Sunday, 11 June 2017

The Trinity

Jews and Muslims, our fellow monotheist ‘peoples of the book’, vehemently reject the idea of God as Trinity – they allege that Christians do not really believe in one God, but in three Gods. Even some Christians find it puzzling. How can one God possibly be divided into three persons? Surely 1 + 1 + 1 = 3?

Over the centuries Christian apologists have answered this question in different ways. We all know, I’m sure, how St Patrick illustrated the Trinity - with the trefoil-leaf of a shamrock – three leaflets within the one leaf. John Wesley said: ‘Tell me how it is that in this room there are three candles and but one light, and I will explain to you the mode of divine existence’. And it is true in mathematics that if you add three infinities the result is still infinity. But I personally don’t find such arguments helpful. The Catechism of the RC Church says that ‘God’s inmost being as Holy Trinity is a mystery that is inaccessible to reason alone’. But to call it a mystery seems like a fudge to me.

So today let me reflect on how we as Christians might seek to understand the Trinity.

We must start, I think, with how the early Christian community came to understand God.
First, the community had its roots in the Hebrew scriptures, our Old Testament. There they learned that God created all that was and is and is to come, as reflected in today’s reading from Genesis (1:1-2:4a). God had also created them in his own image. More than that, God had an intimate relationship with them, as a parent, as a father or a mother. Hence the OT stories where their God hears the cries of the people, brings them out of bondage, and in a lovely metaphor, cares for them as a hen cares for her chicks. The first Christians did not see God as remote, but as a loving and gracious God, like a parent, like a Father – and also a God for all, Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free. They followed Jesus’s lead by praying to their Father in heaven.

Second, the early Christian community also understood God through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. From the apostles and first disciples they heard the story of Jesus - how in Jesus God lived and acted in new and profound ways among people. Through them they encountered the risen Christ, and heard him promise, ‘Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age’. They learned that God was made manifest in Jesus, that God was not just out there somewhere, but had also lived as one of them, as their brother, through his Son, Jesus, who had ascended to his Father and would come again. The stories were written down in the Gospels to show that God was not only their Creator, but also Jesus Christ their Saviour and Redeemer.

Third, the Christian community came to understand God as the Holy Spirit. As promised by Jesus, the gift of the Spirit came at Pentecost. It came to the whole community in the upper room, not just to a select few. And it made them fearless. Responding to Jesus’s call, ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations’, they proclaimed their faith to all who would listen, baptising and gathering around them people from every nation in the Eastern Mediterranean and beyond. And the same Spirit came to the gathered groups of new Christians, just as it had to the apostles and first disciples. The Acts of the Apostles reads like an adventure story as the Spirit spreads like a wildfire through the Roman Empire. And the Epistles reveal for us how the Spirit formed the self-understanding of the gathered groups that we can now call churches.

It is clear that very early on Christians came to believe that the one God they worshipped was manifest in three different ways, as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Today’s Gospel reading (Matthew 28:16-20) shows this when Matthew records Jesus’s command to baptise ‘in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’.

By the 4th century the Church had captured the imperial Roman state.
Dogmatic theologians were arguing bitterly over what the Trinity really meant, amid power struggles in the church.

These disputes were eventually settled at a Council of Bishops, convened in Constantinople by the Emperor Theodosius in 381AD, which settled the doctrine of the Trinity in the words of a creed, which we now know as the Nicene Creed and still use in the Holy Communion service.

Most Christians, including Roman Catholics, Orthodox, and our own Anglican Communion maintain that this is still the best way to think about God.

It is not hard to understand the historical reasons why Christians came to believe in God as Trinity.
But I do not think that our belief that God is best understood as the Trinity should rest only on the words of scripture and the partisan arguments of Church Councils more than 1600 years ago. I believe that divine revelation did not cease when the last full stop was written in the last book of scripture – God’s creation all around us is a continuing revelation, and in the world around me I see signs of our Trinitarian God everywhere.

