Test The Baptism: The Gospel of the Drowning of Fear and Death

“For God has not given us a Spirit of fearful timidity, but of power, love and self-control.” (II Timothy 1: 7)

The Greek word, “Evangelion,” (Gospel—“Good News”) was used in the Greco-Roman world to announce the victory of a king or emperor. The Scripture for Sunday before Theophany (Mark 1: 1–8) begins with the statement “The Gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God…” (v. 1). This was quite an explosive phrase to Roman ears. “Christ,” like the word “Lord”, was a title that equated to “Emperor”. (Keep in mind that the Messiah waited for by the Jewish people was expected to destroy the occupying pagan forces and influence.) Jesus of Nazareth, crucified by the Romans, had now been raised as the Conqueror of death and was proclaimed as the Son of God and true Lord (and Emperor) of the world. This was a direct challenge to a political system that saw the Emperor (each declared as a god by every succeeding Caesar), and consequently the State, as divine and the true master of the world to whom all its subjects (required to offer incense and proclaim “Caesar is Lord!”) owed ultimate allegiance. At the same time, it was also seen as absurd because this King allowed Himself to be killed and that true divinity was in giving up power. If every true Roman “bought” that “Gospel”, it could mean the downfall of the Empire. No wonder Christianity was seen as such a threat as it grew in the Roman world.

As I write this, in the midst of celebrating the appearance of God fully joined to humanity in the Person of Jesus, beginning (for Orthodox Christians) with the Birth and culminating at His Baptism, we hear of deaths (including a priest friend of mine), suicides, serious illnesses, spousal and child abuse that continue. People find themselves without proper health care and even homes. Almost three hundred Palestinians have been killed by Israeli retaliatory bombings in the holy land. The Mumbai massacres and the “Wal-Mart stomping Spree” laced the holiday news. The economic gods of this world that were idolized and entrusted to give us life security (stocks, bonds, 401Ks, real estate, banks, etc.) are shown up for what they are — illusions motivated by fear and greed, causing many to be possessed by (the need for) possessions. For many this is “the end of life as we know it” — the death of our identity, our very selves. When controlled by fear and (through that) death, people react and do things out of “self preservation,” which is the opposite of love where, according to the Gospel, one loses one’s life in order to save it. Existence of the “self” we think we know, becomes paramount, suppressing real Life as revealed in Christ.

All of the above can breed fear and despair, even in many who claim to be Christian. Some store up food supplies, live isolated, and try to keep their loved ones isolated from “this world” and its dangers in almost extreme ways. But the Holy Spirit, by whom God created and sustains the cosmos, incarnated His Son in the womb of a Virgin, and rested upon Him at His baptism in the Jordan River, now shows that Reality to be forever welded to and immersed in our realities. Through Christ we are immersed in the life of God that brings us into participating in the overall act of the world’s redemption. Fear and death, which isolate us from each other and the Lord (remember, the early Christians assembled to worship at the risk of their own lives and those of their loved ones), as the life’s motivation are drowned. This does not mean we never have feelings of fear at times, but that they do not control what we do. Fears that control a person will then cause them, in the name of “protecting love” to try to control others (e.g. “what if there is a car accident, or a robbery” etc) keeping one from Church and ultimately drift away from the Lord. But the release from fear comes about by the Holy Spirit that allows us to take the risks of faith. Life then becomes about experiencing the empowering and healing grace of God even through the realities of this world that He has chosen to participate in through His Son.

St Matthew’s has had its share of fears trying to drown its existence. Now, as we move into our 41st year, it is not only that we try to “dive” more deeply into Christ, but more that the years have uncovered how much the Lord has immersed Himself into us, personally and as a Community. This awareness has begun to deepen our commitment (the median financial giving of our members is $1250 per steward, and increasing; parishioners have opted to not give each other gifts for Christmas but rather, with their extended family members who are not part of St Matthew’s, gave their gift money to the Church-“spiritual realities are always physically expressed”). Our ministries and outreach continue and even are expanding (our own Patrick Tutella has now been appointed by SCOBA to be Director for all Orthodox Prison Ministries in the United States) as we look to do College Ministry. New members include the children being born this past year and those we await in the coming year. I am thankful to the Lord Jesus that here, in and through this Eucharisitic Community, as well as all those who bear His Name have encouraged us through their prayers and loving support. The vision that Church is to be the embassy of the Kingdom “on earth as in heaven” is worked for and shared as a realistic goal. May the Baptism of the One who revealed Himself and enlightened the world to heal our humanity continue to wash the eyes of our hearts to see God’s presence and power released more deeply among us.