Feast Day: Bernard Mizeki
We Brothers are familiar with the story of Bernard Mizeki, because in many ways, he’s one of our own. Unfortunately, the all too brief hagiography of him in Lesser Feasts and Fasts, doesn’t do him justice. Nor does it do justice to reason why his shrine in Zimbabwe continues to attract thousands of pilgrims each year on his feast day.
But today, I don’t want to focus on the story of his martyrdom. I want to remember a part of his story, which is less familiar: the story of his baptism.
Writing from Cape Town on 9 March 1886, Father Puller says this:
We had a very happy day on Sunday. As … the Bishop gave us leave to baptize our [African] catechumens before the … chapel was formally opened and licensed.
Accordingly, we got the building ready and held the service on Sunday Evening….
The altar with its dossal and canopy and other sanctuary hangings looked very dignified and beautiful….
Our baptismal tank holds about 400 gallons of water….
Father Shepherd has been training a choir, and we came into the chapel in procession singing “As pants the hart for cooling streams.” … The Chapel was very full of people, although we had not given public notice of the service. The choir took their places on one side of the baptismal tank, and the seven catechumens in dark blue garments reaching to their feet … on the other side. Fraulein von Blomberg, as godmother, had a place beside them. Everyone was, I think, impressed by the great seriousness and earnestness of the catechumens.
I have a special fondness for the story of Nicodemus, and not just because we share the same name. In 2010, after a few decades of suffering apparent separation between God and me, something happened. It was a very sudden something and it brought spiritual transformation, healing, and gratitude. At the time, the words which came spontaneously to mind describing the experience, the words that felt most true, where that it felt like being born again.
Not long after I found a church and when I told the rector about the “born again” experience she very gently suggested that I call it something else, perhaps a kind of spiritual awakening. I assumed she offered that advice because of the political reality associated with the phrase “born again.” Still, I’ve never forgotten that first Easter I celebrated, how there was an overwhelming and joyful recognition of the baptismal dying and rising of my self in Christ.
Back in the fourth century the sacrament of baptism was seen as the culmination of a Lenten journey, a journey of instruction, spiritual exercises, and ascetic disciplines. Those on this journey, the catechumens, were baptized on the Easter Vigil, a celebration of their participation in the death and resurrection of Christ. As a symbol of this dying and rising, they would enter a pool of water on one side, as entering into a tomb or womb, before emerging on the other side.
“His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified then they remembered that these things had been written of him and had been done in him.” (John 12:16)
Beloved, today we begin a second Holy Week in COVID-19 pandemic time. We have prayed for God’s merciful assistance to enter with joy upon the contemplation of those mighty acts whereby we have been given life and immortality. (cf. The Book of Common Prayer p. 270) We pray as we do on every Lord’s Day for the showing forth of the Lord Jesus’s death until he comes among us again in glory. (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:26) As disciples in ages past have beheld in awe God’s ‘tender mercy love for the human race’ (BCP p. 219) in Jesus’s suffering and cross, so we do this Palm Sunday.
We continue at present separated in longing by disease and death, grief and loss, fear and uncertainty. Yet we join in hope with those who went out of the holy city of Jerusalem to greet the humble Savior. We raise our cries, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” Together we hail Jesus, the Victor over death and evil, present among us now. Our pilgrimage through suffering is in company with that of God’s beloved Son, Jesus. Though scattered and terrified we are being healed, saved, and the whole world transformed and renewed by his glorious cross and resurrection.
The Baptism of Christ
I have a box in my room where I keep all my precious documents. You probably have something similar. These documents, such as passports, birth certificates, ordination papers, for many, marriage certificates, these documents are all very precious because they tell us what we belong to and who we belong to. That’s incredibly important, because belonging gives us our sense of identity. These documents remind me of who I am. Among the most precious of documents for me are my two passports. Whenever I hold these passports I have an enormous sense of gratitude to God that my own life, my very identity, has been formed by the traditions and values of two different nations.
Our core identity is intimately bound up with the values of the country to which we belong; so, when we see these values violated, as we have seen on Capitol Hill during these past days, we feel a visceral shock to our very core.
Belonging and identity are so bound together, that an even worse experience is to actually have your ‘belonging’ taken away. I will never forget a time of ministry some years ago in South Dakota, when I spoke with some elderly native Americans who told me the harrowing story of how they had been made to leave their ancestral lands and at school were forbidden to speak their native language. ‘We don’t belong here anymore’ they said. How terrible to belong nowhere and belong to no one. Those sad and haunted eyes we have seen on the TV of refugees, thrown out of their country, ‘cleansed’ or fled in terror from their homes and from a country where they are told they don’t belong.
The months-long suspension of in-person worship required in response to the coronavirus pandemic continues to be a disorienting experience for church-folk throughout the world. Added to the need for physical distancing in nearly every aspect of daily life, some experience the interruption of regular religious assembly and fellowship as a painful loss. Though alleviated to some degree by the use of technological capabilities for online gathering, the inability to partake of the sacraments is a profound grief for many. In the disruption of accustomed, habitual practices, the temptation to turn inward in despair and inertia is great.
But now our world languishes and groans in the midst of disease and death and the exposure of long-standing hatred, prejudices, injustices and inequities, all the result of human sin. Christians must relinquish self-concern and fear and give themselves, individually and corporately, to steadfast witness of our Creator’s goodness and love.