I see the Loving Father in the beauty of the universe he created. He has precisely tuned it to support the miraculous, evolving web of life on our planet. He has made it to be a place where you and I and all creatures can flourish and be fed - if we would only tend and care for it, and for our neighbours, as we ought.

I see the Saving Son in the widespread altruism that exists in the natural world. And I see him in communities, communities of people but also of other organisms. I see him in the worker bee’s dedication to raising a sister’s brood. I see him in the three-cornered dance of insects, fruit trees and seed dispersing animals. I see him in the cycles of death and resurrection that drive evolution. And I see him in our human capacity to love, to love each other and our neighbours as ourselves – even if we often fail to do so.

I see the Holy Spirit in the continual innovation of living creatures and ecosystems. I see him at work exploring new expressions of what is possible in the arts and the sciences. And I see him in the way that human beings, in all our variety with our different gifts, come together to build communities with meaning and purpose – including the Church, the ‘body of Christ’ as St Paul called it, among many other kinds of community.

We should not, I think, see the doctrine of the Trinity as very difficult or a great mystery. Rather we should see it as something very natural. It is very simple really – but also very profound.

Let us finish in prayer:
God of heaven and earth,
before the foundation of the universe
and the beginning of time
you are the triune God:
Author of creation,
eternal Word of salvation,
life-giving Spirit of wisdom.
Guide us to all truth by your Spirit,
that we may proclaim all that Christ has revealed
and rejoice in the glory he shares with us.
Glory and praise to you,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,

now and for ever. Amen

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Let not our hearts be troubled. Let us believe in God and also in Jesus.

Address given at Templederry, St Mary's, Nenagh and Killodiernan on Sunday 14th May 2017, the Fifth after Easter. In St Mary's it was a joyful day of baptism for Jack Robert, son of  Robert Nevin and his wife Sharon née Gloster, accompanied by a host of relatives and friends.

I wonder how Thomas and Philip felt when Jesus responded to them the way he did in today’s Gospel reading (John 14:1-14).
Did they say to themselves, ‘Duh – I should have known that’? Were they embarrassed? Did they blush like school children who have asked their teacher a silly question? Or were they happy that their words had prompted Jesus, their friend and teacher, to speak plainly about difficult ideas?

The reading comes at the start of what is often called the ‘Farewell Discourse’. This makes up the whole of chapters 14 – 17 of St John’s Gospel, describing in more detail than anywhere else in the Bible how the 3 Persons of the Trinity relate to each other and to those who believe.  

Jesus has just eaten his Last Supper with his disciples. He has washed their feet as if he were a servant, as an acted parable to show them that they, like him, are called to a ministry of service. He knows that the end game is upon him - the forces of evil are pressing in all around. Soon he will be arrested, subjected to a show-trial, condemned and brutally executed. He does not have much time, but he is determined to take this last chance to prepare his disciples for what will unfold. His words are dense with meaning.

In this short extract Jesus teaches the disciples about the relationships between Jesus himself and the God Jesus calls his Father, and between them both and his disciples – not just those first disciples present at the Last Supper, but through them us as well.

Jesus begins, ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me’.
Then he goes on to say that there are many dwelling places in his Father’s house – this is heaven, of course, where God is. He tells the disciples that he is going there to prepare a place for each and every one of them. And he promises that he will return to bring them there to be with him and with God.

Theologians have puzzled over what Jesus meant by the many dwelling places in God’s house, but perhaps it is as simple as this: that heaven is as wide as the heart of God and there is room for everyone there who believes in Jesus, no matter how unworthy they might feel they are. It is a lovely comforting thought, isn’t it?

Jesus says, ‘You know the way to the place I am going’, prompting Thomas to respond, ‘We do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ I like Thomas. Thomas is always questioning – the awkward student who asks the questions others are ashamed to ask. He doesn’t accept anything without owning it for himself – just as he will doubt the resurrection until he sees the wound in Jesus’s side.

