Delivered by the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas at Townsend Congregational Church, UCC, Townsend, MA
Baptism into the community of Creation
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
I can’t think of a better day than today to speak about our call and power as Christians to care for God’s Creation. Today, as we always do on the First Sunday after the Epiphany, we hear the story of Jesus’ baptism. It’s one of the few events in Jesus’ life that is recorded in all four Gospels. All the stories have the same basic shape: Jesus is plunged by John the Baptist into the waters of the Jordan River. When Jesus emerges from its depths, the heavens are opened, the Spirit of God descends on him as gently as a dove, and a voice says: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:22).
We return to this story year after year because Jesus’s baptism is one of the basic stories that reveals who he is. It’s also the foundational story of our life in Christ. Most of us probably can’t remember our baptisms, and sometimes we forget how powerful our baptism was – and is. But tapping into the power of our baptism can give us the clarity and moral courage we need to live with integrity in these challenging times. I’ll say more about that, but first I want to say a few words about the ecological predicament in which we find ourselves.
You probably remember that a couple of months ago, World Wildlife Fund released a major report showing that the number of animals around the world has plummeted by over half in less than 50 years. Human beings have wiped out 60% of mammals, reptiles, amphibians, birds, and fish since 1970. According to this new study, “the vast and growing consumption of food and resources by the global [human] population is destroying the web of life, billions of years in the making, upon which … society ultimately depends for clean air, water and everything else.” An executive at World Wildlife Fund commented: “This is far more than just being about losing the wonders of nature, desperately sad though that is…This is actually now jeopardizing the future of people. Nature is not a ‘nice to have’ – it is our life-support system.”
Maybe you read the recent article in the New York Times Magazine called “The Insect Apocalypse is Here.” It turns out that massive populations of insects have quietly gone missing, a fact with vast implications for global food systems and eco-systems. We are, in short, in the midst of the world’s sixth extinction event – “the sixth time in world history that a large number of species have disappeared in unusually rapid succession, caused this time not by asteroids or ice ages but by humans.” As species vanish and animal populations diminish, alarmed scientists are describing what they call a “biological annihilation.”
Meanwhile, climate change caused by burning fossil fuels is raising temperatures, making heat waves more intense, spreading disease, causing crop failures, and stoking extreme storms, droughts and floods. The World Bank concluded that 143 million people could soon be displaced because of climate change. 2018 is on course to be named one of the four hottest years in recorded history, the other three being 2015, 2016, and 2017. A front-page article in Friday’s New York Times reviews a new study that shows that the oceans are also breaking records for heat and heating much more rapidly than many scientists had expected, with drastic effects on marine life, coral reefs, and sea-level rise.
Yet although life on Earth is faltering and civilization could be at risk of collapse, the political and corporate powers-that-be relentlessly drive forward with business as usual, drilling for more oil, pushing to expand pipeline construction, cutting down forests, and generally acting as if the Earth were a private business and they were conducting a liquidation sale.
Here’s what I want to say to you this morning: it was for such a time as this that we were baptized. In a perilous time, we need to take hold of the riches of our baptism. As baptized people we have everything we need to rise to the occasion and to act with compassion, courage, and strength.
What riches do we receive in baptism? Let me name three.
First, baptism gives us the power to live in love, to be rooted in love, to belong to a love that will never let us go. When we are baptized into Jesus Christ, we are baptized into the same compassion that led Jesus to step into the waters of the Jordan River and to be baptized by John. You know, Jesus didn’t need to be baptized. John the Baptist was preaching repentance from sin, but Jesus had no sin. He had nothing to repent, nothing to confess. He could have skipped the baptism and held himself apart from everyone else. He could have kept his distance and simply watched the masses of people crowding down to the river to confess their sins and receive forgiveness. And yet – he took the plunge. In an act of radical solidarity with all humankind, he stepped into the river and claimed the truth of interconnectedness.