In his Letter to the Romans, Paul points us to our baptismal death to sin as the source of new and abundant life in Christ, both for ourselves and for the world which Jesus came to save. “You also must consider yourselves dead to dead to sin and alive to God in Jesus Christ our Lord.” [Romans 6:11]
By our union with Christ in the baptismal mystery of his dying and rising we find our unity and meaning in life as his disciples. The Baptismal Covenant which we profess together in the Apostles’ Creed points to the present and eternal reality of our oneness with God, with one another, and with the whole Creation. Our re-birth in Holy Baptism through water and the anointing Spirit has marked us “as Christ’s own for ever”, a new creation reflecting the glory of God in our very being. Through three renunciations of evil and sin, and through three pledges to “turn” to the obedience of our Lord and Savior’s grace and love, we have been given power to be God’s children and messengers of the Good News of God in Christ now.
Acts 9:1-9 | John 21:1-14
There’s no going back. There’s no going back. Once you have said ‘yes’ to Jesus, once you have met the Risen Lord and said YES to his invitation to ‘follow me,’ nothing is the same again. For, as Saint Paul says in 2 Corinthians: “If you are in Christ, you are a new creation. Everything has passed away, see everything has become new.”[i]
In our readings today there are two wonderful accounts of how the greatest leaders of the church – Peter and Paul – each had to learn, in a way which was both humbling and painful, that to follow Jesus, first meant a real death to the life which they had lived until then. They had to become a new creation. They had to be born anew before God could use them for the work of the Kingdom.
So when, in our Gospel today, Peter says, ‘I am going fishing’ – I’m going back to the old life – that was no longer possible. He was a good fisherman, his strong hands were skilled with the ropes and the nets. But although he toiled all through the night, he caught nothing. Something had changed. What had changed was that Jesus had called him to follow him, and he had said YES. But what he was yet to learn was that he could not follow Jesus on his own terms, in his own strength, in the old way. That had died.
These skilled hands of the fisherman would be used by Jesus, but first Peter had to come to Jesus empty handed. And perhaps there is no more poignant moment in all the gospels than when Peter comes ashore, and sees Jesus sitting beside a charcoal fire. That word ‘charcoal’ is only used twice in the New Testament: here and in the courtyard of the High Priest Caiaphas, where Peter stood warming himself, and where he denied knowing Jesus three times.
The first lesson appointed for today, the reading we heard from the Prophecy of Isaiah, begins with the words: “Here is my servant; …I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.”[i] Now this reading is like a supernatural transcription of what the prophet Isaiah heard from God: God’s spirit being promised to the long-awaited Messiah, and also, God’s spirit reaching to foreign nations and distant lands, to the gôyîm, the non-Jews: people like many of us. How will we know God’s presence and God’s power? What will be the evidence of God’s spirit at work, the outward sign, the fruit of God’s spirit? Justice. Justice to the nations. What will be the preeminent work and witness of the Messiah? Justice.[ii]
In the scriptures, justice is broader than what is dictated by law or custom. The biblical understanding of justice is that everyone is given their due, especially the poor and the weak. The Prophet Isaiah continues, “abruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench,” which shows a kind, gentle, dignified respect for others, especially the weak.[iii] The Prophet Isaiah closes with the words: “[The Messiah and we, the Messiah’s followers] will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth…” The Messiah’s mission begins and ends with justice. The biblical understanding of justice is that everyone is given their due. Justice!
Revelation 3:1-6, 14-22
It’s remarkable that our first lesson, from the Revelation to John, includes one of the most tender passages in the whole of the scriptures. The Book of Revelation, which is so full of nightmarish-like scenes depicting the cosmic battle between good and evil, includes a momentary truce, where we hear these very inviting words attributed to Jesus:
“Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking;
if you hear my voice and open the door,
I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.”[i]
Where I first learned this passage from scripture was not with my ears but with my eyes: from the painting of William Holman Hunt entitled “The Light of the World.”[ii] You, too, may have been a child when you first saw a reproduction. The original 1850’s painting hangs in the chapel of Keble College at Oxford University. William Holman Hunt produced a later version in 1900, which toured the world and now has its home at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. Since that world tour, a century ago, this painting has been reproduced innumerable times in Sunday School papers, in illustrative Bibles, and in devotional literature the world o’er. The painting has also been a source of inspiration for many poets on both sides of the Atlantic, such as Alfred Lord Tennyson.[iii]
It seems that the end is already present in the beginning.
Jesus commences his public ministry just as John the Baptist is arrested. Before we even perceive this John as the one coming in the spirit of Elijah, his witness to Jesus’ coming hastens his murder by the powers of this world. Now the one whose appearance John foretold is walking among us, proclaiming as he goes, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near!” Mark tells us that Jesus is not simply announcing the time. Rather, it is Jesus himself who fulfills the time, both in his words and in his full humanity. For this is the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. In him the coming time is always now—the present.
But how can Mark’s Jesus preach that the time is fulfilled when the world’s history continues with disaster upon disaster, injustice upon injustice, violence upon violence, hatred upon hatred, and greed upon greed? If the time is already fulfilled, then what are we to make of the redemption, much of which is clearly yet to come?
Yet Jesus, who still walks among us, doesn’t set about explaining or making excuses for God. Rather, Jesus calls upon people, using an imperative, to respond to his declaration, “Repent, and believe in the good news!” Jesus walks among those of his own day, and continues to walk among us in our own. Jesus invites us to assume our full identity, new each day, even those of us who have begun to experience his call in our lives.
The first lesson appointed for today, the reading we heard from the Prophecy of Isaiah, begins with the words: “Here is my servant; …I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.”[i] Now this reading is like a supernatural transcription of what the prophet Isaiah heard from God: God’s spirit being promised to the long-awaited Messiah, and also, God’s spirit reaching to foreign nations and distant lands, to the gôyîm, the non-Jews, people like many of us. How will we know? What will be the evidence of God’s spirit at work? What will be the outward sign, the fruit of God’s spirit among us? Justice. Justice to the nations. These opening words of Isaiah, God’s prophet, about the forthcoming Messiah, and then, later,when Jesus, the Messiah, begins his ministry, his opening words are about justice.[ii]