Friday, January 10, 2014

Baptism of the Lord (Gospel: Matthew 3:13-17)

 'Baptised' by the Atlantic ocean!

 ‘The truth I have now come to realise is that God does not have favourites, but that anybody of any nationality who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to him’ (Acts 10:34-35).

One of the many benefits that comes from a more mixed society, where we have people from many different parts of the world living together, is that it helps to broaden our minds.    Last year I was living in a religious community and we often had people from different parts of the world.  One morning when we came down for breakfast two of us noticed that someone had cut the loaf of bread not from top to bottom into slices the way we usually do, but from one side to the other across the middle.  In other words they had done the complete opposite of what we were used to.  The two of us who noticed this at the same time both began to complain saying, ‘Who is the idiot that did this!’  But then almost immediately we both began to check ourselves and say, ‘I suppose there is no law that says you can’t do it this way!’ and we laughed at ourselves and how fixed we can be in our ways.  It was a Taiwanese priest living with us whose culture is very different from ours.  Something as simple as this helped us to see how small-minded we can be in our ways. 

In the second reading today St. Peter says he realised how anyone can be acceptable to God if they do what is right.  That might seem obvious enough to us, but it wasn’t obvious to them at that time.  The Jewish people believed that they were specially chosen by God, and that meant anyone else who was not Jewish was not so important to God.  But then the Lord began to teach the Apostles that in fact He was there for everyone, of every nationality and creed.  It took them a while to come around to this way of thinking.  In fact the first few times some Gentiles (non-Jews) received the gift of the Spirit, the Apostles were quite surprised.  They hadn’t expected this.  They didn’t think that Gentiles would be given the gift of the Spirit.  God was helping them to gradually broaden their horizons.  Everyone, of every nationality and creed was being called into God’s family.  The Lord showed this to St. Peter through a vision (See Acts 10:9-16).  Peter saw a vision of a great sheet being let down from heaven filled with all kinds of animals and birds.  Then he heard a voice saying:
Now Peter, Kill and eat!”  But Peter answered, “Certainly not, Lord; I have never yet eaten anything profane or unclean.”  Again a second time, the voice spoke to him, “What God has made clean, you have no right to call profane”.  This was repeated three times and suddenly the container was drawn up to heaven again (Acts 10:13-16).

This vision helped Peter to understand that no-one was ‘unclean’ in God’s sight if they tried to live the right way.  The Lord was helping Peter to see a bigger picture, but as with most of us, this happens gradually.  Everyone is called to be part of God’s family.

After Jesus was Baptised in the Jordan a vision was seen of the Spirit coming down on him in the form of a dove.  The Father in heaven was empowering him with the gift of the Spirit, to enable him to live the mission that the Father had given him, to teach the people about God and to offer himself for the sins of the world.  The Spirit gave him the strength and wisdom He needed for this difficult mission. 

Perhaps another reason why people were allowed to see the Spirit descend in bodily form was to remind us of what happens when we are baptised.  We are given the gift of the Spirit to enable us to live the Christian life.  It is not a way of life that we can live by our own strength; it would be too difficult.  This is why God gives us the gift of his Spirit to guide, strengthen and teach us.  Jesus said to the Apostles that after He had ascended into heaven He would send the Spirit, ‘Who will teach you everything’ (John 16:13b).  Our minds can only take so much, and we are continually learning about the ways of God.  As we continue to pray and try and live the Christian way of life, the Lord teaches us more and more.  So much of what our faith is about is completely beyond us, and so the Lord teaches us little by little.

When we are baptised we state what it is we believe in and we commit ourselves to this way of faith.  For many of us someone else will have spoken on our behalf when we were baptised as we were infants, but this is done on the understanding that we will be taught about our faith as we grow up, otherwise it would make no sense.  If we come for baptism as adults we will be examined before-hand to make sure we understand the commitment we are taking on.  But the greatest part of Baptism is the gift of the Spirit who will teach us all we need to know, and who will continue to challenge us in different ways so that we grow ever closer to God.  As long as we remain open to the gift of God’s Spirit we will be drawn deeper and deeper into God.  Only in God will we find our true happiness and fulfilment and so the more we give ourselves to this journey the more fulfilment we will find.

The truth I have now come to realise is that God does not have favourites, but that anybody of any nationality who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to him’ (Acts 10:34-35).

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