This Sunday remembers the "baptism of Jesus", an auspicious moment in the Gospel where Jesus is in the midst of the people coming to John for baptism. At that moment of immersion and being raised back up, Jesus experiences the heavens above opening, the rumble of a Voice giving divine affirmation and the Spirit descending upon him.
Of course, on the latter count, the Spirit's descent is not necessarily that of a sweet, innocent dove. Mark's Gospel uses a very pointed verb when the narrative continues onwards, telling of how Jesus went out into the lonely places.
The Greek word is "ekballei", which is not just a nudge. Rather, the Spirit is said to "hurl" Jesus out there for his forty days and forty nights of wilderness testing. The euphoria turns to denial, the waters of Jordan turn into profuse sweat upon the brow. The abundant water of baptism is a distant memory as a drink of water becomes unthinkable yet desperately craved.
Within a few verses, Mark's gospel reveals the strange pathway that one must take to follow Jesus. Are we able to follow?
Growing up, I traveled with my father around the back roads, making our way to check on various places where we pastured cattle or had crops planted. Going down one dirt road after another, I remember being quite puzzled why one of these roads seemed to veer off in another direction, a strangely sharp turn around a bend. One day as we made our way down that particular road and neared the strange veering off along the road, I asked my father why the road was so oddly designed.
Father pointed out a bramble of trees and brush just beyond the bend. He told me that decades ago the road used to go straight ahead, leading to a homestead about a quarter mile over the horizon. When the land sold, the farm house and the road were abandoned. The road reverted back to weed trees and tall grass, and the county road crew just made due by reshaping the rest of the intersection as best they could. Unless you knew where to look, you’d think that there had never been a road there.
The British Baptist theologian Paul Fiddes tells the story of workers renovating an old residence. Working in the basement, they were quite puzzled by a pit they found downstairs. Was it the place where coal was stored up until needed for heating the family home? They had never quite seen one just like it. After some inquiries, they discovered that the house used to be a small Baptist chapel, which eventually sold the property to a developer decades ago. The chapel had been turned into a duplex, and the “coal pit” turned out to be the one-time congregation’s baptistery! (recounted by Fiddes in his Tracks and Traces volume of essays on Baptist identity).
These two stories remind us that times change. A house was built by an enterprising family in one generation and a couple of generations removed, the years of work creating a homestead out on the Kansas prairie became a curious footnote, nearly forgotten. What looked like a coal pit was really a sacred place, a “home” of sorts for the faithful, where they were to be brought into the fellowship of a congregation and more importantly, to follow Jesus obediently into the baptismal waters.
A congregation could build a chapel (in this sense of the word, a smaller church building), and years later the very focal point of a Baptist worshipping community (its baptistery) had been long disused, its original purpose forgotten as the congregation moved on to build bigger facilities elsewhere or the fellowship simply disbanded at some point in the past.
Today we encounter a road of sorts. The path to baptism and the way of discipleship intersect necessarily where we move from being an interested learner to the decision to follow Jesus as believers. Each Christian has to follow this pathway (though curiously the road may seem longer or shorter, steeper or smoother, depending on the faith journey made by an individual). Nonetheless, along that way, as a person moves toward baptism and the life of discipleship, the Church has the task of road upkeep. Without a community of believers encouraging and supporting newcomers to the faith, the pathways might be forgotten, leaving very little clue about how to find one’s way along the path of Christian discipleship.
There are many roads we traverse in life. Sometimes, the roads are straight and smooth. Other times, we find ourselves on the twists and turns of difficult terrain. Faith can be just like either type of road, veering off when we least expect or taking us down paths that we don’t know if we can quite make it all the way across. I give thanks constantly that when I’m out on such roads, I can see the well-worn footpaths of other saints (and even a few sinners) that have gone on ahead of me.
Together, we gather each week to worship and grow together in faith. When we are at our best in discipleship mode, we understand this gathering place as more than the sum of its utility bills and maintenance upkeep. It is a sacred homecoming where souls are tended and new life is nudged and ministry is fanned to flame. If your church feels more like a place barely holding on, it's time for a recalibration, lest the roadway path and the "chapel" start to lose their sense of why they exist in the first place.
Together, we aim to be the group of disciples who tell and live out this story called “gospel”, so that others may seek and find. Together, we search for the roads that lead us to our true home. Amen.