So Jesus explains to him and the other disciples, in words that echo down the centuries to us, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life’. The way to find God, says Jesus, is by following him. Those who know him will know God. And because they see and know Jesus, because they see and know the truth and the life in him, they have seen and known God.

These words must have been very shocking for the disciples, because it was an article of faith for Jews that it was impossible to see God. When God showed his glory to Moses he said, ‘You cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live’.

At this point Philip blurts out ‘Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied’.
And Jesus gently chides him, ‘Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, “Show us the Father”? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works’.

The truth that the disciples have to grasp is this: because Jesus is in God and God is in Jesus, if you have seen Jesus you have seen God. To see Jesus is to see what God is like – and to know what God is like is to know what Jesus is like. Those first disciples were privileged to see Jesus in the flesh and know what he was like. But we too can see and know Jesus, through scripture, through church tradition and through our God-given reason – and we can experience his presence in our hearts. All it takes is to believe in him. When we do so, we see and know God too.

Jesus calls his disciples to continue his ministry of service, as he says:
‘The one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to my Father.

Disciples who believe in Jesus will not just minister as he has done, but will do greater things, says Jesus. How can this be? How can they possibly do greater things than God’s own Son Jesus? Well, look at it this way. In his earthly life Jesus’s ministry was limited to the towns and countryside of Palestine. But his first disciples built a mass movement of followers who believed in Jesus. They and their followers brought Jesus’s ministry to the whole world. We call that mass movement the Church. In all its wonderful diversity the Church continues Jesus’s ministry today, and as Jesus’s disciples we are a part of it.

We are made part of the Church by baptism. Today is a day of baptism, a joyful occasion, a day for celebration. For many it is a day of family celebration as Sharon and Robbie bring their son Jack Robert to be baptised in the presence of so many of their relatives and friends, who share their joy in him. But it is more than just a family celebration, because we are all here to welcome Jack as a new member of the Church, a fellow disciple of Jesus. His baptism marks the beginning of a journey with God which will last for the rest of his life. As we renew our baptism vows in a few minutes, let us reflect on our own journey, and let us be determined to support Jack’s parents and Godparents as they guide him on his journey.

And Jesus promises to answer his disciples’ prayers: I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son’. But we must understand well - Jesus only promises to answer prayers asked in his name. We cannot honestly pray in the name of Jesus for personal revenge, for personal ambition, or for anything unworthy or un-Christian – such prayers will not be granted. But our prayers prayed in Jesus’s name will be answered - as God knows is best for us, not necessarily as we desire - and that reveals God’s glory to us all.

So to finish, let us echo the words of Jesus
Let not our hearts be troubled. Let us believe in God and also in Jesus.
As we finish in prayer:
Everliving God,
whose Son Jesus Christ is the way, the truth and the life:
give us grace to love one another,
to follow in the way of his commandments
and to share his risen life;
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,

one God, now and for ever. Amen

Sunday, 9 April 2017

Take this cup from me

Reflection given at Morning Prayer in St Mary's Nenagh and Killodiernan on Palm Sunday 9th April 2017, year A - after hearing the long form of the Passion Gospel.

That was a long reading (Matthew 26:14- 27:66)! But it is surely good for us to hear the whole story of Christ’s Passion from beginning to end at least once a year, to better appreciate the enormity of those events. What a contrast between the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem with crowd shouting Hosanna and the crowd in Pilate’s palace baying for his crucifixion!

You’ll be glad to know that I’m not going to preach a long sermon too! Instead I ask you to reflect with me for a moment on Jesus’s prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane:
‘My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.’

Jesus is distressed and agitated. He is certain that what he is doing is the will of God, his loving Father. He knows what is likely to happen next – his execution as a dangerous agitator, perhaps even the agonising death of crucifixion.

And he does not want to die – he is a man in the full strength and vigour of his early 30s, he loves life, he loves his friends, and he loves his ministry to those who need healing and forgiveness. So he prays to his loving Father for himself, that his death may be averted - ‘let this cup pass from me’.

