Thinking Anew – Caring for the stranger
Baptism for Jesus led to a divinely mandated pattern of service to those for whom life was difficult
Tomorrow’s liturgy takes us on from the Christmas story and the vulnerable child born in a stable into the adult world where Jesus of Nazareth begins the work that would change the world forever. The impact of his short life on human history and civilisation – his known adult ministry lasted about three years – is truly amazing.
It strengthens the belief that Jesus Christ was much more than just another, albeit exceptional, human being.
The gospel reading which describes the baptism of Jesus makes that point: “And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’”
This, however, was no secret mystical experience; it took place in a muddy river among ordinary people looking for answers: “As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah.”
Jesus identifies himself with the people’s hopes and needs and, according to St Luke, later explained his role quoting the prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because He has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim deliverance to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”
One of the temptations of the spiritual life is to treat Jesus as someone to be admired, worshipped even, but it does not end there.
Baptism for Jesus led to a divinely mandated pattern of service to those for whom life was difficult, and Christians are bound by their baptism to follow his example, but that is not easy.
The Rev Sally Smith, vicar of St Mark’s church, Stoke-on-Trent, England, tried to persuade her congregation (the baptised) to make that connection when she reached out to those who were in need in her community, including immigrants.
In what was once a traditional middle-class parish church she housed asylum seekers, fed them, clothed them, bought new shoes for their children and looked after their medical needs.
For her the church was there to serve the whole community and not the privileged few who attended on Sundays, but not everyone agreed.
She explained: “My biggest challenge has been the attitude of some of the people within the church. I have had a lot of opposition. Criticism, negative attitudes and trying to undermine the work that we are doing – that’s from the white British congregation. I have lost lots of congregation members because of what has happened at the church. They don’t want the hassle and they don’t want the church being messed up. They see the church as having a very definite role and opening the doors to refugees isn’t one of them.”
She added: “They expected a vicar’s role to be looking after the people inside the church and one of the insults often levelled at me is that I care more about the people outside the church than those inside.”
But Sally Smith maintains that caring for the stranger is part of what she is meant to be doing and that her former parishioners are supposed to be doing it with her.
Those who left that church made a choice, and while we might feel inclined to admire and even support that courageous and compassionate priest at a distance, the question arises as to how we would react if that were to happen in our local churches, hallowed as they often are by deep, personal memories and cherished friendships.
In The Go-Between God, Bishop John Taylor offers little comfort when it comes to Christian decision making: “The one thing he [Jesus] seems to have condemned utterly was evasion of choice . . . To choose is to commit yourself. To commit yourself is to run the risk of failure, the risk of sin, the risk of betrayal. Jesus can deal with all of these, for forgiveness is his métier. The only thing he can do nothing with is the refusal to be committed.”