Sermon by the Presiding Bishop at Washington National Cathedral

January 11, 2004

The Most Rev. Frank T. Griswold
Presiding Bishop and Primate
The Episcopal Church, USA
The Cathedral Church of Saint Peter & Saint Paul
Washington, D.C.
January 11, 2004
The Baptism of Our Lord

Readings:
Isaiah 42; 1-9
Acts 10:34-38
Luke 3:15-16, 21-22

Six years ago yesterday, on the morning of January 10, 1998, I stood in this pulpit having just been invested as the 25th Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. Being here today with you is for me an observation of that anniversary. It has been an enormous privilege for me to serve this church as Presiding Bishop for these six years, and it is a privilege for me to be here today with you all as we observe together the Baptism of Our Lord.

In the course of the liturgy for my investiture those six years ago, the congregation – made up of bishops, clergy and laity, as well as representatives of other churches – renewed their baptismal vows, just as, in a few moments, we will together renew those same vows. By so doing we make clear – to one another and to the world beyond the walls of this great cathedral church – that being bound together in Christ through baptism transcends all of our differences.

And of course, distinctions, and differences do exist among us and are embodied in us: our cultures, our languages, our life experiences. As well, divisions exist among us based on our various points of view, some of which we create and sustain and justify out of our fear, arrogance and sinfulness. That we have such distinctions, differences, and even divisions, is neither surprising nor negative. However, baptism overrules these ways we have of separating ourselves from one another. In baptism God declares that we are profoundly one and that our distinctions and differences and divisions are all brought together in order that we might form one gigantic body spanning the world.

As we are baptized, each one of us becomes an indispensable limb or organ, without whom the wholeness of the body would be incomplete. Paul calls that body, the body of Christ. He speaks of the need for difference and distinction among the limbs and organs if the body is to function properly. “If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be?” he asks. Or again, “If all were a single member, where would the body be? He then continues, “At it is there are many members yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you.’”

The very fact that we are all different, that we are not all eyes, or hands, makes possible patterns of relationship and interaction that could not exist if we were all the same. The sacrament of baptism helps us to see that our differences, when they are brought together in Christ, are an amazing gift which will allow us to do amazing things in Christ’s name.

And yet, because all the limbs and organs form one body, nothing can happen to one of them that does not in some way affect the whole. “If one member suffers,” Paul tells us, “all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.” In more homely terms, if I stub my toe or pinch my finger in a door, my whole body reacts, is involved and bears the pain. Our baptism means we can no longer say that what is good for me, one member of the body, is necessarily good for all. At the same time, we may be called to bear pain and difficulty not of our own making, and to endure confusion in order that the larger purposes of God’s love might be revealed. We are all profoundly caught up in one another’s realities. And might I say here that, as we move together through the various seasons in the life of our church, we do well to remember this fundamental truth about the community of the baptized.

Bodies also grow and develop, including Christ’s body the church, and difference within the body is essential if it is to grow to maturity. Different gifts and various capacities for caring and serving are worked into the lives of those who form the body in order that the body may grow into what Paul terms “the measure of the full stature of Christ.”

“We must grow up,” Paul tells us, “in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.”

Love. Love is the life force that orders and determines the body’s growth. Love binds and knits the various limbs and organs together in a such a way that the function of each contributes to the overall soundness and heath of the body as a whole.

So, we are called to love one another, all the while knowing that the proper functioning of the body, be it our own bodies or Christ’s risen body, the church, requires among its many parts degrees of tension, opposition and counterbalance.

When you read the Acts of the Apostles, the letters attributed to Paul, and the other apostolic writing contained in the New Testament, you see that conflict and tension between various groups and points of view have been part of the church’s life from the very beginning. Paul was pressed to elaborate his understanding of the church as the body of Christ of which all its members are indispensable parts because, even then, there were forces all too ready to separate themselves from those who did not conform to their understandings and practice of the gospel. Even then there were those who were ready to say “I have no need of you.”

And John in his writings was called to underscore the need for mutual love within the community of faith because, even then, there was a problem of various groups of believers treating one another with suspicion and contempt. These Letters of Paul and of John, these noble and inspiring counsels of the New Testament, were provoked by very real situations within the early church. Even then Christians were behaving toward one another in ways quite contrary to the teachings of Christ.

This morning we are called to reflect on the baptism of Jesus, and its implications for him, and therefore for us who have been baptized and incorporated into Christ’s risen body as indispensable limbs and members. For Jesus, baptism at the hands of John the Baptist was a moment of profound self-awareness: awareness of himself as the object of God’s overwhelming love. He was overcome by a sense of belovedness and God’s sheer delight in his very existence. “You are my son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

This is an echo of God’s words to his servant which we heard in our first reading from Isaiah: “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights.”

In the waters of baptism Jesus encounters God’s delight, God’s pleasure, God’s joy. There is no hint of duty or command. There are no oughts, no shoulds or musts – just: I love you. I delight in you. You are my joy. This overwhelming sense of belovedness was the ground of Jesus’ life and the guiding force of his ministry. His speech, his actions, his courage, his confidence, his undefended heart and his freedom with respect to custom and convention when they thwarted a free flowing of mercy and compassion, all of this, all of Jesus’ way of being, found its source in an abiding awareness of God’s love.