But that is only half his prayer. Even more important for Jesus than his own distress at the prospect of death is that his loving Father’s will should be done. So he finishes his prayer with ‘yet not what I want, but what you want’.

This prayer of Jesus should be a model for our own prayers for our selves. When I desperately wish for something, it is right and proper for me to pray to God for it. If I cannot ask God for it, who can I ask? But I must never forget how much more important it is for God’s will to be done, than for my wish to be granted. So I should always finish a prayer for myself with Jesus’s words, ‘yet not what I want, but what you want’.

In the end, like Jesus, we must trust that our loving Father knows what is best for us.

Sunday, 19 March 2017

A Samaritan woman at the well

Address given at St Michael's, Limerick City on Sunday 19 March 2017, the 3rd Sunday of Lent, year A

I must begin by giving credit to Canon Patrick Comerford, the new Priest-in-Charge in Rathkeale & Kilnaughtin – in this address I have drawn heavily on a reflection of his.

Today’s Gospel reading (John 4:5-42) about the Samaritan woman at the well is a charming story, isn’t it?
To begin to understand it we need to know something about the Samaritans and their relationship to Jews like Jesus and his disciples in the NT period.

The Samaritans are strangers to the Jews. Although these two peoples share the same land, the Samaritans are outsiders, seen as ritually unclean by pious Jews. Although they share faith in the same God and share the same Torah (the first five books of the Bible), the Jews see the Samaritans as having a different religion. But Jesus tries to break down those barriers.

For example, the Good Samaritan is not a stranger but is the very best example of a good neighbour (Luke 10: 29-37). Among the Ten Lepers who are healed, only the Samaritan returns to give thanks, and this “foreigner” is praised for his faith (Luke 17: 11-19).

In the story of the Samaritan woman at the well, the disciples are doing something surprising.
They have gone into the city of Sychar to buy food. But this is no ordinary city – this is a Samaritan city, and any food they might buy from Samaritans is going to be unclean according to Jewish ritual standards.

While the Disciples are in Sychar, Jesus sits down by Jacob’s Well, and begins talking with a Samaritan woman who comes to the well for water. And their conversation becomes a model for how we should respond to the stranger in our midst, whether they are foreigners or people of a different religion or culture.

The Samaritans accepted only the first five books of the Bible – the Pentateuch or Torah – as revealed scripture. For their part, Jews of the day pilloried this Samaritan refusal to accept more than the first five books of the Bible by claiming the Samaritans worshipped not the one God revealed in the five books but five gods. Jesus alludes to this – with a sense of humour – when he says the woman has five husbands.

A Jewish man like Jesus would normally have refused to talk to a Samaritan woman or to accept a drink from her hands; any self-respecting Samaritan woman would have felt slighted by his behaviour and walked away immediately. Instead, the two continue in their dialogue: they talk openly and humorously with one another, and listen to one another. Jesus gets to know the woman and she gets to know Jesus.

All dialogue involves both speaking and listening – speaking with the expectation that we will be heard, and listening honestly to what the other person is saying rather than listening to what our prejudices tell us they ought to say.

When the Disciples arrive back they are filled with questions.
But they are so shocked to see Jesus talking to a Samaritan woman that they remain silent. Their silence reflects their inability to reach out to the stranger.

But their failure and their prejudices are shown in another way: the woman gives water as she and Christ talk, but they fail to return with bread for Christ to eat and they fail to join in the conversation about faith and about life.

They are still questioning and unable to articulate their faith, but the woman recognises Christ as a Prophet. They made no contact with the people in Sychar, but she rushes back to tell the people there about Jesus. No one in the city was brought to Jesus by the disciples, but many Samaritans listened to what the woman had to say and came to believe that Jesus is truly the Saviour of the world.

