On 11th January 2015, the first Sunday of Epiphany, Helene Milena preached the following sermon in the Anglican Cathedral on Epiphany Island in Second Life. The readings were Psalm 29, Acts 19:1-7, and Mark 1:4-11.
The attack in Paris on the offices of the Charlie Hebdo magazine prompted many to identify with the victims by carrying posters declaring “Je suis Charlie”. It is likely that not all those doing so would write or draw similar items for publication. This was a case of identification, not approval necessarily. When Jesus was baptised, he did something similar – he identified with our sinful state though he, as God, could not approve of sin and he was not himself guilty of any sin.
In July of last year, IS militants took over the city of Mosul in Iraq, home of tens of thousands of Christians, a Christian community which began in the earliest days of the faith. Christians were given the choice of converting to Islam, living under the rule of ISIS and paying a religious levy, or death. Many chose to leave, often being robbed on their way to lives as refugees or internally displaced persons.
Frustrated at the lack of action to support these thousands of persecuted Christians, an online campaign of support was started in social media. The militants spray painted Christian property in Mosul with ن (the Arabic letter for “N”) to show what was to be seized. This is the first letter in Arabic of ‘Nasrani’, the word for Christian. People on Twitter and Facebook took this letter and used it as their profile picture. There were hashtags on Twitter such as #WeAreN and #IamNasrani as prayers were posted and gatherings were planned. All this was mostly done by Christians. However, during the first use of the letter at a church service in Baghdad, 200 Muslims joined the gathering. Some carried signs saying “I am Iraqi, I am Christian.”
It’s obvious that, although those Muslims were Iraqi, they were not Christian. They do not believe the same things or pray the same way as Christians. However, their wish to support and identify with their Christian neighbours was such that they were prepared to carry those signs.
This week we have watched with sadness the events in France in which 17 innocent people and three gunmen have lost their lives. Since Wednesday there have been gatherings of solidarity with the French magazine Charlie Hebdo in many parts of the world. It seems that divisions between people have been forgotten in the wish to show support for those under attack. There is a recognition that this attack undermines fundamental freedoms that many of us take for granted. Today, about 40 world leaders including British Prime Minister David Cameron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas linked arms at the front of the march in Paris which included tens of thousands of people walking from the Place de la Republique to the Place de la Nation.
From the beginning, people have done something similar to the action in Baghdad in July. They have carried posters stating “Je suis Charlie” = I am Charlie. In places the poster has been translated into another language or slightly altered. I saw one in German which said: “Wir sind alle Charlie” = We are all Charlie. The French flag and the blue, white and red colours are showing up in many places, including on Tower Bridge and in Trafalgar Square in London.
Those holding those placards are not all cartoonists. Many of them would not choose to express their freedom of speech by ridiculing another person’s religion. They might be quite shocked by what the Charlie Hebdo people chose to draw. However, this is a way of saying that they support the people who suffered. They did not deserve to die. It’s a way of identifying with those who were killed or who have lost loved ones. Perhaps one of the best comments on this is from Hassen Chalghoumi, an imam in Paris: “I feel an immense sadness but above all anger. We can argue over liberty, but when we’re in disagreement we respond to art with art, to wit with wit. We never respond to a drawing with blood. No! Never. These victims are martyrs, and I shall pray for them with all my heart.”
Today we recall the baptism of Christ. There are endless theories on why Jesus was baptised. I won’t exhaust you by listing them all! There are different details given in the gospels. The reading from Mark gives us the least detail of all. Jesus came and was baptised. No discussion with John, no answer by Jesus. It just happened.
One theory that is regularly suggested is that Jesus was baptised in order to identify with us. The people going to John were confessing their sins and being baptised. The baptism was one of repentance, a turning around of life. Jesus hardly needed to confess sin as we know he was sinless: though “tempted in all things as we are, [is] yet without sin” (Hebrews. 4:15). But in order to fully identify with us, Jesus had to identify with our sinful nature. Isaiah anticipated this when he said the Messiah “was numbered with the transgressors; yet He Himself bore the sin of many, and interceded for the transgressors” (Isaiah. 53:12). St Paul, looking back, recognised the same identification: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us” (2 Corinthians 5:21).
Like the Muslims in Baghdad who stated: “I am Iraqi, I am Christian”, like the many in Paris and around the world who have been declaring: “Je suis Charlie” Jesus went into the waters of baptism effectively saying: “I am a sinner”. This was Jesus marching in solidarity with every human being, recognising that we are not able to be righteous.
Standing together with those who suffer or who are persecuted is a great action by people. It tells victims that they are not alone or forgotten. It will not necessarily do anything to change the situation, though we all hope that it will. Jesus’ action, however, was the first part of a plan to make lasting change for all of us who choose to benefit. The second half of that verse from 2 Corinthians says: “so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” We, by Christ’s identification with us in his baptism, exchange our sinful nature for his righteous one.
This is a result of God coming as a human being, and is reflected in the prayer said in some churches, mainly Roman Catholic ones, when water is added to the wine for communion: ‘By the mystery of this water and wine may we come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.’
Perhaps we forget too easily that we are children of God, just as Jesus was identified as the beloved Son of God at his baptism. We bear the family likeness, however slightly at the moment, and are being transformed by the Holy Spirit which John the Baptiser promised would be given us by the Son of God.