Not the Prim, Proper, and Perfumed


The Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Have you ever considered that the notion of the term churchgoer is wrongheaded?

What picture comes to mind when you hear churchgoer?  I’ll tell you what comes to my mind.  It’s a picture that has been with me since the late 1980s, since I first began attending church regularly.

Now, you’ve got to understand the context.  I was 18 or 19 years old, never been in church more than a few times, and my eyes had recently been opened to the saving knowledge of the 1980s soCal conservative evangelical image of Jesus Christ, with all his gentleness and blue eyes and flowing blond hair.

Like a few surfers I knew.

But these guys weren’t like some surfers, the ones who lived out of their beat-up Volkswagen vans and somehow managed to eke out a living repairing surfboards and painting fences for a friend of a friend.

No, these surfers were good guys, who managed In-N-Out Burgers, which was a good job to come by, especially since you could find “John 3:16” on the bottoms of their drink cups.  And they drove respectable vehicles.

The families these gentle surfers came from too—well, now, there’s a picture to behold!  The dads wore ties that matched their socks and the moms wore perfectly coordinated ensembles with three or four little siblings in tow, just as prim- and proper-looking as their parents, hair braided or gelled, always on time.

They behaved perfectly too, in church and out.

And their smell!  To have such a family pass me by on the steps leading to the narthex—just one whiff was enough for me to know, yes, here was the perfume, aftershave, and deodorant of the Promised Land.  Here were churchgoers par excellence!

But isn’t this vision wrongheaded?  The people I’ve just described seem to have it all together.  And maybe they really do!  If so, they probably can manage just fine on their own, without coming to church, without making the rest of us feel inferior, thank you very much.

But more likely, they don’t have it all together.  I mean, really, does any of us have a life free of stress, worry, fear, and interpersonal conflict?  Is any of us free from the drama of everyday life?

The notion of churchgoer—at least, my notion of it—is wrongheaded.  The people who turn to Jesus are very often not the prim, proper, perfumed people we envision.  In the Bible—and in our own day—the people who turn to Jesus most often are the poor, the sick, and the destitute.

And isn’t that us?

Why do you turn to Jesus?  Why do I?  There are times, sure, when everything seems to be going our way.  Then we feel like Midas, right?  It seems like everything we touch turns to gold.  And during these times—rare times for most of us—we rightly offer God prayers of thanksgiving.

But, much more often, don’t we turn to God out of need?

Like some fire-breathing beast of legend, a stressor rears its ugly head and threatens some part of our life.  And so we turn to Jesus for help.  “Save us,” we cry out, just as the ancient Britons cried out to St. George to save his kingdom from the dragon!  (Humor me.  I’m an Episcopalian, after all.)

Point is, it’s the needy who turn to Jesus—the sick, the destitute—not the people who’ve got it all together.  And that’s us: the needy.

And what about Jesus himself?

Jesus is fully human; but he’s also fully God.  And being fully God, wasn’t his human life free of stress, worry, fear, and interpersonal conflict?  Wasn’t Jesus free from the drama of everyday life?  Wasn’t Jesus, in fact, gentle and mild, with blue eyes and flowing blond hair?

Well, um, if that’s what you think, er, I’ve got some news for you!  (He was in fact crucified, remember.)

So, today, in Luke’s Gospel (this is wonderful, isn’t it?  I mean, this really should fill us with wonder!), Jesus is being baptized along with all the other people (v. 21)—all these people who came to John out of repentance—all these needy, sick, destitute, drama-affected people—all these people quite unlike our modern notion of churchgoers with their I’ve-got-it-all-together personas.

And then what does Jesus do?

The other Gospels go straight from this point—straight from Jesus’ baptism—into his ministry, or at least into his temptation in the wilderness and then into his ministry.  But not in Luke.

Instead, here, in Luke, before entering into his ministry, Jesus prays.  In Luke, prayer is the focal point of this whole scenario—even more central than the baptism of Jesus; even more central than the voice that speaks from heaven and the bodily form, like a dove, that descends!  It’s prayer!

Jesus, in identifying with all the needy, sick, and destitute people—in identifying with us—Jesus prays!

Well, I hope you see it as I do.  We should not be like the stereotypical churchgoer.  Moreover, we should not expect all the people around us to be stereotypical churchgoers.  Rather, like Jesus, we should be people of prayer.

We should be people of prayer because we are grateful.  But we should be people of prayer, too, because we are needy, sick, and destitute.  We pray because: we need to; we want to; and we have to.

And the best part about this passage for me is that I’ve been baptized with Christ.  That means I’m with him and he’s with me regardless of how good, bad, or ugly my life may be.  And since I’m with him and he’s with me, those words that came from above; and that bodily form that descended from heaven, like a dove, well, they apply to me too.

That’s right!  When God’s voice says, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased,” God’s voice is not just speaking to Jesus.  It’s speaking to me; and it’s speaking to all who have followed Jesus Christ.

Have you been baptized with Christ?  It doesn’t matter how perfect or imperfect your life is.  It doesn’t matter that your life doesn’t look like that churchgoer stereotype.  It doesn’t matter how good, bad, or ugly you’ve been.  If you’ve been baptized with Christ, God’s voice is speaking these words to you too.  “You are my child,” God says, “my beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

These words are yours.  They belong to you.  Take them.  Own them.  Live them.  You are God’s beloved.

(And so: on this Day of the Feast of the Baptism of our Lord, instead of saying the Creed let us renew our Baptismal Vows together, found on BCP 292.)

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