The Baptism of Our Lord
Texts: Mark 1:4-11;
LOVE — MORE POWERFUL THAN A SUPERHERO
Handout page with six superheroes on them: Superman, Batman, Flash, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, and Hercules. Can you name them? Who’s your favorite?
Superheroes are fun. We played superheroes a lot when I was a kid. Each person would choose a superhero, and we would make up stories of daring rescues and fighting bad guys. There is one on this page who technically isn’t a superhero. Hercules is one of the Greek gods. When I was a kid, there was a cartoon story about him. My mom made me a belt just like his, with a big H on it. We played Hercules, too, just like superheroes.
Here’s the thing that I want to wonder about that. Do we think about gods like superheroes? Hercules for the Greeks of Jesus’ time, believed in Hercules like a superhero. He would make daring rescues of people in trouble. He would fight the bad guys and win. I sometimes think we think about our God that way, too.
But in Jesus we see someone different. We believe that Jesus is God, but the most important thing he did was die on the cross. He suffered like us. God raised him from the dead on Easter. But the stories about Jesus are still very different than the ones about Hercules or Superman or any of the superheroes. We need to keep that in mind, because I think that Jesus came to reveal a different kind of God than we tend to think about, a God who rescues us in different ways than the superheroes. I’d like to talk about that some more with everyone.
Today, we begin an epiphany theme on healing. Healing has always been bound up with religion. Even with modern medicine, which is largely a secular affair, people of faith will make prayer a part of their efforts to receive healing. But I’d like to keep in mind our beginning this morning: when you or I pray for healing is it for a superhero sort of rescue from our sickness? Or do we in Jesus see a different sort of God and a different sort of path to healing. I believe that Jesus in the cross and resurrection shows us a God who is fundamentally different than the superhero versions of gods. Superheroes always win the day. They always save us from our situations of suffering. And they especially never ask for help. Can you think of a time when Superman needed the help of the person he was saving? He wouldn’t be super if he needed the help of the rescued.
With the God of Jesus Christ, that isn’t quite the case. Yes, as we shall see in the weeks ahead, he was an amazing healer. Some of his healing miracles are so startling that we may be tempted to think of him in terms of a superhero. But in Mark’s story of Jesus, after a fantastic start as a healer, Jesus starts talking a lot about healing. And the disciples he has called seem to want to see him as a superhero. So when in the middle of Mark’s story, Jesus speaks numerous times about the Son of Man undergoing suffering and death, and then in three days rise from the dead, they simply couldn’t hear him. They couldn’t imagine that sort of fate for their superhero.
And even worse Jesus started talking about his followers picking up their crosses and suffering, too. Jesus wasn’t coming to rescue them from all suffering. In fact, in some respects, he was coming to lead them into more suffering. What was up with that?
Well, we aren’t going to be able to answer all our questions this morning, or solve all the mysteries about the healing we receive from the God of Jesus Christ. But we can take a few moments to introduce some themes about healing that we see in the sacrament of baptism, both through John’s baptism of Jesus that we remember today, but also in our subsequent practice of it that we shared with Christopher James Barnett today. I have three brief points that we can elaborate over the coming weeks in reflecting on healing.
One, and this is the bottom line: God’s Spirit of love in Jesus Christ is a different power than the one we humans usually look for in our gods or superheroes. “You are my Son, the Beloved,” says God’s voice to Jesus. It is the same powerful spirit of love that we are all baptized with, most recently, Christopher James this morning. And don’t get me wrong. We certainly know about this love, this power that nurtures the best in us. But for us it gets mixed in with the power that tries to force things. In Jesus Christ, we see and know God’s Spirit of love in its pure form as a power that never uses force and always makes room for freedom. Which goes a long ways, I think, to explain the mystery of suffering, because this kind of love allows the freedom to use the power of force instead of the power of love. We rely so much on the power of force that we hardly recognize love as a true power, the truest power. But St. John begins his Gospel by restating the first several verses of Genesis, which we read this morning, so that we know that this power we see and experience in Jesus, the word made flesh, is the power behind life itself.
