Part of the Inspiration for Beloved Community Series: messages from Sunday services at Blackburn’s Chapel, encouraging us to seek beloved community. (to see other entries in this series click here.)
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
When we think of baptism we rightly might think of renewal—of new life, new beginnings, of repentance and conversion. But Jesus’ baptism was none of these things—he had no need to repent. In many ways, Jesus is receiving a commissioning, an anointing: not to be a ruler, not to triumph, but to suffer. As he submits to being baptized by John, he receives his mission—to be a servant.
Given the heavenly imagery, and many of the paintings of this scene: heavens parting, the voice from above, the descent of the spirit like a dove, we might easily think of Jesus’ baptism as a revelation of Jesus’ divinity: evidence of Jesus as the Son of God. I don’t think this is wrong so much as a little bit backwards. This is God saying, “Here is my son, the human being most fully human, because he is one who is giving his life. He will carry out my work of redemption in the world.” What makes this moment so glorious is not the heavenly light, but Jesus’ humble humanity receiving blessing–his servanthood on display.
It becomes very clear reading the Gospel of Mark that Mark wants us to see Jesus as the suffering servant. Mark persistently points us, even in the earliest stages of Jesus’ ministry, toward the cross. In his baptism, Jesus puts on the role of the Servant of whom Isaiah sung, and surely as the hearers and readers heard this voice, they also heard Isaiah 42:
Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen one in whom I delight;
I will put my Spirit on him,
and he will bring justice to the nations.
. . . he will not falter or be discouraged
till he establishes justice on earth.
Now the Gospel says that from his Baptism in the Jordan River “the Spirit drove him into the wilderness.” He goes out into the desert. Into the wasteland. He enters into the deepest, darkest, loneliest corners of his own being—tempted with would could undo his mission and his identity as the Son of God. And through this he also knows the depths of the pain of his people: people who hunger and thirst, who suffer and want a solution. He experienced hunger that was not just his own, but that of a hungry people, who suffer and want a solution, who would easily rally around a Messiah who could turn stones into bread, who would follow a Messiah who would swoop in and take over the kingdom.
But he doesn’t remain in the desert, he doesn’t retreat from society, but returns to his people. The Gospels never give us the image that Jesus walked around beaming halo of light from his head, enlightening everyone simply from stepping in the room, making all the flowers bloom and everything turn to gold. Jesus brought light to the world because he passed through the darkness, he brought healing to people’s pain because he was willing to touch what others wouldn’t.
In all of this I couldn’t help think about the movie Jaimie and I watched recently, a beautiful film called Short Term 12. It focuses on two caregivers at a group home for troubled teenagers. The protagonist, Grace, and her co-worker/boyfriend Mason have an amazing ability to handle their troubled charges, looking after them with empathy and tough love, which we discover, is because they too have come tough lives. In the film, they are contrasted by Nate, a well-meaning, well-mannered college kid who “wants to work with underprivileged kids.” Nate’s awkwardness in his new role comes from not having seen the world through the eyes of the kids he is trying to serve. Grace and Mason can bring out beauty and joy from of their kids because they know the depths of their pain. Nate has to learn that he can’t serve from his privileged position. He has to be willing to be uncomfortable, to be cussed at and spat on; but being faithful, he will find ways to provide love and grace.
Jesus’ baptism is also ours; as followers of Jesus, his mission is ours: to be a servant. To bring beauty and light to a hurting world, in whatever ways we are gifted. Our lives do not belong to us, but to each other, to our neighbors, our community, because our lives belong to God. This Gospel text begins our season of Lent, calling us to enter into Jesus’ baptism with him. Whatever tradition of baptism—whether as an infant or a new believer, sprinkled or immersed, in a river, an ocean, or a tub, this remains common: when join in Jesus’ baptism, in his death, and there is no resurrection without the journey to the cross. When we are baptized, we are baptized into the life and death of Jesus—anticipating resurrection, by as Wendell Berry put it, “practicing resurrection.”
I’ve been struck recently by the story of St. Phocas, as told by William Bryant Logan:
Far to the east of Constantinople, near the town of Sinope on a thumb-shaped peninsula sticking out into the Black Sea, lived Phocas that Gardener . . . a simple soul and hospitable, as a fourth-century hagiographer said of him. Nobody knows when he lived, but many know how he dies. He became the Christian patron saint of the garden because he composted himself.
This is the story.
A persecution arose against the Christians. Phocas was denounced as one of the banned sect, and a pair of Roman soldiers were dispatched to find him. ‘Don’t worry about evidence, don’t worry about a trial, don’t worry about a confession,’ they were told. ‘When you find him, kill him.’
The soldiers had a hard time traveling to reach Sinope, over thickly wooded mountains that to this day isolate the coastal port from the Turkish interior . . . . So the soldiers were not in a good mood as the descended the steeps . . . .
The weary pair trudged northeast onto the isthmus, bearing for the town, where they might ask directions to Phocas’s house. Night overtook them near a farmhouse, where a pleasant man of no particular age greeted them.
‘You are tired,’ he said. ‘You must stay the night with me.’ When they began to protest that they had a pressing errand, he responded defiantly, ‘I won’t take no for an answer.”
Over the evening meal, the soldiers told their host that they were looking for a dangerous man named Phocas. The host assured them that he knew the man very well and could quickly point him out to them. As they were so weary from their journey, however, he suggested that first they rest for the night.
While his guests slept, the host took his spade and dug a broad, deep hole in the middle of his garden. Come morning, the man fed the soldiers a hearty breakfast. Then, he told them that they might capture Phocas whenever they wished. He knew just where to find him. . . .
They thanked him for his thoughtfulness and asked to be taken to Phocas, wherever he might be.
‘He is here,’ said the farmer. “I myself am the man.”
Their jaws dropped. Their minds froze. What a trap! How could they behead this man, who’d treated them so well.
But Phocas led them to the hold he’d dug in the garden, and there, with his consent, they chopped his head off. . . .
The hagiographer Butler claims that Phocas ‘found in his garden an instructive book and an inexhaustible fund of meditation.” I would say rather that he found lessons in simplicity, economy, and hospitality. . . . There is no need to suggest anything about Eden. If Phocas had meditated on any story from the Bible, it might have been on the parable of the seed that was planted on stony ground, the other planted where the birds could take it, and the third planted on good soil so that it brought forth fruit. To make that soil, Phocas did not spare even his own body.
Hospitality is the fundamental virtue of the soil. It makes room. It shares. It neutralizes poisons. And so it heals. This is what the soil teaches: If you want to be remembered, give yourself away.
St. Phocas’ story, like Jesus’ in Mark, asks us, “Are you open?” Are you open to the voice of the Spirit, that voice that tore open the heavens, that it might tear open your heart, stripping you of safety of your comforts? Are you open to others, to seek the good of others, even if they are not seeking yours? Even if they are different, even if they make you uncomfortable, even if they might represent an opposing force in society? Are you open, to walk with Jesus wherever he might lead you. Are you open to giving yourself away? As followers of Jesus we open ourselves to others, without reservation, because this openness.
Holy Spirit, come, as we walk with Jesus through this Lenten journey, open us to your grace, open us to your transformation in our lives.