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Mark 1.4-11, Baptism of Christ, Eucharist

January 6, 2021

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Mark 1.4-11, Baptism of Christ, Eucharist

The Paschal Mystery in the Rhythm of Pain and Blessing.

Maybe, like me, you’re fond of the film Groundhog Day, in which Bill Murray plays a TV reporter condemned to relive the same day over and over again somewhere in the backwaters of Pennsylvania, until he can learn some basic lessons in life and love. It’s a very apposite film for lockdown.

The good Lord must be asking me to learn a few basic lessons of my own, as for my last three sermons I’ve been stuck in the wilderness by the river Jordan reporting, in one way or another, on the encounter between John and Jesus at his baptism.

So where’s the new angle this time around? Perhaps we might start with Thursday’s funeral for our former dean, James Atwell. Poignantly, James himself had contributed much to the service, including the prayer used before the Bible readings, the Collect.

It came from his collection of prayers ‘At the Gate of Heaven’, which he wrote to celebrate the completion of the tower project he successfully led at Bury, just before he came here. He sent me a copy before his arrival, inscribed: To Roly looking forward to working together, 7.4.06 – a typically generous act.

James’s prayer contains the line, ‘You give us intimations of your paschal mystery in the rhythm of pain and blessing in our lives’ – a complicated thought which we’ll need to unfold, starting with the basic question, what is the ‘pascal mystery’?

The word Pascal unites two great religious festivals, the Jewish Passover and the Christian Easter, which take place at the same time of year. If you read the gospel accounts of the last days of Jesus, you’ll notice the celebration of Passover woven into them.

Early Christian reflection on the death of Jesus made much of this link, because of the similarities and differences between them. The Passover is the celebration of the angel passing over the houses of the Israelites when they were enslaved in Egypt, sparing their firstborn sons from death. God had instructed them to mark their doorposts with lamb’s blood, to ward off the final, destroying plague, which brought about their liberation.

At Easter Christ, God’s one and only Son, was not spared death; rather, as the Lamb of God, he shed his blood to bring a greater deliverance to all God’s people. Christ passes through the deep waters of death, to the triumph of resurrection life.

This is the Paschal mystery: death bringing life, life coming out of death, through Christ; and in Christ we all have a share in it. This is the mystery at the heart of Christian faith.

When I became a Christian at the age of 17, I didn’t understand this. I’d been told that on the cross Christ died for my sins and that believing in Jesus meant turning from sin and accepting the forgiveness he’d won for us on the cross.

But actually, there’s not much unique in the belief that God can forgive. John the Baptist, as a Jewish prophet, certainly expected God to forgive people as he baptised them in token of their repentance. And, of course, Islam also believes in an all-merciful God.

What was unique, though, was Jesus’ baptism. St Mark’s account is terse and coded, but as Jesus steps out of the water, God’s Spirit descends on him and God’s voice declares him to be his beloved Son. Jesus steps into the waters of baptism and comes out washed, to reveal to the world a life of communion with God.

Suddenly we see that it’s not just about forgiveness, it’s about entering into the divine life as Christ reveals it. As he stands before us, he shows us the fullness of life he offers to the world.

But given that even Christians misconstrue the gift Christ offers, let me offer a picture.

Over the Christmas lockdown my family watched many films, including Disney’s latest version of Aladdin. You’ll remember that the genie lives in a beaten-up lamp which needs to be rubbed to reveal its secrets.

So the life of Christ from the outside is in the eyes of many inauspicious: a first century rabbi or perhaps prophet, a good and forgiving man, with a healing touch and words of wisdom, beaten up by his enemies, but not so different from the rest of us.

But the Church holds a different story: this humble life, buried amongst other more glittering treasures, is ready to be activated – not by rubbing, but by baptism, through which we’re led with Christ through the deep waters of death, to emerge washed and sharing fullness of life in him: our life taken into Christ’s, the pattern of his life – the Paschal mystery – becoming ours.

And I want to share with you what this meant to Dean James and means to all of us who seek to live out their baptismal calling.

If you believe that the good news of Jesus is just about forgiveness, as I used to, then it’s hard to see its relevance in times like these. Businesses that are going bust do not need forgiveness; people who are shielding or sick do not need forgiveness; people who have lost hope do not need forgiveness. What they need instead, and what Christ offers us, is a mystery that can embrace and enhance the sorrows and joys of life.

Dean James believed in this Paschal mystery entirely and staked his life on it. As a farmer’s son, he even saw its pattern written into the seasons of the earth – the chill of winter succeeded by the tender buds of spring. And so God promises it will be for us.

But please remember that, unlike the firstborn of Israel, Christ was not spared death, though he was uniquely loved by God – and neither will we be. The difference for those who accept the Paschal mystery, through faith and baptism, is that they get their death done with early – death to sin, death to a life centred on self – so that they might live for Christ and walk with him in newness of life.

In Christ we’ll not be shielded from danger but enabled to participate more fruitfully in all the ups and downs of life.

People who live in this mystery, as James did, have a cross to bear and a contribution to make – you can’t have one without the other – and if you’ve noticed the heavy rings around the eyes of the Mayor of London as he leads London’s fight against Covid, you’ll know what I mean.

But for all the pain, weariness and discouragement, there is the abiding joy of walking closely with God and others, sharing in ‘the rhythm of pain and blessing’, as James put it. And so I’ll end with the words of a song that sums up the strength of plunging believing into this mystery, made famous by a man who died at the very start of this year, just three weeks after James.

When you walk through a storm
Hold your head up high
And don’t be afraid of the dark.
At the end of the storm
Is a golden sky
And the sweet, silver song of a lark.

Walk on through the wind,
Walk on through the rain,
Though your dreams be tossed and blown.

Walk on, walk on, with hope in your heart,
And you’ll never walk alone,
You’ll never walk alone.

Walk on, walk on, with hope in your heart,
And you’ll never walk alone,
You’ll never walk alone.