Jesus was thirsty, he asked the Samaritan woman for water, and she gave it to him.
But in return she received much more from Jesus: he gave her the ‘living water’ which became in her ‘a spring of water gushing up to eternal life’. She believed in Jesus, and because of her many Samaritans believed in him. His thirst led to her and their conversion.

‘I am thirsty’, is the fifth of the seven last words of Christ from the Cross on Good Friday, and in response he is given wine with bitter hyssop (John 19:28-30). Many people have compared the thirst of Christ on the Cross with his request to the Samaritan woman, ‘Give me a drink’, and the promise that follows, ‘Those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty’.

In expressing his thirst out loud in that cry from the cross, Christ shows his humanity and his humility. In expressing such a basic need, he shows his solidarity with all those people, living or dying, healthy or sick, great or small, who are in need, and who in humility are forced to ask for a cup of water.

St John tells us Christ said ‘I am thirsty’, ‘in order to fulfil the Scripture’. The dying Christ echoes the words of Psalm 22: ‘My mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death’ (Psalm 22: 15). And again, later in the Psalms, we hear the words: ‘and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink’ (Psalm 69: 21).

In his thirst on the Cross, I think the dying Christ seeks something much more than water or vinegar. He is thirsting for a new humanity to be formed and shaped through his incarnation, life and passion, death, resurrection and ascension. His thirst is for our salvation.

So to finish:
Let us give thanks for the openness and trust of the Samaritan woman.

And let us pray that Christ will give us, as he gave her, ‘living water’ which will become in us ‘a spring of water gushing up to eternal life’.

O God, living and true,
look upon your people,
whose dry and stony hearts are parched with thirst.
Unseal the living water of your Spirit;
let it become within us an ever-flowing spring,
gushing up to eternal life.
Thus may we worship you in spirit and in truth,
through Christ, our deliverance and hope,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,

God for ever and ever. Amen.

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Jesus & Nicodemus

Address given at Templederry, Nenagh & Killodiernan on Sunday 12th March 2017, the 2nd Sunday of Lent, year A

Today I want to reflect on Jesus’s conversation with Nicodemus as recorded by John in the Gospel reading (John 3:1-17)
Jesus uses that conversation to teach Nicodemus – and through him ourselves – some great truths, which are crucial for the later development of our Christian faith and Trinitarian theology.

Nicodemus finds it hard to understand what Jesus is saying – and we may too – because Jesus is speaking in the language of metaphor. It is as if Jesus is speaking in riddles! ‘Being born from above’; ‘entering the kingdom of God’; ‘the Son of Man’; ‘serpents being lifted up’; ‘having eternal life’: What in heaven’s name is Jesus talking about? Let me try my best to tease out what his words mean to me.

We should start with the kingdom of God, I think – what did Jesus understand by it?
The key I think is in the prayer he taught us: ‘Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed by thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done, in earth as it is in heaven.’ I feel sure we enter the kingdom of God when we do God’s will here on earth, as it is done in heaven. But that ain’t easy – we have to resist our human impulses to do what we want, not what God wants. We can’t do so unless something changes us to be immune to human wilfulness. That change is like being ‘born anew’.

Jesus tells Nicodemus that ‘No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above’.  Now the Greek phrase translated as ‘born from above’ can just as well be translated as ‘born anew’ – and that is the sense in which Nicodemus correctly understands it. He understands the need for it, but he does not understand how to achieve it. ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old?’ he asks. ‘Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’

So Jesus explains, ‘No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit’. We need to be washed clean of our sinful natures – that is what baptism symbolises. But we cannot by ourselves surrender our will to God’s will. For that we need God to take the initiative through the power of his Spirit. Only then can we entrust ourselves to God completely, without reservation.

In Greek the same word ‘pneuma’ is used for both wind and spirit. Jesus says, ‘The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’ He is telling Nicodemus that he doesn’t need to understand how the Spirit works, he just needs to know that it does work.

