natural world, the early weeks of a new year in January and February do not show much visible sign of change. Whatever may be going on under the surface of the soil, winter usually keeps a firm grip on what we see. But it is different in the rhythms of the christian world. This time of year is much about change. Conversions happen. There is the conversion celebrated today in Jesus baptism. Then there is St Paul’s conversion. And in the presentation of Christ in the Temple, the conversion of a whole religion. Conversion is therefore the theme of my sermons at Matins during this month.
I begin today with a conversion of Jesus himself. That might seem odd. Surely He did not need to change? In orthodox christian belief Christ is the one person who did not need to change - for He was divine, perfect. Yet, as today’s readings remind us, he chose to submit himself to baptism - and baptism was a symbolic act associated with change, repentance, turning round in a new direction. So what could this mean?
For an answer consider another story of Jesus which, like his baptism, at first sight seems odd and embarrassing for one whom we claim to be divine and perfect: Jesus’ encounter with a Gentile woman, a person of low social status in that culture. In that story, recorded in Matthew’s Gospel, this woman asked Jesus to help her sick daughter, and initially Jesus refused, saying it is not fitting to give help intended for Jews to Gentiles – it’s ‘like throwing food for children to dogs’. The women persists, however: she accepts she may be only like a dog and yet she still asks. And at that point Jesus seems to change his mind and heart. ‘Woman’, he says, ‘great is your faith. Let it be done for you as you wish…’
So - what is going on there? Is it a change of mind? Biblical commentators from Calvin to the present have contorted themselves to interpret it in a way which does not require that obvious interpretation. Perhaps, they say, Jesus first refused her and emphasized her socially inferior status just to make it clear that when he did then accept her it could not be because of anything in her own status or merit. As Calvin said: ‘the greatness of her faith appeared in that she [first] suffered herself to be annihilated in the making of the request’ – making it clear that she was not relying on her own status, but only on the unconditional nature of Christ’s love. In that way it shines a light on the sheer grace of God for her – and on the greatness of her humble faith which accepted her own lowly status.
And that is indeed a way of telling that story without implying Jesus changed his mind: that is, as a story that we do not stand before God on the basis of any social status or merit we think we have, but only on God’s grace. And that is a very important truth in Christian teaching – but is it really the main truth of this story? Because by telling the story this way, as if it’s primarily about us, it also has an effect on what it says about God. It comes perilously close to picturing a God who first rubs our faces in the dirt, to make us appreciate his kindness more when it finally comes. And is that really a true or worthy picture of the God of Jesus Christ?
It is not! If instead we focus, as we always should with Gospel stories, on what this story is telling us about Jesus (rather than ourselves) we surely see something else. It does then seem to be a story of how he himself changed in the encounter. It shows Jesus as a Jew of his time with inherited prejudices about this Gentile woman - and who then changes his view when he meets her: it shows a Jesus who, in that encounter, came to see and learn that she too had a deep humble faith and love, equal to any man or Jew…
But isn’t that initial prejudice, his inherited human limitation, a troubling flaw in one supposed to be perfect? No! That is the misunderstanding which forced such artificial efforts to reinterpret it another way. There is no sin, no culpability, in inheriting a narrow vision or prejudice and then growing out of it. Sin only arises when we fail to grow out of it when given the chance. Yes, that is where we do fail, a failure often caused by not risking real encounter with people outside our own comfortable world of prejudice. But that is precisely where Jesus did not fail. When He truly encountered the woman, He saw, learnt, and changed. His willingness and capacity to do that was actually the sign of his unique divine perfection, the very opposite of a flaw.
It was also sign of his unique capacity to help us. For how else can God in Christ bring us out of our inherited prejudices and our limited vision except by the experience of doing so Himself as truly human? This is the glorious and radical heart of the mystery of incarnation, rooted in scripture, summed up superbly by the celebrated maxim of the early Church Fathers: that ‘the unassumed is the unhealed’. Only if Christ assumed real human experience, including our limitations, can He heal us from them. Only one born to suffer these same limitations, and who then transcended them, can help us do the same. As the Epistle to the Hebrews puts it, ‘it was fitting that God, in bringing many children to glory, should make perfect the pioneer of their salvation through what he too suffered’. Learning and turning through real encounter is precisely the greatest human perfection which was ‘made’ in Christ, and with which He can help us - in a way He could not have done as the cardboard cut-out ready-made perfection of a parachuted-in God who was never really human at all…
We can now return to Christ’s baptism and see that more easily in the same light. It was indeed a sign of change. A sign that revealed his nature as truly human, needing to grow and change. A sign that revealed his nature as truly divine because uniquely he did do that – perfectly. And as such it was also a sign of His power to help us change.
We shall need that help. If even the sinless one had to learn to see and act aright, and needed to encounter other people to do so, then how much more shall we need His grace to do that ourselves. Jesus’ willing plunge into the Jordan for baptism is the sign of that grace. In him change and conversion for us too is possible - and for our religion. But more about that in the following weeks.