Baptism of Jesus – January 13, 2013

Reading 1: Reading 2: Reading 3: Reading 4: 
Isaiah 43:1-7Psalm 29Acts 8:14-17Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

By Bruce G. Epperly

Today, we celebrate the Baptism of Jesus. In our ecumenical and interreligious context, we lift up baptism as one way of affirming God’s ultimate care for creation. Sacraments are visible signs God’s ubiquitous grace. Although sacraments have often been the source of controversy, their purpose is to inspire, assure, and affirm. We cannot limit grace and inspiration to a particular form (immersion, sprinkling, infant, or believer’s baptism, for example, or symbolic or mystical understandings of communion), but must affirm the same variety in sacramental practice and theology that we do in encountering the varieties of religious expression and practice among the world’s traditional and emerging spiritual traditions. Grace abounds and flourishes in its variety, whether or not a person is baptized. There is no more room for sacramental or liturgical fundamentalism than there is for scriptural fundamentalism. Fluidity rather than fixity characterizes living theology, ritual, and spiritual practice.

The words of Isaiah proclaim God’s fidelity to the “chosen.” God will be with God’s own people through every contingency and challenge. In fire and water, conflict and controversy, and youth and aging, God is our companion. These words must have been reassuring as well as problematic to Isaiah’s listeners. The fidelity of God opened them to the possibility of a transformed future, but where was God when the gates of Jerusalem were stormed, when children were killed, oppressors ruled, and leaders were sent into exile in Babylon?

The presence and power as well as the temporal extent of God’s love are at play in understanding this passage. If it pertains solely to observable realities, the presence of God seems marked as much by absence as care. If God’s power is only that of companionship in this world, how did it benefit the children and teachers massacred at Sandy Hook or starving in the Sudan?

Companionship needs to be palpable in some way to make a difference. God’s companionship can be understood in terms of God’s feeling our pain – and letting us know that we are not alone – or in terms of emerging possibilities and energy in challenging times. It can be seen as a long term vision with the power to embody this personal and communal vision in “real time.” Just to say, “God is with us” is not enough and probably wasn’t for Isaiah’s weary, anxious, and uncertain listeners. We need a God with both skin and vision – a God who holds gently and flexibly the future as well as the present in divine care.

There is no direct affirmation of immortality in the Isaiah passage. But, could there be a hint that God’s care brings us through the fire and water, protecting us as best as possible and giving us insight and energy for the journey, on our pathway toward an everlasting adventure? The dying children and grieving parents need more than verbal promises; they need a deep hope that God’s care continues beyond the hour of death, luring, evolving, comforting, and transforming. Tied too much to scholastic interpretations of Whiteheadian metaphysics and Enlightenment liberalism, process theologians have provided few helpful images and often just agnosticism in their reflections on the afterlife. An expansive process theology can imagine everlasting life with humility, yet affirm continued growth, companionship, adventure, and healing. The afterlife is an ongoing adventure of the spirit in a context where goodness and beauty have the first and last word and where all eventually find forgiveness, healing, and growth.1

While anthropomorphic in nature, the words of Psalm 29 proclaim the glory of God. Divine power is proclaimed, but it is the power to create a wondrous and awe-filled universe. “How great thou art” is a fitting hymn for Psalm 29. God’s greatness brings forth billions of galaxies and creatures beyond our imagination. It is the greatness of wisdom and tender care. Filled with awe, the Psalmist gives thanks for the graceful interdependence of life. Inspired by wonder, we commit ourselves to using our own agency – an awesome gift of a generous God who joins freedom, creativity, and order in the dynamism of personal, planetary, and cosmic evolution – to claim our role and responsibility as God’s partners in bring beauty to our world and healing the earth.

Imagine the great surprise – Samaritans believe the message of grace, and now experience the Holy Spirit. What does it mean to receive the Holy Spirit? Some folks are quite clear that this involves speaking in tongues and miraculous experiences. Certainty some sort of ecstasy characterized the coming of the Holy Spirit in the early church. This first century experience invites us to consider how we are receiving the Holy Spirit today: Do we expect great things of God? Do we expect great things of ourselves and our churches?

An immanent Spirit, suggested by process theology, need not be a modest or lowest common denominator spiritual experience. Progressives can be mystics, Pentecostals, and healers, while maintaining a fluid and ever-expanding understanding of God. What would happen if our churches prayed for an extra portion of God’s spirit, unifying, energizing, illuminating, and enlivening our worship, prayer, and mission?

“The Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus in bodily form like a dove.” The reading from Luke joins divine initiative, human ritual, and prayer. Certain moments are synergetic: divine call and human response create quantum leaps of insight, energy, and creativity. Souls and cells are transformed. Wounds are healed and unexpected inspiration occurs. While you can’t construct a whole Christology from today’s passage, Luke affirms a spiritual and metaphysical continuity between Jesus’ experience and our own. While Jesus does not need to repent, he feels the need to participate in a ritual of transformation followed by a time of deep prayer. Does the confluence of these two actions open the door for a superabundance of divine insight, power, and energy? There is nothing exclusively supernatural here: in fact, the description is rather naturalistic in a God-filled world.

Sacraments awaken us to God’s presence and serve as focal points of divine revelation and activity. When humans open to the power of sacrament, great things happen; persons and community receive healing and individuals experience their vocations and the power to embody these callings.

Today, shall we pray for an extra portion of divine inspiration and energy? Can we imagine greater things from God that elicit greater powers in our own lives? Can we lift up the everyday in such a way that it becomes naturally Spirit-filled? Can ordinary water and bread and wine become an icon to God’s presence and power in our midst? Let us pray for God’s Spirit to descend on us as it did along the Jordan and in Samaria.

1 For more on process visions of the afterlife, see Bruce Epperly Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed and Emerging Process: Adventurous Theology for a Missional Church.

Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, pastor, and author of twenty three books, including Process Theology: A Guide to the PerplexedHoly Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, Philippians: An Interactive Bible Study, The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age, and Emerging Process: Adventurous Theology for a Missional Church. He also writes regularly for the Process and Faith lectionary. He recently served as Visiting Professor of Process Studies at Claremont School of Theology and Claremont Lincoln University.  Contact him by email for lectures, workshops, and retreats. His latest book is Healing Marks: Healing and Spirituality in Mark’s Gospel (Energion).