Sermon for the Baptism of Jesus – Sunday, 12th January 2014
“Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness.” Matthew 3:15
‘To fulfil all righteousness’. Down through the centuries, the church would have argued that its laws, its rules, its regulations were about righteousness; that its conduct reflected the will of God; that there was a theological basis for the way it treated people.
The church’s capacity to cause hurt to people in pursuit of what it believed to be righteousness was almost limitless. Of course, it was never the intention to hurt anyone, we were simply upholding church regulations and canon law. We were simply people obeying orders.
I remember a lady telling me of her baby being born prematurely at her little cottage miles out of the town. The baby was stillborn. When the ambulance arrived, she was made to walk out of the house, still haemorrhaging, and her husband was left to gather up the body of the only child they would have. They made a little grave in their garden; there being no-one who cared enough to give them any support, they buried their baby themselves. No clergyman said any prayer, nor, I suspect, would he even if he had been asked.
Another man told me of his little son, being born at a similar time in the 1960s. It was their only child. The little boy was born in hospital and lived for two days before his heart gave up. The hospital authorities wanted rid of the body and the man was told to make the necessary arrangements. His wife was unfit to leave the hospital and no clergy wanted to know about the little boy who had not been baptized. So with a coffin from a local undertaker and having made arrangements with a local cemetery, the man collected his baby son and went and placed him in the grave, alone. No ceremony, no ritual, no acknowledgment on the part of anyone that this human being had ever existed.
It became fashionable to denigrate the Roman Catholic Church, it becoming an easy target after being beset by sexual abuse scandals, but it had no monopoly on causing hurt and pain.
There are plenty of stories like that of a man I knew in his late 40s who still bore hurt from his childhood days when at every parish occasion the clergyman refused to use the boy’s surname because the clergyman did not recognize the boy’s mother’s relationship with the boy’s father. When it came to any roll call, prizegiving or party, when every other child was called by forename and surname, the little boy was simply a forename.
There were stories of Presbyterian and Methodist church members who were told that they could not be Godparents at the baptisms of nephews and nieces and who were told that they could not receive Holy Communion because they had not been confirmed by a bishop. Perhaps the latter stories are in a different category from our complete failure towards grieving parents, but in close knit, conservative rural communities they were sources of decades long hurt and resentment.
Was this in fulfilment of God’s righteousness? Where did God say that the death of a two day old baby should have been ignored by the church?
“Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness,” says Jesus when he comes for baptism. John has recognized that something instituted within his community as a sign of repentance is an inadequate response to Jesus. Jesus agrees, ‘let it be so now’. Human institutions are going to be surpassed, transcended by Jesus. Human righteousness is going to be replaced by a righteousness that comes not from keeping rules and regulations, but in trusting in Jesus.
If rules had been enough, Jesus would not have needed to have come. The people lived by hundreds of rules; rules that governed every waking moment, rules that regulated every aspect of human existence. They struggled throughout their lives to fulfil all righteousness, and still failed. Keeping all the laws and regulations did not bring them closer to God.
Saint Paul makes it clear that fulfilling all the law is not enough, he writes to the Galatians, “I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!’ (Galatians 2:21). Writing to the Romans, he says, ‘the Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it, a righteousness that is by faith; but Israel, who pursued a law of righteousness, has not attained it’.(Roman 9:30-31).
Around the world, Saint Matthew’s account of the baptism of Christ will be read today, and how many people will note what Jesus says—’let it be so now’? A faith based on laws and rules and regulations would be for now, but he was going to change everything. Righteousness would be through faith in him, not through the laws of the church.
Saint Paul is critical of the religious institutions of his time and of their legalism, ‘Since they did not know the righteousness that comes from God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness.’ (Romans 10:3) Couldn’t Paul’s criticism of his own community be as much a criticism of most of church history? Rejecting the way of grace, of teaching that righteousness came through faith in Jesus Christ, the church built up its own way of righteousness; a way that caused untold hurt to countless people and that turned people away from God.
Did the church really believe that it was right not to bury unbaptized babies? Did it really believe that God was a God who took careful note of what clergy said and would punish those with whom the clergy were unhappy? What sort of God would that be?
“Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness”, says Jesus. The ‘now’ of that moment is replaced by the ‘now’ of our present time, when all righteousness is fulfilled not by laws or rules but by faith in him.
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