There’s nothing very difficult about any of this from Jesus’ point of view, I think. This is just how human beings are made psychologically – it is a plain observable fact, an earthly thing - not a deep truth, a heavenly thing. But Nicodemus just doesn’t get it. ‘How can these things be?’ he says in exasperation. And Jesus chides him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? … If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?’

But I think Jesus likes Nicodemus, and is enjoying their conversation.
Because Jesus does indeed go on to tell Nicodemus – and through him us too - about deep heavenly truths, theological truths.

‘No one has ascended into heaven’, says Jesus, except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man’.
‘The Son of Man’ is a typically Jewish way of saying ‘a representative man’. Jesus is saying that for a representative man to go up to God, he must have come down from God in the first place. And he clearly understands himself to be the Son of Man, the representative man, who has come from God.

‘And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness’, says Jesus, ‘so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.’
Moses lifting up the serpent refers to a strange story in the Book of Numbers (21:8-9). On their journey through the wilderness, the people of Israel complained about their hardships since they left Egypt. God sent a plague of deadly serpents to punish them. When the people repented and cried for mercy, God instructed Moses to raise an image of a serpent on a pole in the centre of the camp, which healed those with snakebite when they looked at it.
Jesus is saying that he, the representative man, is destined to be lifted up – on the cross and to God in heaven - to bring eternal life to those who believe in him, just as the image of the serpent healed those who came to it.
But what does Jesus mean by ‘eternal life’? We must distinguish it from ‘everlasting life’, I’m sure, which might just as well be hell as heaven. Duration doesn’t matter - eternal life is surely to participate in God’s life, full of the joy and peace and love that can only be found in God’s presence.

‘For God so loved the world’, says Jesus, ‘that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.’
In these comfortable words, Jesus reveals to Nicodemus – and to us – that Jesus the Son of Man, the representative human being, is also the only Son of God. The breadth and depth of God’s love for the world – for you and for me and for all creation - is shown by the gift of his only Son.
‘Indeed’, Jesus continues, ‘God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him’.
Our loving God seeks to save us through the gift of his Son, not condemn us. He makes it possible for us to reconcile ourselves with God by aligning our will with God’s will, in imitation of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
These words of Jesus surely do express a deep heavenly truth!

John does not tell us what Nicodemus makes of all this.
You might expect Nicodemus to have taken umbrage when Jesus chided him. But he didn’t. John goes on to tell us (John 7:50-53) that Nicodemus defended Jesus in the Jewish Council when there was a move to arrest him. And after the crucifixion Nicodemus helped Joseph of Arimathea to bury Jesus, contributing the expensive embalming spices (John 19:39-40). Nicodemus may even have become a disciple of Jesus, and he is considered a saint in both the Orthodox and RC churches.

So to finish
Let us give thanks for the insights – the heavenly truths - that Nicodemus prompted Jesus to reveal about the relationships between God, his Son, his Spirit and human beings like you and me. They are at the heart of our Trinitarian faith.

And let us pray that the Holy Spirit may instil in us trust in God’s promises made through Jesus:

‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.’

Sunday, 8 January 2017

God comes close to us - as close as our own skin

Address given at Templederry, Nenagh and Killodiernan on Sunday 8th January 2017, the 1st after Epiphany, celebrated as the Baptism of Christ.

Today the Church asks us to remember the Baptism of Christ.
So I take this opportunity to reflect on what Jesus’s baptism means, both to those at the time, and to you and me 2000 years later.

But first I invite you to picture again, in your minds eye, the moments after John baptised Jesus, as described by Matthew in his gospel (3:13-17).

Here is Jesus, a man in the prime of his life, about 30 years old. He is glistening wet from receiving John’s baptism of repentance, as he walks up out of the river Jordan. Then, suddenly, the heavens burst open. The Spirit of God descends like a dove to alight on him. And the voice of God declares from heaven, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased’.

What a strikingly vivid and dramatic scene – it’s easy to imagine being there, isn’t it?

