Today, as Jesus queues up with the sinners and descends into the waters He has made, He shows us who our God is and what our religion is meant to be.
This week, Islamists murdered several journalists in Paris this week for “insulting their religion.” The BBC, whose subtlety in religious affairs makes the Guardian look like the Dalai Lama, pulled their correspondent Caroline Wyatt out of storage to give this staple response: "In rational, post-Enlightenment Europe, religion has long since been relegated to a safe space ... Not so Islam." Salman Rushdie has given us his two penn'orth, as well, calling religion “a mediaeval form of unreason.” So, you and I are part of the same problem as the murderers.
These are kneejerk reactions, but they represent a pretty popular view of what religion is, and what we are like: people who need to be contained, nice and ‘safe,’ out of the way, in case we decide God wants us to go out and shoot people. Idiots who leave our brains outside the church door.
In this view, before the Enlightenment sprang up from nowhere in the seventeenth century (obviously with no influence at all from Christianity), we lived under a tyrannical theocracy where free-thinking and sense of humour were punished at the stake. In this fictional version of the Middle Ages, there was no satire, no Canterbury Tales or Piers Plowman, no Thomas More or Erasmus, because back in those days, everybody believed exactly the same thing without argument, or if you didn't, you were killed by the evil agents of Religion. People like those thickos whose religion, their 'mediaeval form of unreason,' inspired them to build universities, schools and hospitals: irrationalists like the Christian Thomas Aquinas, the Muslim Avicenna, or the Jewish Maimonides. Of course, in the real world, these remain three of the greatest philosophers ever to have lived: but in the likes of Salman Rushdie’s fantasy world, civilisation started three-hundred years ago, and anything earlier is just mindless barbarism.
Personally, I'm not so convinced by the joys of Enlightenment rationality. We used to hold, for example, the irrational notion that all people are made in the Image of God, that He came among us in the flesh, that He adopted us into one great brotherhood of humankind. Stripped of these delusions, we have benefited from such rationalised systems as racialism and eugenics, Fascism, Communism, Utilitarianism, Nihilism, even Sadism - all direct products of the Englightenment relativisation of human life. It's unthinkable to Christian theology, but perfectly rational to those who follow the scientific whim of the age. But the BBC Religious Affairs Correspondents and Salman Rushdies of this world are content to blinker themselves to the human cost of the dark side of their ideology, so convinced are they that the source of our problems is Religion.
Not 'a' religion, note - they cannot possibly allow that any one religion might be any better than other. So, it is Religion itself that is to blame, Religion as a concept, all Religion. But actually, there is no such thing as Religion: there are only religions. The gunmen are not followers of 'Religion,' but of a religion, and a particular take on that religion. Liberals would never tar all Muslims with the same brush as the gunmen; but they will quite happily tar all ‘religion’ with the same brush as fundamentalism.
This demonisation of religion and all the arguments behind it are based on bad history, bad ideology and bad reasoning. But the God who came to stand in the grey ranks of sinners on the banks of the Jordan to be baptised is nothing like the bogeyman God of secularist fantasies.
First, as Jesus is baptised, the Father's voice proclaims Him Son and sends the Holy Spirit upon Him. God is revealed as Trinity, the God of love who draws us by his threeness into His unity, making us His adopted children by sending Christ as our brother. He has entered our universe even as deeply as our gene pool. So He calls us to see Himself in all His creation, and especially in our fellow human creatures. God is not an irrational tyrant who stands aloof issuing murderous edicts. He is the God who was born among us and calls us to live as one, not to exclude or harm or kill.
Second, as Jesus descends into the waters, He sanctifies the Creation He has made. The one who shared our humanity lets us share his divinity, symbolised in prayer by the mixing water with the wine at the Offertory, and by the dipping of the Paschal Candle into the font to bless it at every Easter Vigil. He is a God who has made creation fundamentally good, not evil, and continues His work of blessing it still.
Thirdly, Jesus is proclaimed the Lamb of God, the sacrificial Victim who gives all that He is for the sake of His creatures. He sees the heavens tear open, as the veil of the Temple will tear at His Crucifixion. Later, He will refer to His Crucifixion as 'Baptism,' and His disciples will not understand why. With hindsight, we do understand: it is by that Sacrifice that He will tear away the last barriers between creation and divinity. He calls us to take part in His self-sacrifice, offering our souls and bodies and receiving at the altar the fruits of His divinity.
This is the God we worship, this is the religion into which we are baptised: not a God who calls us to kill those who mock us, but who dies for their sake as well as ours; not a religion that allows us to fall into hatred and demand hasty repercussions against those who attack us, but that calls us to pray for them and strive to forgive them. This is not a safe calling, but it one that we must not wrap up or hide: it is a calling of which we must remind ourselves often, and we can do so by blessing ourselves with Holy Water and by continuing to be aware of our sins, to confess them, and so live cleansed and ready always to live in God’s light.
Be aware that hatred of Muslims is exactly what the perpetrators of last week's killing want to provoke. Islamic fundamentalists want to provoke Westerners into repressing Muslims so that Muslims will join the jihad. While the political Right issues a call for arms against Muslims and the Left against religion as a whole, we must resist those calls, because quite simply they are not of God. But this is not a time for Christians to retreat from the public square. It is a time for us to proclaim from the rooftops the beauty of a God who loves all he has made, who has stooped to bless and gather all people, and to pray for those who mean us violence, that the light of his love may shine in their hearts. That is the strength and the truth of our religion.