At Christmas the Word was made flesh: God took the remarkable step of identifying with the physical reality of
human life. Today we hear about another moment of identification, when Jesus in baptism shares in the symbolic moment of spiritual rebirth.
These two events together underline the astonishing extent to which Jesus humbled himself in order to be among us and intercede for us. In Jewish practice baptism served a number of purposes. All of these centre on the idea of water acting to cleanse people of sin and corruption. It is linked to healing, when Naaman was told by Elisha to wash in the Jordan seven times to cure his leprosy we are told that his flesh turned into the flesh of a young child: he was revitalised and made clean (2 Kings 5:14). For non-Jews wishing to join the faith baptism was a requirement of entry. Water therefore has a long history in the Bible for healing and restoration, and the moment of transition into a new community of faith.
The use of water for washing away sin was not always seen as a once in a lifetime event. It was a means to achieve symbolic release from sin. This was the basis of John’s baptism before the birth of Jesus. People came to repent and be cleansed – to be given the opportunity to begin a new life released from the burden of sin. The Christian rite of baptism contains all these themes and mirrors the way Jesus identified with humanity: in baptism we are invited to claim kinship with God.
This invitation to change is both wonderful and a great responsibility. Faith grown in maturity and insight has benefitted others in countless ways and stood as a witness to the glory of God. Yet we also know, especially after the events of last week, that actions taken in the name of faith can be deadly and devastating. The ideals of faith can be ill directed and where wise guidance is absent the perversion of belief can do untold damage. This is true of many if not all forms of belief, whether religious, nationalist or secularist.
In the history of faith there are moments of inspiration which can both encourage and direct us when a few individuals seek to set people of goodwill against one another. In 1076 AD a Muslim leader, an Emir, had petitioned the Pope to send a bishop to take care of the Christians living in the Emir’s jurisdiction. The Pope did this and also wrote a letter to the Emir recognising his gracious request despite their theological differences. In the letter the Pope wrote that “we should do to others what we would wish to be done to ourselves. You and I owe this charity to ourselves…”.
“You and I owe this charity to ourselves”.
When those whose faith has been perverted seek to set mature and faithful people against one another these words speak to us. We owe this charity to ourselves, our children and our communities, to resist the temptation to see the madness of a few in the lives of the many. Our faith, the new life begun in baptism, requires us to ‘do to others what we would wish to be done to ourselves’. It is not the faith for those who want to label, brand or despise the lives of others. But it is the way of Christ, the way of the cross and the only way that people and communities are transformed for good.