Matthew describes an epiphany, in which God reveals himself to be the Father of Jesus and sends Jesus his Spirit.
The same epiphany, bringing together Jesus at his baptism, the dove and a voice from heaven, is also described by Mark, Luke and John. It must have been part of the common tradition of the earliest Christians on which Matthew and the other evangelists drew when writing their gospels.

For Christians by the 4th Century these baptism passages came to be seen as supporting and illustrating the doctrine of the Trinity, the idea that the one God consists of three persons, Father, Son and Spirit. They are the only passages in the NT where we encounter all three persons together at the same time, in the same place.

Matthew would have known the book of Isaiah well, like all educated Jews of his time. He would have seen the parallels with today’s OT reading (Isaiah 42:1-9), in which God declares, ‘Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him’. But there is this crucial difference between Isaiah and Matthew: for Isaiah, God identifies his chosen one as just a servant; whereas for Matthew, God identifies Jesus as his beloved Son.

What did John the Baptist make of Jesus’s baptism?
John recognised Jesus when he came to ask for baptism, not surprisingly since they were cousins close in age. John says to Jesus, ‘I need to be baptised by you, and do you come to me?’ What’s going on here?

John proclaimed ‘a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’ (Mark 1:4). He called people to repent, and baptised them as a sign that God forgave their sins. John knew that he needed baptism, repentance and forgiveness himself. But I think he must have believed that Jesus was such a good and holy man that he had no need of them.

John would also have recalled Isaiah’s description of God’s chosen servant in today’s reading, ‘He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth.’ Perhaps John recognised the Jesus he knew in Isaiah’s description - softly spoken, filled with compassion for the damaged and the weak, yet determined and passionate for justice.
Despite John’s reluctance to baptise him, Jesus insisted, and John consented. And we know John then experienced the epiphany described by Matthew, since John’s Gospel records him saying: “I saw the spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptise with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptises with the Holy Spirit.’ Only then does John realise the full truth, that his cousin Jesus is the promised Messiah, the incarnate Son of God, not just a remarkably holy man.

I wonder what his baptism meant for Jesus himself.
Jesus very deliberately chose to ask John for baptism, and insisted on it – it must have been of great significance to him.

Matthew gives us a clue when he records Jesus saying to John, ‘it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness’. For Jews, righteousness meant obeying God’s law and doing God’s will. Jesus clearly believed God wished him to be baptised by John. But for what purpose?

Perhaps God wanted Jesus to seek John’s baptism at the very start of his ministry in order to demonstrate that Jesus was God’s incarnate Son, not just a good man like Isaiah’s servant. This was certainly the effect on John. But perhaps Jesus himself needed to be certain who he was before beginning his ministry. Is it possible this is also the very moment when Jesus finally understood that he was Christ the Messiah, the Son of God?

Whatever the truth of this, Jesus clearly associated himself quite deliberately with John’s proclamation, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near’ (Matt 3:2) - he went on to proclaim it in his own ministry (Matt 4:17). And I like to think that Jesus chose to be baptised by John because he wanted to show his solidarity with sinful people like you and me, who desperately need to repent and be forgiven, even if he had no such need himself.

So to finish, what does Jesus’s baptism mean to you and me, 2000 years on?
Well, no doubt there are many answers. But this one strikes me.

The epiphany at the baptism of Jesus marks a great new insight into the nature of God as the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. As God says through Isaiah, ‘See the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare’.

Before it Jewish religious thinkers could only conceive of the relationship between God and a human being as that between a remote master and a terrified servant. After it Christians could begin to see the relationship as one in which God is incarnate in a human being like you or me.

Everything is changed and made new. God ceases to be a remote figure and we are no longer afraid. God comes near to us, as close to us as our own skin. We feel his presence to be like our loving Father, to be like Jesus, his Son, our friend and brother, to be like the Spirit which inspires all that is good and true in us.

Let us thank God for Jesus’s baptism, most particularly for the insight it gives us into God’s intimate and loving nature as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.