January 12, 2020 (Baptism of Jesus)
Holy Wisdom Monastery, Madison, WI
This morning we commemorate the baptism of Jesus, so I’d like to reflect on the story of that baptism in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 3.
In the first two chapters of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is an infant in a poor, homeless Jewish family, but in those chapters, Mathew reveals that this infant is God’s special agent in the world. His mission is to make the reign of God real here and now. In today’s Gospel Jesus, now a grown man, has come from Galilee to the wilderness of Judea. He stands before John the Baptist ready to embrace this identity and commit himself fully to this mission, and he asks John to baptize him.
John is uncomfortable with this request. He has never seen himself in the lead role in the coming spiritual revolution, but as someone preparing the way for One who is coming. He believes Jesus is that One and refuses to baptize him. “I need to be baptized by you. And do you come to me?” John asks. “Let it be for now,” Jesus answered. “For it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”
“To fulfill all righteousness.” That’s why Jesus wants to be baptized by John. But what does he mean by this? To be honest, I’m not sure, nor are the commentators. But I found New Testament scholar John Shea’s interpretation of this scene and these words very plausible. This ritual act of baptism was Jesus’ way of publicly accepting his identity as God’s agent and publicly committing himself to the mission he believed God had given him. By choosing to be baptized by the Prophet John, Jesus also makes it clear that he and his mission stand in continuity with the prophetic tradition that is at the heart of Israel’s mission and of which John, the new Elijah, is the supreme exemplar. ‘Righteousness’ or ‘justice,’ both of which are used to translate the Greek word “dikaiosune,” is one of the two central themes of this prophetic tradition and it is the very word Jesus uses when he responds to John. “It is fitting for us in this way to fulfill all dikaiosune,” Jesus tells John.
To be sure, Jesus ministry is different from the prophets, since it’s love, not justice, that is at its heart. But the love Jesus speaks about and practices is not a sentiment or a concept. It is a commitment and an action. It incorporates the prophetic call for justice, because it brings to the loved ones all the things the prophets demanded in the name of justice. That’s what the author of I John points to when he writes, “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help? Little children, let us love not in word or speech but in truth and action.” James speaks even more plainly about this in his letter. “If a brother of sister is naked or lacks daily food and one of you says to them, ‘Go is peace, keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?” In today’s Gospel, Jesus baptism by the prophet John clearly shows us that Jesus makes the prophetic call for justice an integral part of his teaching and ministry.
But this story of Jesus’ baptism not only tells us something about Jesus’ mission. It also tells us something about our mission as a community of Jesus’ followers here and now. Let’s reflect on that for few minutes.
Holy Wisdom, as a Community of communities, and this Assembly in particular, is a great blessing to all of us. Through various contemplative experiences It offers us many opportunities to nurture our inner life and get to know ourselves, others and God more deeply and intimately. At the heart of our life together as an Assembly is rich and meaningful worship. The prayers and songs and ritual acts of our Sunday Eucharist remind us of who God is, who Jesus is, who we are and what our mission is. The Benedictine Women of Madison offer us additional opportunities to participate in contemplative prayer through the Daily Office and through contemplative retreats and workshops. This Assembly also reaches out to the community around us by supporting various efforts like the work with students at Vera Court. And we are developing a ministry to the Hispanic community that is already enriching our life together and we hope providing meaningful support for that community. Through our relationship with the Friends of Wisdom Prairie and the Benedictine Women of Madison, we are learning to us appreciate nature more deeply and are being challenged to be caretakers of the earth. We are indeed blest to be connected to all these communities.
But I think there is a dimension of our ministry in which this Assembly can do a good deal better. That is our justice ministry. Today’s Gospel reminds us that our Christian mission as a community of Jesus’ followers includes the prophetic call to do justice. It also challenges us to give that mission the care and attention it deserves. As a Benedictine affiliated community, I believe prayer and contemplation will and should always be a central characteristic of our community life. That’s one of the reasons we’re here. But as the greatest contemplatives remind through their words and actions, authentic Christian contemplation drives us out into the world to confront injustice just as it drove Jesus out into the desert to confront Satan immediately after he committed himself to his mission through his baptism. I believe we need to increase our engagement in justice ministry and amplify our voice for justice in the world. Certainly, there has never been a more urgent need to do so than now.
I suggest that precisely because we are a community so deeply rooted in contemplative prayer, we may even have a calling to model such a ministry for other communities of faith. It’s my perception that very few Christian congregations or communities engage in justice ministry very vigorously. That’s understandable, because justice ministry is a controversial and dangerous ministry that exposes us to many risks. Dom Helder Camera, archbishop of Olinda and Recife in Brazil at the time of the Second Vatican Council, knew this on the basis of his own experience and referred to it when he said, “When I feed the hungry, they call me a saint. When I ask why they’re hungry, they call me a communist.”
No wonder most of us, myself included, would rather stick with the “more” of Jesus’ ministry—the inclusivity, the forgiveness, the acts of charity and leave the prophetic work for justice to other more secular or political groups. After all, wouldn’t we all rather be called saints than communists? But let’s remember that Jesus was executed by the powerful leaders of church and state not because of his good works –the miracles he performed or the meals he provided. They executed him because he spoke Truth to the people. As Jesus’ followers we ought to do the same.
Contemplation and action, justice and love—today’s Gospel warns us against setting one of these up against the other or preferencing one and neglecting the other. How do we balance these things in our life and ministry as a Christian community? How can this Assembly claim our prophetic identity and engage in our prophet mission more fully in service to the world around us? How can we address the challenges that threaten the earth and all its creatures more publicly, clearly, directly, courageously and boldly? How can we better point to the path that leads to solutions— the path of truth, justice and love? These are more of those questions which it is important to ask, but to which there are no definitive answers. Nevertheless, I hope in this Assembly, in partnership with other Holy Wisdom-affiliated communities, we ca explore them together.
Let us turn to God in prayer.
For Pope Francis and all who work for the renewal and reform of the church and for the emergence within the church of prophets and peacemakers who will proclaim boldly and courageously Jesus’ message of justice and love. Let us pray
God among us, hear our prayer.
For the poor, the sick, the lonely, the victims of war, abuse, injustice and oppression and for all who serve them and work for their well-being let us pray…
God among us, hear our prayer
For Mother Earth and all her creatures, our relations, that we will learn to love, respect and care for them, let us pray.
God among us, hear our prayer
For our personal enemies, our national enemies, and the enemies of our faith and for the grace we need to love them as Jesus taught us to do, let us pray…
God among us, hear our prayer
For what else shall we pray
For all the requests in our Book of Intentions let us pray
God among us, let us pray
I invite you to lift up quietly your petitions for the needs of family or friends
Let us pray to God
God among us, hear our prayer
We offer these petitions to you in confidence, because we know you are gracious and the Lover of Humankind.
THE PEACE OF CHRIST BE WITH YOU.
LET US SHARE A GREETING OF PEACE WITH OUR BROTHERS AND SISTERS IN THE ASSEMBLY.
We thank you for Jesus and his message of love