Jesus chose to identify with all human beings, to identify with you, to identify with me. And not just with human beings but with the whole of God’s Creation. As John the Baptist said, those who are baptized into Christ are baptized “with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Luke 3:16). You know what? The fire of God’s love keeps burning away all the chaff in "an unquenchable fire" (Luke 3:17). Quickly or slowly it burns away everything in us that is not love, opening our eyes so that we come to see the world as God sees it: as precious, sacred, and filled with God’s presence. The divine love into which we were plunged in baptism extends not only to us, and not only to human beings, but also to every sparrow and whale, every earthworm and orca, every maple tree and mountain.
So baptism into Christ isn’t about joining a club or belonging to a tribe. It isn’t about affiliating with people who look like us or think like us. Baptism into Christ is a radical act of humility and compassion that joins us to the One who identifies with every human being and with the whole community of Creation. It joins us to a love that will never let us go.
Here’s a second gift of baptism: it puts our death behind us. In baptism, we are immersed in the waters of death. We have died in Christ; we have died with Christ. Our death has taken place. In a sense, it’s done. It’s over with. In baptism, we have died and been buried with Christ, and through the power of his resurrection, we are raised, here and now, to live with him. What this means is that we can acknowledge and face all this bad news without being overwhelmed by fear. The water that we splash on a child at the baptismal font may seem inconsequential, but it’s a sign that we have nothing to fear from the death of the body. In the early centuries of the Church, Christians were actually called “those who have no fear of death.” 1 To whatever extent we understand that through baptism, our death is behind us, we are set free from anguish and anxiety. We are set free to love without grasping, without possessiveness, without holding back.
And here is gift number three: baptized into a love that extends through all Creation, a love that insists that life and not death will have the last word, we rise up as healers and justice-seekers, as prophets and activists, as people unafraid to confront the powers-that-be. That’s what the early Church was known for. Remember the complaints that were lodged against the first followers of Jesus? They were charged with “turning the world upside down” and “acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus” (Acts 17:6-7). Sometimes we can spot Christians because they’re among the ones obeying a higher authority and refusing to settle for a killing status quo. And what better time than now to take hold of the prophetic power of our baptism, and to confront the forces that are unraveling life on Earth?
I take heart from the 21 young people who, through a group called Our Children’s Trust, have taken the Federal government to court, arguing that U.S. government policies have fueled greenhouse gas emissions and have thereby “deprived a whole generation of American citizens of their constitutional rights to ‘a climate system capable of sustaining human life.’” These young plaintiffs also allege that the federal government’s actions have violated the public trust, “since, they argue, the atmosphere must be considered a common resource to be protected for the well-being of all citizens.”
That’s big-picture thinking and big-hearted commitment. You and I can follow suit and stand up for life in all kinds of ways. We can cut back strongly on our use of fossil fuels and switch our households to clean sources of energy. Maybe we can fly less, drive less, and eat less meat. Shifting to a plant-based diet turns out to be one of the most climate-friendly things we can do. Maybe we can volunteer or send money to a local land trust to help save forests and farmland. If we went to college, we can push our alma mater to divest from fossil fuels. And we can also push for larger, systemic changes. Maybe we sign up with 350Mass. for a Better Future, the grassroots climate action group in Massachusetts, and lobby for policies that put a price on carbon and support renewable energy and “green” jobs. Fourteen new members of our state legislature have vowed to address climate change and transition to 100% renewable electricity by 2050. And bold legislators in Congress are proposing a Green New Deal that aims to tackle both economic inequality and climate change. If speaking inside the halls of power isn’t enough, then some of us will join the growing numbers of faith-filled people who bring our message to the streets, carry out peaceful civil disobedience, and put our bodies on the line.
If ever there were a time to bear witness to our faith and to the power of our baptism, now would be the time. If ever there were a moment to hold fast to our vision of a world in which human beings live in right relationship with each other and with all our fellow creatures, now would be the time. We who have been baptized – how will we live out our baptism in the year ahead? How is God calling you to tap into the power that is yours in Christ?
1. Olivier Clement, The Roots of Christian Mysticism (first published in French as Sources, Paris: Editions Stock, 1982; first published in English, London: New City, 1993), p. 107.