Baptism is about being loved. “As I am loved by the Father,” Jesus says to his disciples in the Gospel of John, “so have I loved you.” Jesus’ capacity to love is the consequence of being loved. “We love because God first loved us,” we are told in the First Letter of John. Jesus loves because God first loved him. Baptism is about being loved: profligately, wildly. It is the church’s ritual act through which God in Christ says you are my beloved, in whom I delight and in whom I rejoice.

The first five questions you will be asked when we renew our baptismal vows have to do with our availability to the God who so deeply loves us. You will be asked if you believe in God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and if you will continue in the life of the church as a limb of Christ’s risen body. You will be asked about your readiness, your willingness, to be drawn ever deeper into companionship with Christ in order that his life, his love, his compassion, his truth might flow through you and break out in words and actions that heal and repair our troubled world and bring hope and joy to its people.

And, you will also be asked when you fall away from God’s love “to repent and return” to the waiting arms of the One who says over and over again, “you are my beloved in whom I delight.”

Rooted and grounded in a renewed awareness of our own belovedness, we are then called to renew our witness to that love, and to name our willingness to act in the world around us out of the power of that love at work in us – that love which supplies us with capacities for courage, compassion, truth, imagination, insight which exceed all that we might ask or imagine. Such is the power of God’s love poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit. It has nothing to do with our deserving. It has everything to do with God’s indiscriminate loving.

None of this is easy. A religion based on duty and obligation with clear standards we can seldom meet, a religion which invites us to continual judgment of ourselves, a religion which provokes us to judge others – such a religion is much more comfortable for many of us than a faith grounded in liberating love which overrules judgment in favor of compassion.

Some years ago the great Dr. Karl Menninger was asked what he thought was the primary cause of mental illness. After some thought he answered that in his opinion the primary cause of mental illness in the United States was the inability of people to forgive themselves for being imperfect. Unable to forgive ourselves, we are unable to forgive others, and so we become weighed down by a great burden of judgment directed against ourselves and those around us whose imperfections and personal vagaries occasion in us a kind of dark pleasure in thinking that we are not quite as imperfect as they are.

Julian of Norwich, writing in the 15th century, understood this only too well. Out of a series of intense visions of God’s ruthless and unbounded love she wrote of what she had been shown. Her insights continue to inform and encourage men and women of faith and seekers in our own day. Fundamental to her thought is the uncompromising belief that anger and wrath are utterly foreign to God. She wrote: “I saw full surely that wherever our Lord appears peace reigns and anger has no place. For I saw no whit of anger in God – in short or in long term.” Not only is anger completely absent from God but “the love that God most high has for our soul is so great that it surpasses understanding.”

Because of our limited and conditioned notions of love, we cannot begin to imagine what limitless love, which is God’s love for each one of us, might be like. What we have, along with “hints and guesses,” are Christ himself, and the example provided by women and men across the ages in which the love of God has run free.

Julian goes on to describe the imprisoning and debilitating effects of self-accusation, and declares that it is not God’s will that “we should despise ourselves. But God wills that we should quickly turn to him.”

She then points out the discrepancy between God’s way of seeing us and our own: “In God’s sight we do not fall; in our sight we do not stand. As I see it both of these are true. But the deeper insight belongs to God.” This deeper insight so eludes us that we can easily become entrapped in patterns of judgment that pass for authentic Christianity when, in fact, they are profound denials of the love that binds us together. They are denials of the love that makes us – with our differences, and not in spite of them – all limbs of the same body, held together and growing to maturity through the unceasing force and pressure of Christ’s deathless and death-defying love.

Growing up in all ways into Christ is not an easy process. It involves continual discernment and a testing of spirits. It requires the awareness that Satan frequently “masquerades as an angel of light.” Beware of zeal in the name of righteousness devoid of mercy and compassion. Beware of visions of an “unblemished” church built upon judgment rather than love.

In virtue of our baptism we are bound together in what Rowan Williams, the present Archbishop of Canterbury, describes as “solidarities not of our own choosing.” I did not choose you, nor did you choose me, yet each of us – given our different life experiences and ways of appropriating the gospel – are indispensable limbs of Christ’s risen body. The questions before us then are: What is God saying to me through you? What is God saying to you through me? And, what is the larger and deeper truth of God in Christ that we are each being called to encounter in one another – as painful and unsettling as that may be? It is love alone, not just our human love, but God’s love at work in us, that gives us the courage and the desire to risk that encounter.

And so it is that with fear and trembling we renew our baptismal promises and witness to our availability to God’s love at work in us, which is the deep mystery and unfathomable truth of our own belovedness. And, our belovedness is not simply for us to savor and enjoy, but to give away in union with Christ and one another for the sake of the world and its healing.

When one member of the body suffers we all suffer. Belovedness, therefore, is not without its cost. “As long as we are on earth, the love that unites us will bring suffering by our very contact with one another. Because of this, love is a resetting of …broken bones,” observed the late Thomas Merton. In baptism he saw the power of love resetting a body of broken bones, re-membering a vast cosmic body of which Christ is the head and we are the limbs and members. This vast body, animated by love, is not restricted to those who have been formally baptized, but includes the whole human race which has been embraced and declared beloved.

Let us therefore, as we reaffirm our baptismal vows and thereby renew our own availability to the power and force of God’s love and our own belovedness, lay ourselves open more fully to embodying that love in order that the broken bones of this world and its people may be reset, and the body may be made whole. Amen.