30 September – Breathing under water

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Pentecost 19

Psalm 1
Mark 9:38-50

In a sentence:
Baptism is the rite to life

What are we going to do today to poor, defenceless little Olivia?

What you will see is that she will be taken in hand, she will be liberally wetted, prayers will be said around her, she will be carried into the gathered community and some will make on her forehead the sign of the cross, and these things will be said to be the stuff of ‘salvation’

These actions and their interpretation are increasingly odd to modern eyes and ears. This is not least because we might not be sure about even the need for salvation in one such as Olivia. Out of what does she need to be saved? The actions of baptism are pointless if the meaning we attribute to them sounds like nonsense. We ought, then, to attempt to make some meaning of all this.

Something I’ve said before of a child presented for baptism is worth hearing again today: that the only thing of which one such as Olivia might be guilty is that she chose the parents she did. This, of course, is an outrageous suggestion, first because Olivia did not choose her parents and, second because those who know her parents well might want to rush to their defence as, in fact, a worthy choice by their daughter!

But to speak of such guilt on Olivia’s part is not to say anything which could be defended in those ways. ‘Choice’ here is not a moral category – it is not something we actually do. It is what is done or chosen for us. Here Olivia’s ‘choice’ of her parents means simply that she has parents. And that they have parents, and that they had parents. It is the same, of course, for each of us.

Apart from simple life support, what our parents do for us is provide a language and a culture. These are prescriptions for experiencing and living in the world. In this way we are taught what to love, what to loathe, what to value, what to fear.

But this is not only what our parents do for us; it is also what they do to us. For, if we are lucky, we eventually come to experience the world in ways other than how our received language or culture may have narrowed it down. We learn that there is more than we learned there was, or that what we learned to love ought in fact to be feared and vice-versa. We recognize that we might have been brought up differently, for others indeed were. Our parents’ way is not the only way.

But it all happens long before we are paying attention to what is happening, and then it is too late, for we are formed. This is what it means to be ‘guilty’ of having chosen the parents we did; it means simply that we are human, and that our humanity is caught up in the humanity of every person who came before us, for better and for worse. This is what life holds for Olivia, and holds also for every child who dares to be born. This is not a matter of judgement but simply a matter of fact.

All of this is a pretty secular account of what it means to be human and it is – on its own terms – a fairly comprehensive account. It speaks of us as a whole. What we do in baptism is bring this account of who we are into collision with another account of being human – the kind of human life we see in Jesus. We’ve heard something of that humanity in our reading from Mark’s gospel this morning, speaking is does of what we are ‘for’ and against, what we might do to keep ourselves safe. And a collision course it is, if we take seriously that Jesus ends up on a cross.

Yet I’d like to put a different spin on at least part of our reading – that part which probably strikes most as the most confronting: if an eye or a foot or a hand causes us to fall, tear it out, cut if off. Clearly we have here rhetorical hyperbole. Jesus is not proposing self-mutilation, and the same point could have been made if he’d said, ‘look away, don’t walk that way, put it down’; his way is just more memorable. And, we’d have to say, his point is really only common sense. If you can’t leave the chocolate in the cupboard, don’t buy it in the first place. If you are wasting your life looking into a small bright screen, get rid of it. If your credit card is killing you, cut it up. We already know what Jesus says here; it is only the force of his language which surprises.

But the twist I’d like to suggest here is that the tearing out of the eye and the cutting off of the foot or hand which going to cause you to sin – this is exactly what happens to Jesus himself.

He is born into a world with its own language and culture, hopes and expectations, fears and loathings. Not surprisingly, he looks very much like everyone else. How could he not? This is what language and culture does to us. He is part of the social reality, the political body which bore him, and this is what the church means when it insists that in him we see someone who is truly human.

And yet there are differences. To the outside, uncultured eye, they are subtle or not even visible but within that society they are enormous. In fact they are so significant that Jesus is perceived to be a threat to the well-being of the community. As a member of that social body he becomes an eye, a hand, a foot which is causing breakdown, bringing instability.

And so that social body does what it knows is best for it – it cuts away the threatening member; this is the meaning of the crucifixion so far as the authorities are concerned: better that the one die than the many be lost because of him (cf. John 11.50). Jesus himself is the danger, and the crucifixion follows Jesus’ gruesome advice to the letter.

When the church speaks of the resurrection, it speaks not of a one-off nature miracle in which a dead heart starts beating again. It speaks rather of the realization that Jesus was not the threat to our truth but very truth amongst us. To say that Jesus rose is to say that the crucifixion was a kind of auto-immune response which killed the best part of us. It is to say that our humanity matters enough for God to give a damn but also that when God does we are likely not to notice, and something like a resurrection is necessary to make the point. To speak of Jesus’ resurrection is to say that God will nevertheless insisthere is what you are; to be for Jesus might cost you dearly, you might be cut off, but it is the truth of you, the way of being for which you were created.

Baptism is an action which ‘speaks’ this. It is a washing bath which cleanses what must be cleaned but which nothing else can clean.

Baptism is deep water in which we are drowned and from which we are then raised to life again, different.

Or, perhaps more vividly, baptism is about ‘breathing under water’.

For to be human is to be in deep waters – deeper and wider than any of us can imagine – and we are each small in that vast expanse. We know how dangerous it can be, what might lurk beneath, the sapping cold, the weariness of keeping ourselves afloat.

The life of Jesus was a baptism into our humanity with all its best and worst, and yet was a life in which he was able find breath regardless of where he was, even to the point of being dragged out of the water and left on the shore to die, cut off from the context of life – the very deep waters which seem so dangerous.

This is what we are offered in the call to follow him, and what we mark in baptism – life in all its fullness wherever we are, whatever we face.

We will sing at the end of the service today,

I heard the voice of Jesus say,
‘I am this dark world’s light;
look unto me, your morn shall rise,
and all your days be bright.

The call might seem costly but surely such a gift is beyond compare: light in darkness, a firm foundation beneath change and decay, life in the midst of death.

And the gift is given freely as a spring of water flows from its source.

Let those who are thirsty drink.