What Truly Binds Us: Sermon for the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord
“Whoever is begotten by God conquers the world. And the victory that conquers the world is our faith. Who indeed is the victor over the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?”
When I was living in Argentina in the fall of 2007, there was a presidential election. After my host parents voted, we had a pleasant, typical Sunday, including a traditional Argentine steak cookout, swimming in the pool, and running around the yard with their grandchildren. On the way back into town, as we drove by a polling site that was wrapping up for the day, my host father commented, “Nothing happened today.”
I was confused. A lot had happened. People throughout the country had voted in an historic election that seemed poised to elect their first female president (and in fact did). And we had enjoyed a delightful family day. “Papá,” I said, “I don’t know what you mean. A lot happened. It was a great day!” “No,” he responded. “You wouldn’t understand. There was an election, and nothing happened. People voted, they are counting the votes, and someone will win. For Argentina, that is extraordinary. In your country it is normal. Here, it is not.” For a man who has spent his entire life in which democratic elections and peaceful transfers of power are the exception rather than the rule, that “nothing happened” on the day of that historic election in Argentina was an event.
I would shudder to imagine what my host father must be thinking of events in the United States this past week. For survivors of political turbulence in South America and other places throughout the world, American democracy has long been a sign of hope – a goal toward which they could strive. That light has certainly been dimmed.
For quite a while, we have known that something is not right in our beloved country. Increasingly fractious divisions plague our politics and our communities. But our ever-more bitter political divides are a symptom of a broader social isolation that has provoked our contemporary malaise. In the year 2000, the Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam published an illuminating book called Bowling Alone, in which he documented the loss in social capital in the United States. The book showed how we have become increasingly disconnected from family, friends, neighbors, and our democratic structures. Americans, Putnam observed, “sign fewer petitions, belong to fewer organizations that meet, know our neighbors less, meet with friends less frequently, and even socialize with our families less often. We’re even bowling alone. More Americans are bowling than ever before, but they are not bowling in leagues.”
21 years later, the reality that Putnam documented has accelerated alarmingly, thanks to the advent of high-speed internet, social media, and the smartphone. In 2021, Americans don’t even bowl. They just sit at home and stare at a five-inch glowing screen.
With no real interaction with one another, it is easier than ever to think that a group to which I don’t belong is the enemy. If you belong to the wrong group, you are out. And that affiliation has to made public as well – either with a flag or a yard sign. The Israelites marked their doors with the blood of the lamb to protect them from the angel of death. Americans protect themselves from cancel culture with a yard sign that reads, “Love is love.” Instead of looking for other groups to blame, though, (the left or the right, etc.) we ought to look inside ourselves.
What could all of this have to do with the Baptism of the Lord, which we celebrate today? Jesus’s baptism points us to the importance of our true identity as sons and daughters of God. God the Father says of the Son, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” These words redound upon all of us as well who share in Christ’s sonship through Baptism. We too are beloved sons and daughters of God the Father.
If we look inside ourselves, we can see that our acerbic political environment has discarded this essential truth – that our dignity comes not from adopting the correct political posture but from who we are in relation to God. As the modern world dawned in the 17th and 18th centuries, philosophers encouraged people to abandon faith in God for a belief in the universal brotherhood of man. But our abandonment of God as a society has led us to seek salvation not in friendship with one another, but in technology, which has only brought isolation. Modernism has become a self-defeating enterprise whose means have undermined its own goals.
Jesus’s baptism is meant to be instructive to us. John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. Jesus does not need to repent, but He takes part in John’s baptism to show us the necessity of repentance and to make holy this sacrament of salvation by which our original sin – what we inherited from the disobedience of Adam and Eve – can be forgiven.
This central message of Christianity – that we are born sinners and must be saved by God’s death and resurrection, communicated to us for the first time by the Sacrament of Baptism – has been lost in a religious culture that has turned Christianity into a moralistic, therapeutic deism. Mainstream American Christianity has deformed the Faith with the prosperity Gospel, sentimental self-help spirituality, or by replacing the primacy of the person of Christ with a mission of making the world a better place.
Losing sight, then, of our status as sinners who need to be redeemed by Christ’s blood, it is not surprising that modern man seeks his salvation not from God but in politics. Politics, for contemporary man, is where innocence from our primal guilt can be sought instead of the waters of Baptism. The identity politics of the American left establishes innocence not by divine forgiveness, but by membership in or sympathy with a persecuted class. The response of the American right has been indignation at this identity politics and its attendant cancel culture, but also effectively to adopt the same philosophy. No, they claim, we are actually the persecuted minority that is the victim of a conspiracy theory, and thus we are the truly innocent ones. (This adoption of a new and even-more-dangerous version of identity politics will only be accelerated and made far more dangerous by the isolation of discourse in the rapidly sprouting, politically segregated new social networks.)
There are three big problems with only talking to people you already agree with: 1) We begin to believe that the only reasonable people in the enitre world agree with us. This happens because we only hear from the other side when someone shares a video of the most extreme fringe examples of the right or left -- like a congressman ending a prayer with "Amen and Awoman" or someone claiming to prove that Barak Obama is a secret Muslim born in Kenya. 2) We lose the necessity of being able to defend our positions with reasoned argument. 3) Isolated discource among exclusively like-minded people loses an important incentive towards charitable speech. Instead, a cycle of anger takes over as people feed off each other's expressions of anger.
Politics is a good and noble endeavor with a high mission. Both ends of the political spectrum, however, ask politics to do something that it cannot: redeem us from our ultimate ailment, sin. As St. John writes, “Whoever is begotten by God conquers the world. And the victory that conquers the world is our faith. Who indeed is the victor over the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?”
To be begotten by God is to be reborn in baptism, to become a son or daughter in whom the Father is well pleased. It is only faith in Jesus Christ – not petitions, social clubs, or bowling leagues – that can conquer the world and restore our bitter and broken society. So long as we do not have faith in Him, so long as He is not the center of our lives, we will be doomed to continue expecting politics to provide our redemption and innocence, and simultaneously to the chaos and disorder that such failed expectations are bound to bring.
As the dramatic events of last Wednesday unfolded, members of this community of faith gathered to pray and worship the Lord according to the ancient rites of Christendom. The juxtaposition could not have been stronger. In Washington, a political protest devolved into an angry mob whose intense anger and self-righteousness can only be explained as an ecstatic, religious fervor misdirected towards a political figure and system – seeking salvation from a realm that cannot give it. And here in Goshen, Indiana, people of different languages and cultures worshiped the true God together, bound up in an act of worship that took them outside time into the eternal realm of heavenly glory.
The Church that has celebrated the ancient Roman Rite that took place last Wednesday in this parish church has survived political turbulence far beyond anything we have seen in the United States. We have survived the persecution of Nero, vikings, Napoleon, Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, Castro, and Chaves. But we have always done so by returning to what is most important. The times in which we live are scary, but Christian Faith has flourished incredibly amidst the most dangerous of times by returning to personal holiness, Christian fraternity, and the primacy of divine worship.
“The victory that conquers the world” will not be the victory of any political party or regime, but only the victory that Christ has already won over the world in His Cross and Resurrection. "In the world you have tribulation," Jesus told the Apostles at the Last Supper, "but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world." That victory becomes ours for the first time in the Sacrament of Baptism, through which we also become God’s beloved sons and daughters. As Christians, we seek redemption and salvation not from the isolation and ephemeral delights of social media, nor from the false ecstasy of politics-as-religion, but in the faith that professes that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist, Goshen
Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, A.D. MMXXI
Image: The Baptism of Christ (c. 1482) by Pietro Perugino