beginning at the end

The gospel always begins with an ending. It is easy to forget this. We are tempted to imagine otherwise. We are eager for a fresh, new beginning - a clean slate. The new year with its unblemished calendar holds a brief promise of newness. The Christmas story retelling of the birth of the Christ child can be like this for us. It can lead us to imagine that the gospel begins like a baby - with birth and newness and innocence and promise.

But then comes the Sunday after Epiphany when the church celebrates the baptism of Jesus. In the early days of the Christian church the celebration of Jesus’ baptism was one of the three large Christian festivals that marked out the Christian year: Easter, Pentecost and Epiphany. In those days Epiphany was a celebration not of the arrival of the Magi but, instead, marked Jesus’ baptism with the solemn blessing of the congregation’s baptismal water. Christmas was a later addition to the festivals of the Christian year, though it has since grown to dwarf all of them in our culture.

Mark - the first of the gospels to be written - begins not with the birth of Jesus but with the baptism of Jesus. Jesus is not a brand new little baby. He is a grown man whose ministry begins with an ending. Mark says that “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mk 1:1) takes place when Jesus joins in “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mk 1:4). Baptism is, first and foremost, an ending. In Paul’s words: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death?” (Rom. 6:3). Jesus’ ministry begins with his own symbolic drowning in the Jordan. He joins his sisters and brothers in a cleansing ritual of confession and remorse - a dying to the way of life that they have been leading. Even the baptisms of our youngest infants mark a death in the family. At the font we die to the false promises of idolatry. In the waters of baptism we drown the notions that eternal life is determined by material wealth or by social status and reputation or by a life unmarked by failure, disappointment and hurt.

Sometimes, however, it takes us a long time to realize that the gospel begins only once we have died to the false gospels that so easily dissuade us from the gospel of Jesus Christ. It can take us a long time to finally reach the end of our attempts to save ourselves. The baptismal font is our constant reminder that when we do reach the end and cry out “kyrie eleison - Lord, have mercy” we will discover that our end is, in fact, our beginning.

This is the reason that, at University Hill Congregation, we have repositioned our baptismal font so that it sits in the centre of our sanctuary, directly in front of the table. It is our constant reminder that the beginning of the gospel story marks an ending, a dying, a stopping of the old ways and old dreams. There is fresh water in the font every Sunday. It is always open. It is a constant source of life beyond the death it also entails. It is the path to the table. When we celebrate the eucharist the invitation always states that the table is open to the baptized from every nation and denomination. It is a holy meal for those who have pledged to end their old attachments and beliefs. It is a sacrament for those who have placed their trust in Jesus Christ and who seek to learn his Way. We do not block those who have not been baptized, but invite them to the table now if they, too, wish to die to their ways and rise in Christ with the encouragement that they then join the company of Jesus’ disciples by seeking baptism. And when they come to the water - young or old, kneeling at the font or held in the pastor’s arms - we sing and preach and pray them through our common ending into our gospel beginning.

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