When we take our baptism seriously, we choose to follow Jesus

by Thomas Gumbleton

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All of us are very familiar with our basic teaching about Jesus, that he is the son of God. In fact, I think we're so used to thinking of Jesus as God that we often fail to understand fully that Jesus was in fact also fully human, one like us in every way except sin. And so when the first teachers of the good news began to try to explain who Jesus was, they were filled with a sense of mystery. When did Jesus know he was God?

The Baptism of the Lord
Isaiah 42:1-4, 6-7 or Isaiah 55:1-11
Psalms 29:1-2, 3-4, 3, 9-10
Acts 10:34-38
1 John 5:1-9
Full text of the readings

When in fact was Jesus, or did he become, God? And the Scriptures don't really tell us because there are three different possibilities recorded in the Scriptures. In St. Paul's letter to Rome, he writes that Jesus became God at his resurrection. In the very first chapter, Paul says, "I was set apart for the good news regarding Jesus, who is born in the flesh and descended of David, and has now been made God as the son of God endowed with power." Paul is talking about the Resurrection, that it was that moment that Jesus became fully God, fully human.

But then, if you go to John's Gospel [and] what we heard on Christmas day: "In the beginning was the word, the word was with God. The word was God." So John teaches that from all eternity, Jesus is God. But then [in] today's Gospel from Mark, it becomes clear that as Jesus experiences his baptism and comes up out of the water and goes apart to pray, the Holy Spirit comes upon him in a very powerful way. And Jesus, at that moment, hears God saying, "You are my son, my chosen one. In you, I am well pleased." So Mark is telling us that Jesus becomes God, or becomes aware that he is God, at that moment of baptism.

And for us, it's probably most important that we think of Jesus as becoming God at baptism because then, as we hear, he's driven out into the desert by the spirit, and he begins to have his life transformed and changed. He's tempted -- and we remember all of this during Lent -- whether he's going to trust in material goods and material wealth and power, or trust in God, turn those stones into bread: "No, it's not by bread alone that people live, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God."

Jesus rejects that, or being a wonder-worker [or] attracting large followings. "Throw yourself down from the pinnacle of the temple." No -- he rejects that. "Have all the kingdoms of the earth, all the power you want," and Jesus says, "No. Begone, Satan!" He accepts the way that God wants him to act and to be.

And that is perhaps most clear, at least as a beginning of our understanding of Jesus in our first lesson today, where Jesus is described by Isaiah in terms of the servant of God. And those very words that Jesus heard at his baptism are the words from Isaiah: "Here is my servant whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I am well pleased."

And then Jesus hears, because he knows this passage: "I have put my spirit upon you. You will bring justice to the nations." He's called to change the world, to transform our world, to bring justice everywhere -- and justice means our right relationship with one another, but also our right relationship with God. So Jesus has a mission to go out and bring justice everywhere, transform this world into the reign of God.

But then, if we take that passage of Isaiah a little bit further, it becomes clear that Jesus does it in a very extraordinary way because he doesn't use power, he doesn't force anyone. He does it in a totally gentle, peaceful way. Isaiah says, "He does not shout or raise his voice in the streets." See, that would be a call to war. "No, the servant of God rejects that. He does not break the bruised reed or quench the wavering flame."

That image is so beautiful. Jesus, the servant of God, is to be nurturing, gentle. See, if you're trying to bring a bruised reed back to life, you treat it with great care. Or a wavering flame: If you blow too hard, it will be snuffed out, so you have to be gentle and careful. And that's the way Jesus is to act as a servant of Yahweh to bring true justice to all the nations, to help people to have right relationships with one another, to share the goods of the world with one another, to interact with a spirit of love and joy and peace, but to do it according to this way of Jesus, the way of active love.

And if you notice, our second lesson today also shows how someone who becomes aware of Jesus, who comes to know Jesus, is called to change his life. We may not advert to this immediately, but Cornelius, this Gentile who was coming to know Jesus through the preaching of Peter, was a Roman centurion, a soldier. In the very beginning of the community of disciples of Jesus, once you were baptized, you would have to give up the military life because those Christians [were] rejecting violence, war. So Cornelius is being called to make a dramatic change in his life.

And now, I think it might be important for us to reflect on the fact that we have been baptized. Most of us don't remember our baptism because it happened when we were infants, but some of us do. But all of us, whether we were baptized as infants or later in life when we knew what we were accepting, it's good to remind ourselves that we were accepting a change.

We're going to be filled with the life of Jesus. We're going to be called to do the same thing Jesus was called to do -- to reject violence, to bring justice to all the nations, to try to work for a world where there's true justice, and love and peace. Perhaps it means for us, too, just as it did for Jesus, as it did for Cornelius, as it did for all the early disciples, that we have to work to bring change in our lives, to pattern our lives after Jesus.

This past week, someone asked me a question that sometimes is, well, asked in sort of a negative way, an almost angry way: "Why don't you ever preach the commandments in church anymore?" There are people who want our sermons on Sunday to be sermons about the commandments: Do not do this, do not do that. See, all the commandments are "don't," and at first, I was wondering what to say.

But then I thought, "Well, we do preach the commandments, but we do it in a way that Jesus suggested when he told the people in his own preaching: 'I've come not to abolish the law.' " The commandments were the law of the covenant. "I've come not to abolish that law, but to fulfill it, to transform it, to make it even more challenging."

So if you want to hear how the commandments have been absorbed into the way of Jesus, think of the beatitudes: "Blessed are the poor," people who don't put all of their trust in material things. "Blessed are the gentle," people who draw others by their gentleness and love. "Blessed are the merciful," quick to forgive. "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice in his sake," try to change it so everyone has a chance for a full human life. "Blessed are the peacemakers," those who reject violence and act only out of love.

See, this is the way of Jesus, and it includes all the commandments, only it takes them from being something "don't do this" [to] do this -- follow Jesus." And isn't it true we live in a world where this message is so important. Our news constantly is filled with news about violence that's happening. That terrible violence in France this past week, the violence in our own cities recently with the killing of young black people.

[The] 12-year-old child in Cleveland shot within seconds, and then left to die in the street. When her sister comes to help, they handcuff the sister, force her into the back of the police car, and she can't help her brother, who is lying in the street dying. See, that kind of violence. It just seems to be everywhere in our society, in our world. How will it ever change? How will it ever end?

Well, I think the message is clear. When each one of us takes our baptism seriously, when we begin to understand and to accept the reality of what we did when we chose to be baptized, we chose to follow Jesus, to be filled with the life of Jesus, to become a brother or sister of Jesus, a son and daughter of God, to live according to God's ways.

And all of us who claim Jesus as our lord and savior, our brother, when all of us who claim Jesus as our friend really commit ourselves to follow him and his way, the world in which we live, our immediate community, will begin to be changed, and that change will spread. Jesus was called to bring justice to all the nations, and it will spread as all of us who follow Jesus proclaim his good news and commit ourselves to follow his way of life -- the way of love, forgiveness, peace and mercy. Our world will change.

This morning, as we celebrate the feast of the baptism of Jesus, we celebrate our own baptism, and I hope all of us will pray that we can be more faithful to our commitment to follow Jesus and his way, to bring justice to all the nations, truly to be a light for the world.

[Homily given at St. Leo Catholic Church in Detroit. The transcripts of Bishop Gumbleton's homilies are posted weekly to NCRonline.org. Sign up here to receive an email alert when the latest homily is posted.]

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