Baptism of the Lord - Homily 2

Homily 2 - 2019

The First Reading tonight from Isaiah was great. He was quoting God [as it were]; and God was speaking about “my chosen one in whom my soul delights”, and saying “I have endowed him with my spirit that he may bring true justice to the nations”. God then repeated, “Faithfully he brings true justice”, and then added, a third time, in case we hadn’t been listening, “he will neither waver nor be crushed until true justice is established on earth”. Interestingly, God then spelt out the practical expression of this true justice by saying, “I have appointed you ... to open the eyes of the blind, to free captives from prison and those who live in darkness from the dungeon”. True justice – opening people’s eyes, and emptying the gaols – liberation, not imposition.

Then in today’s Gospel Reading from Luke, Luke spoke of John telling people about Jesus, “Someone is coming, someone who is more powerful than I … He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and with fire”. But first, in line with Isaiah, he must be endowed with God’s Spirit. So, Luke says, “… while Jesus was at prayer, heaven opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on him.”

To complete the introduction, we turn to tonight’s Second Reading where Peter was talking to Cornelius about Jesus, and saying, “God had anointed him [Jesus] with the Holy Spirit and with power”; and he saw that power expressed in “doing good and curing all who fallen into the power of the devil” – liberation not imposition – perhaps not all that different from Isaiah’s giving sight to the blind and emptying the gaols!

Over the centuries, perhaps from the time of Constantine in the fourth century, the Church has not helped people much to understand either justice or power. So often, when we think of God’s justice and of God’s power, or of God as almighty judge, we almost instinctively think of God punishing, even condemning to hell – the “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” attitude that Jesus strongly argued against. Jesus, endowed with God’s Spirit, clearly showed God’s justice, true justice, as restorative justice, a justice seeking to liberate both wrong-doers and victims as well – for, without help, how many victims remain otherwise imprisoned in the corruptive bitterness of revenge?

Yet, to appreciate restorative justice, we need firstly to learn to see reality as it is, freed from the habits of centuries, our instinctive prejudices and unaddressed thirst for revenge. Jesus’ insistent call to “conversion” [or that most inadequately translated, even deceptive, word, “Repent”] worked hand in hand with enabling the metaphorically blind to see.

Likewise, the Church needs to rediscover Jesus’ sense of power. Jesus apparently had remarkable power and inner authority. But his power had nothing to do with imposition or coercion – nor should the Church’s. Jesus’ power set people free – free to be their true selves. Jesus sought to educate and form consciences. He urged people to get to know themselves, to learn to recognize their deep desires, to appreciate value. He invited them to obedience but only in the beautiful sense of learning to attune their hearts and minds to his vision and his goals.

I feel somewhat fascinated that the secular Royal Commission into Clergy Sexual Abuse has removed the Church from its soap-box and its recourse to the threat of the so-called “Catholic vote”; and left it little option but to focus again on the real sources of its life-giving power. Jesus’ undoubtedly remarkable authority stemmed from his insight into truth, his attractive joy and inner beauty, his personal integrity, his obvious love and mercy, his simplicity and transparency, his non-violent gentleness, and even his poverty.

Whatever about our bishops and the institution, whatever even about our politicians and political parties, can we allow the power of Jesus to become our power, and in the process, can we become truly a light to the nations?