Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The cool cleansing waters of the river

Sacramento River, taken with my iPhone
SACRAMENTO – The air here is very heavy with smoke from brush fires on the Sacramento River Delta. The evening breeze that usually brings us cool air brought us only stifling smoke last night, and the temperature today promises to be 104 degrees.

So it takes imagination this morning to think of the cool waters of the mountains, and to imagine the water long ago where Jesus and John the Baptist initiated people into the faith by immersing them in rivers.

The Daily Office reading this morning, from John 3:22-36, is a debate about the meaning of baptism and who is allowed to perform baptism. John is baptizing at Aenon near Salim, while Jesus is baptizing in another stretch of the Jordan River. A few nameless folk ask John the Baptist, who has the better baptism? John turns it into a sermon about belief in Jesus:
“He whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without measure. The Father loves the Son and has placed all things in his hands. Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever disobeys the Son will not see life, but must endure God’s wrath.”

Baptism in the Gospel of John has become about being initiated into a relationship with Jesus, and that has become the central motif of baptism in Christianity through the ages.

But the Gospel of John was written last (nearly a century after the time of Jesus), and it represents the early Church adding its claim of exclusive truth onto the story of Jesus. Perhaps it is a layer of smoke?

I cannot help but reflect that baptism looks and sounds different in the earlier gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke. In those gospels, Jesus is drenched in baptism and through it shares with us in temptation and suffering. God declares Jesus beloved in baptism, and baptism becomes a marker not only of his divinity, but also of his humanity.

Unlike in the Gospel of John, in the three earlier gospels Jesus does not baptize – he is not a rival to John the Baptist. Jesus casts out demons and heals people, feeds them and invites them to his table. He does not check their baptismal certificates at the door.

I am left wondering if these two ideas of baptism are mutually exclusive. Apparently not for the early Church, for both ideas were left in the New Testament: Baptism as Jesus sharing our humanity, and baptism as our initiation into life with Jesus.

Christians have had a very difficult time through the ages living in the tension of those two ideas. Can we find a way to live with both ideas?

Maybe the flowing waters can bring us there.

My prayers this morning take me to the banks of the river, and I am surrounded by many familiar people who are in this world and in the next. I prayer for the waters to cleanse us of all that harms, wounds and hurts us.

I feel connected through the water to many memories, many people, in the past and in the present. I feel connected through the water to life everywhere. And I await the promise of the water that has not yet reached us and for the smoke to clear away.

By James Richardson, Fiat Lux

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