A sermon by Margaret Hall
Few people would dispute the importance of funerals. They’re precious times of honouring the deceased, supporting those closest to them, and remembering the promises God made to us through Christ’s death. Funerals are also the time for disposing reverently of the deceased’s mortal remains. It’s a solemn moment when we stand for the words of committal and the coffin is borne off, or disappears behind a screen. Treating remains with respect shows the value we place on every human life.
But is it possible to get that out of perspective? A documentary on the Boxing Day tsunami stressed the emotional cost to the members of the Disaster Victim Identification Unit, who saw their role as “giving somebody back their identity.”
It’s a worthy aim. But is our identity really tied to our rotting remains? For that matter, is my identity tied to my increasingly decrepit body and my ageing mind? Ultimately, who am I?
The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins expressed one idea about who we are in this line: What I do is me: for that I came.
Some of us who’ve entered the age of retirement understand what he meant. Perhaps our work, whether paid employment or caring for our families, has defined who we are, so that in leaving it behind, we feel we’ve lost some sense of who we are.
But then Hopkins goes on:
I say more: The just man…. acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is – Christ.
The just man – the person who unfailingly does what is just and right, out of love for God and neighbour. That certainly describes how Jesus was, but who would dare to make that claim for themselves?
Hopkins was expressing the biblical truth that when a person accepts by faith what Jesus did on their behalf, God sees them differently – as though they were already like Christ. God offers everyone a new identity – an identity that transcends the work we do and how we see ourselves. It’s no longer a case of ‘What I do is me.’ It’s about what I’ve become by God’s grace – someone enabled by God to live out what in God’s eye I already am – re-made in the likeness of his Son. It’s an extraordinary statement to make about a greater possibility than being our mere selves.
To unfold that truth, God worked through the descendants of Abraham, the man God counted as righteous because he believed what God said. Into that people-group, in the course of time, Jesus was born. In him God took on himself our humanity, opening the way for our real identity to be found in him.
We find a clue to how that works in Jesus’ first public appearance, when he joined the crowds flocking to hear John the Baptizer, down by the River Jordan. John was calling on people to turn away from doing wrong, because God was about to appear. Luke described what happened:
When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well-pleased.”
It was one of those moments we come across in the Bible when the invisible curtain between heaven and earth was lifted, and our earthly reality connected with God’s eternal reality. When Jesus was using the link we all have with heaven – that is, when he was praying – the invisible Holy Spirit was seen in the form of a dove, and what’s normally unheard was heard – God’s voice, affirming Jesus as his Son, whom he loves, and with whom he’s well-pleased.
The obvious question to ask about Jesus being baptized is why he thought it was necessary. Since he’s God’s beloved Son, and well-pleasing to God, why would he go through the ritual that symbolizes the washing away of sin? Matthew tells us that John at first refused to do it, protesting that Jesus should be baptizing him.
John would have known a lot about Jesus. Their mothers were cousins, so no doubt the stories of their miraculous births, with angels sent to announce who they were, were no secret within their two families. John lived in Judea and Jesus in Galilee, but we can reasonably assume that at least from the age of twelve they met at the festivals in Jerusalem. By the time they stood together in the River Jordan, John had already recognized Jesus, and pointed him out, as the one who would take away the world’s sin, and baptize people with the Holy Spirit. No wonder John didn’t want to baptize Jesus. But Matthew tells us Jesus assured him it was the right thing to do, so it was done.
It was the right thing to do, because it fitted into God’s plan to deliver his world from evil by taking on our humanity. The people wading into the River Jordan to be dipped under the water knew they needed the inner cleansing that dipping symbolized. When Jesus joined them, he was identifying with them – and with all humankind, because all of us have broken God’s law of love. Going under the water also symbolized death, so in being baptized, Jesus was looking ahead to the time he’d identify totally with sinners – to when he would die – not because he needed to die, but because he chose to die our death, so death’s grip on us could be broken.
Because Jesus identified with us, we can be identified with him. We can count ourselves dead to sin, and we can relish the new life we now have through our faith in our risen Lord.
Jesus not only died the death we should die; he lived the life we should be living. So when we believe in him, there’s a double transfer. Our record of wrongdoing was put on him, and he was treated as we deserve. But as well as that, his record of doing right is put on us, so we can be treated as he deserves. The result is that when God looks at any believer in Jesus, he sees Jesus. Or as Gerard Manley Hopkins put it, In God’s eye, I am Christ.
Just as Jesus was baptized as a sign he identified with us, so our baptism is the sign of our belief that he died and rose on our behalf. The apostle Paul expressed it like this: “Don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried with him through baptism, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.”
I don’t remember my baptism. I do remember the evening service in the little wooden hall where I went to church as a child, where I heard a sermon about God’s grace being enough for me. I remember realizing I couldn’t please God as I was. I remember accepting the salvation he offered me. So the promises made for me at my baptism became my promises. I became ‘a child of God, a member of Christ, and an inheritor of the kingdom of heaven’, to use the words of the old catechism we all learned. I became the grateful recipient of God’s undeserved favour, offered to me through what Bishop Wright calls God’s ‘glorious, uproarious, absurd generosity’. I became what Gerard Manley Hopkins described as the just person – counted as righteous – re-born to act in God’s eye what in God’s eye I am – Christ.
It’s hard to take in that God doesn’t see me as I see myself. I see my whole life as a series of bumblings and stumblings. I think of the many people I’ve hurt in one way or another, and the many times I’ve grieved the Holy Spirit. But God looks at me, and sees Jesus’ unshakable trust in him. He sees Jesus’ perfect obedience to his will. And it’s as if he says to me, “You are my daughter, whom I love. I’m well-pleased with you.”
Are you ever tempted to think of God as a threatening God, ready to slam the door on you because you haven’t quite made the grade? God isn‘t like that. Centuries before Jesus came to eat and drink with sinners, the prophet Zephaniah wrote:
The Lord your God is with you; he is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love; he will rejoice over you with singing.
When we become his people, by taking on the identity of his Son, God himself rejoices over us with singing.
Everyone is offered the best identity we could have – a likeness to Christ we continue to grow into. The preservation of our mortal remains isn’t necessary to that identity. Important as it may be to our loved ones to know where those remains are, who we are is no longer tied to them.
So the good news is that we are more than our ageing bodies. Being made in the image of God who is Spirit we have a spiritual dimension as well.
The bad news is that, through our natural tendency to ignore God and care more for ourselves than for others, our spiritual dimension is out of tune with God’s spirit. Left to ourselves, we’re destined to eternal separation from God.
The best news of all is that God hasn’t left us to ourselves. He invites us to believe in the crucified and risen Lord Jesus, and so to partake of his eternal identity.
H.A. Ironside, for many years the pastor of Moody Bible Church, tells how he was staying on a farm at lambing time. One morning he was startled to see an old sheep loping across the road, followed by a strange-looking lamb, that seemed to have an extra layer of wool draped over its body. The farmer explained that the lamb didn’t belong to that ewe. Her lamb had died. An orphaned lamb was brought to her, but she pushed it away. So the farmer skinned the lamb that had died and covered the orphaned lamb with its fleece. When the lamb was brought to the ewe again, she accepted it as her own.
Ironside went on to say that as the orphaned lamb had no claim on that ewe, so sinners have no claim on God. But when we believe in Jesus, we’re covered in the fleece of the Lamb who died, and become as dear to the heart of the Father as His own spotless Son.
So near, so very near to God, nearer I could not be. For in the person of His Son, I am as near as He.
And to God be the glory for that.