Let me wish you and your household a Happy New Year! In this season of Epiphany we have an opportunity to engage one of the most significant movements of the Christian faith. This movement is when the Gospel story takes a centrifugal spin from the particularity of a little town called Bethlehem into a story of universal significance marked by a visitation of Magi and more. The refugee crisis is with us, along with the several others by association such as “us and them” politics fueled by suspicion, fear, hate, and territoriality. Climate change is not a myth. Violence is not a mere figment of our virtual reality. The Powerball draw was stretched out. We celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr., a timeless prophet whose teachings continue to challenge us to become beloved community. We consider the baptism of our Lord in such a context. The baptism of Jesus elicits a few characteristics that are pivotal to our core understanding of life as followers of Christ. In my analysis, these characteristics are: beloved identity, prophetic corrective and abundant joy!
Love is at the core of baptismal identity. The creation narrative from Genesis clarifies this in that God created and it was good – and in creating human beings it was, in fact, “very good.” Jesus’ baptism clearly signifies this identity with the pronounced words, “You are my son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3) We, the followers of Jesus, take this pronouncement as our starting point of faith-identity in and through Christ. Yes, we falter from this state of “belovedness” and that really is the story of human existence. It is, however, this foundational state of being made by God – in the image of God, certified by God at creation and recertified by God at the baptism of Jesus – that gives us the opportunity to embrace redemption and sanctification in sustainable lifelong dance. Christian discipleship at its core is dependent on this opportunity to “repent and return to the Lord” because of this baptismal given of beloved identity.
Jesus was baptized by John, the prophet. John was not the most friendly and approachable character in the Gospels. He was, in fact, quite abrasive, especially in his messaging. Yet, he seemed to attract quite a following since many wanted to hear the truth like it is without being sugarcoated. We live in a cultural climate where we are especially conscious of the prophetic corrective from prophets who live with integrity and tell the truth, even when it is unpopular. However, we should not confuse this when fear mongering is posturing in a facade of truth telling. Just because a teaching looks unpopular at first blush does not make it prophetic. My litmus test for false prophets goes like this: any prophetic teaching that does not qualify as ultimately inclusive and does qualify as expedient is not a prophetic vision whose source is God. It is an abomination when the people of goodwill don't recognize such false prophecy or teaching and are silent spectators passively abdicating their responsibility and refrain from calling it what it really is. This is where baptism gets to be countercultural and actionable.
I was recently in my alma mater, Madras Christian College (affectionately called MCC) attending a Board retreat of Colleges and Universities of the Anglican Communion. I was reminded of the founding years of this great institution. When MCC was a founded in the 1830s as a school in Georgetown in Madras, now Chennai, the leadership clearly drew that proverbial line in a culture defined by caste when they opened enrollment for all boys (in those days) from high caste and “untouchable” (Dalit) communities. Such a move toward inclusion presented a problem and a threat from high caste parents. Many of them considered removing their children from school rather than have their children sit and learn with boys from Dalit homes. The number of Dalits boys in school was initially miniscule, and the pragmatist would have easily done the expedient thing by segregating or removing the Dalit boys from school. The leadership, however, was governed by a baptismal value of human dignity that was above the cultural norm and held their ground. Nearly two hundred years after those founding years, MCC is one of the top ten colleges of liberal arts and science in the country fostering higher education for all. Prophetic corrections are necessary and seldom are easy to implement.
Edwin Friedman, in his final book, A Failure of Nerve, states that his formula for success is more maturity, not more data; stamina, not technique; and personal responsibility, not empathy. Our nation and our institutions don't need more information, more technical fixes and more patronizing oversight. Whenever empathy commingles with and overpowers personal responsibility, a subculture of savior-mentality takes over. Such a takeover of mere empathy ends up creating generations of codependent individuals with behaviors that are sustained by patronizing social rituals and traditions that insidiously rob us of our baptismal agency. Jesus was baptized into a beloved identity with God and not into a codependent relationship with the variously powerful of his time. Our baptismal imperative commends us to take up this cross as followers of Christ to help us move to beloved maturity.
Baptism, the fount of our identity as the faithful, consequently invites us to appropriate our God-given gift of joy and wonder as good stewards of all of life. I am thrilled to hear of Rochester being named by CreditDonkey as the happiest city in the nation! I don’t want to get into a narrow differentiation between happiness and joy because that’s not the point. The point is that we have choice to appropriate identities out of a continuum of the often well-articulated pathologies and paranoias of our time or as the baptized to appropriate a beloved identity that we are “marked as Christ’s own forever.” I am meeting more and more saints in our Diocese who are embracing their baptismal identity. Recently, I was at St. Paul’s in Rochester where I sensed new energy, met many new people, and marveled at the many kids running around infectiously spreading their gift of joy! Good things are going on there. I felt it in the air.
Whenever we live into the abundant Joy of the Lord, we do so not because everything is as it should be but because we know by faith that with Christ beside us, all will be well. If joy is a chronic stranger, we may need to examine who we are hanging out with and make some changes because as with grief, joy is infectious. May 2016 be to each of us a year when we live more intentionally into our baptismal identity as a beloved communion. It is a significant year in the life of our diocese when we journey together on a pilgrimage of reconciliation to see the face of God in each other. Our Presiding Bishop will be visiting us in November. We are called to reconcile and spread the good news of hope and transformation in a hurting world. Christ invites you to live into your beloved identity as you follow him. Christ and King, Jr., invite you adhere to prophetic correctives. Let us collectively choose to make joy in Christ as our way of life!