So number two: in baptism we see not just a cleansing, a washing, but also drowning, a dying and rising, a suffering of a loss that leads to gain. And I think that the death we always need to undergo is precisely this reliance on the power of the superheroes, a superior firepower that’s stronger than the other guy’s power of force. That faith or reliance on the power of force is so ingrained in us that we need to suffer it as loss. And Jesus teaches his followers that we will always find his powerful Spirit of love residing with those who lose out to the powers of force. When human beings rely on a politics of the powers of force, there are always losers. And Jesus himself took his place with those losers on the cross, in order that we might see the true power of love behind life itself. So our standing with those who suffer, those who are losers to this world’s kind of power, brings a dying and rising to new life, a participating in the real power of God’s love.
So that brings us to point number three: Baptism, the promise of God’s powerful love for our lives, doesn’t create or rely on superheroes in any usual sense. Jesus himself submits to the baptism of John along with others; he doesn’t exceptionalize himself. In fact, as we just said, Jesus took and takes his place with the losers to this world’s power. You and I, if we are living in our baptismal promises correctly, appear more as anti-superheroes, the opposite of superheroes. It is normal, everyday people of faith people like you and I that Jesus needs to help bring healing to this hurting world.
I conclude, then, with a story of encouragement for us everyday Christians. Brian McLaren, in a recent essay, tells this story about his home congregation, a church not unlike, I think, Prince of Peace. He writes: (1)
Under the guise of “ministry as usual,” positive things are afoot. I feel it. I believe it. I felt it a few weeks ago in my home church on a typical Sunday. The music was good, as usual, and the sermon was thought-provoking and inspiring, as usual. The prayers were solid and meaningful, as usual, and the people were warm and welcoming, as usual. What stood out for me was the family seated next to me, a dad, a mom, a daughter, and a son whom I didn’t recognize. Based on the boy’s movements and the attentions given him by his mother and sister, the son seemed to have some form of autism, maybe Asperger’s syndrome.
His foot and leg were bouncing almost constantly, calming only momentarily when his mother gently touched his knee, which she did every five or ten minutes. Before and after communion, he crossed himself repeatedly. He sang with more enthusiasm than musical ability, but if one must choose, enthusiasm’s the one to have.
The moment that really touched me came at the offering. He didn’t have money, but when I handed him the basket, he bowed toward it. At first I thought he was reverencing the basket as if it were an icon or some other holy thing. But then he leaned forward even more, placing the basket on his knees and nearly touching his forehead into the checks, bills, and envelopes inside. His family didn’t intervene, as if this were his normal routine. Then he sat up again and handed the basket to his mother.
Suddenly, it dawned upon me: he was putting himself in the offering basket, diving in head-first, if you will. And this must be what he does every week, his own self-made ritual. And at that moment, I was awash in a baptism of grace. Yes, there are many things in our churches that are easy targets for criticism. Yes, some of our churches and some of our Christianities are part of the problem. But be careful, as the old parable says (Matthew 13:24-30): if you try to pull up all the weeds, you’ll dislodge some of the wheat too . . . the tender shoots of faith and devotion growing up in truly important people like that special boy.
McLaren, who speaks to Christians all around the world concludes: “I feel it week after week, speaking in congregations across the country that include people so sincere and bright and ready to go that you can’t care how many or few they are, how rich or poor, how old or young, or how influential or marginal. You just know that people like this have what our world needs, that they’re part of the solution. You know that their spark is going to catch fire and spread, and that what is in them — faith, hope, love, wisdom, humility — can heal what ails us, and will heal it, as long as they don’t lose heart.”
Brothers and sisters, let us be fed at our Lord’s table once again this morning that we might not lose heart, that we might leave here with the healing that this hurting world needs. Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, January 8, 2012