Homily – Baptism of Jesus

Dear Friends, 

Below find Pastor Dick Dahl’s homily from last weekend–thank you Dick! –Pastor Kathy

Today’s homily builds on four related reflections. Here is the first:

In December Father Richard Rohr released a new book titled, “What Do
We Do With the Bible?” In it Fr. Rohr speaks of how since the time of the
the Reformation and the Enlightenment–in other words the last three to five
hundred years–Christians have reduced their way of reading Scripture to a
narrow lens that was supposedly rational, literal and historical—a severely
narrow view that he and many would say is the least spiritually helpful view.
Father Rohr writes, “Such a narrow approach largely creates…a
transactional religion much more than transformational spirituality. It
idealizes individual conformity and group belonging over love, service, or
actual change of heart.”

He goes on to say, “The earlier centuries of Christianity were much closer
to the trans-rational world of Jesus and his storytelling style of teaching
(which does not lend itself to dogmatic or systematic theology). As stated in
Matthew 13:34, ‘He would never speak to them except in parables.’ The
indirect, metaphorical, symbolic language of a story or parable seems to be
Jesus’ strongly preferred way of teaching spiritual realities.”

Now, the second reflection: I went though this background about ways of
reading scripture because when I first read the Gospel account of Jesus’
baptism today, I found myself trapped in a narrow literal understanding. I
questioned why was Jesus even going through a ritual in which John the
Baptist called people to reform their behavior? Did he have to reform his
behavior? And did anyone really hear the voice of God the Father speaking
or see the holy Spirit coming upon Jesus in some visible form?

I was inclined to interpret this description as the much later understanding
of Christians after Jesus’ resurrection and the Pentecostal gift of the Spirit
who made clear to them what it had all meant.

Now, however, I am inclined to read this account with a broader and, I
hope, deeper viewpoint. A crucially longer historical awareness gives the
event deeper meaning than a mere literal approach does. For example,
John the Baptist’s preaching is associated in Luke’s gospel, unlike in any of
the other gospels, with a call from God. This presents him just like the
prophets before him, such as Elijah, whose ministries also began with a
similar call. John the Baptist then prepares the crowds for a major change–
the more than thousand-year-long phase in God’s plan for mankind was
about to change, namely the Time of Promise. He tells them “One is
coming after me who is mightier than I, one who will baptize you with fire
and the holy Spirit.”

Jesus’ baptism then powerfully opens a new phase in history—the Time of
Fulfillment. A voice from heaven identifies the man Jesus as his Son. It
reflects almost word for word the words from the prophet Isaiah in our first
reading today: “Here is my Servant …my Chosen One with whom I am
pleased. Upon him I have put my spirit; he shall bring forth justice to the
nations.” The baptism of Jesus was really an anointing.

The man Jesus was so powerfully affected by the voice of the Father and
the coming on him of the holy Spirit that the next thing he is described as
doing in Luke’s gospel is to go into the wilderness of the desert to come to
terms with it all, to figure it all out. When he emerges from the desert, Luke
writes, “After this, Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit.” One
of the first things Jesus is described doing is to stand up in his home synagogue in Nazareth and read from the scroll of Isaiah, “The Spirit of the
Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the
poor…to captives…to the blind…(and) the oppressed.”

Now, the third reflection: I have tried to describe for you a way of reading
today’s Gospel that isn’t like a movie, but is more a meditative revelation
with much deeper meaning than simply a plunge in the Jordan. This
reading opens the door to a revolution, a message that turns the
established order upside down.

This message was and remains revolutionary in that it was and is not first
of all for the people with power and great wealth. As Mary declared in her
Magnificat, “The Mighty One… has shown might with his arm, dispersed
the arrogant of mind and heart. He has thrown down the rulers from their
thrones, but lifted up the lowly. The hungry he has filled with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.”

In fact, more than any other Gospel writer, Luke is concerned with Jesus’
attitude toward the economically and socially poor. At times the poor in
Luke’s gospel are associated with the downtrodden, the oppressed and
afflicted, the forgotten and the neglected. It is they who most readily accept
Jesus’ message of salvation.

So, now we come to the last reflection in this homily: The second reading
today from the Acts of the Apostles. We hear Peter being called to go to the
home, not only of a Gentile, but of a Centurian of the occupying Roman
army. In a more modern context, that may have been like being sent to the
home of a Nazi commandant in World War II.

To Peter’s amazement, as he was telling Cornelius and those with him the
story of Jesus, “the Holy Spirit fell upon all who were listening to the word.”
When Peter realized that they had received the holy Spirit even as he had,
he had them all baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.

Today it is hard for us to realize and appreciate what a revelation it was for
the Jewish people, like Peter and later Paul, to recognize that God’s
covenant which had made the Jews his special people for over a thousand
years, was now open to all people in an inclusive New Covenant–sealed in
the blood of Jesus and which we are celebrating in this Eucharistic meal.
In the words of the old Negro spiritual, “He’s got the whole world in his
hands” or today’s alternate version, “She’s got the whole world in her
hands.” In other words, no more exclusion. No more dualism! No more
separating people into who is right and who is wrong, who is in and who is
out. We are all included, not because we are better or worse than others,
but because God’s love is a transforming power. We are each sinners, yet
the transforming mercy of God has made us temples of the holy Spirit
through baptism.

Before we think or say, “This is obvious and clear to us,” we need to ask,
“Is it really?” If the total embrace of God’s love was truly recognized,
accepted and believed, how could anyone be viewed as an outsider? In the
book by Father Rohr that I mentiohned earlier, he states, “Well over sixty
percent of Jesus’ stories make the outsider the hero of the story….”
What people have we excluded, and perhaps continue to exclude? For
centuries it was the Jews. The Church sponsored crusades and the
Crusaders carried out pogroms against Jews on their way to fight Muslims.
After the Reformation Christians who did not accept each other’s version of
the truth were burned at the stake. More recently it has been the
homosexual, the divorced. The list may today go on to include others
whose political views as well as whose religious beliefs (or lack of them) we
find offensive and hate.

In short, I suggest that the Scripture readings today, read from a more
profound viewpoint, proclaim the clear and fundamental message of Jesus.
He loves each person and has in fact a preferential love for the poor, the
outsider, the outcast. This was the lesson that Peter learned when he met
with Cornelius. The affirmation of Jesus by the Father and the Spirit at his
baptism began his emergence from his hidden years into his public
ministry. His actions were his message. Jesus came to change the minds of people about God, and in doing so, to change our minds about ourselves and literally everyone and everything else in the universe.