Beauty and Baptism

IMG_3572The image presented here is of a painting by the internationally known artist Makoto Fujimura – it is entitled “Golden Sea.” (To the right is a poster version we have purchased, and which hangs in the church entranceway.) And for this sermon I would actually like to do something a little bit different. I’d like to explore the question of baptism partly by looking at this painting. And rather than beginning with my own reflections, we are going to begin by viewing a short, 6-minute documentary video. It’s a video that gives a little bit of a sense of who Makoto Fujimura is and of the meaning and significance of his work – specifically of this particular work. One important aspect of his identity that I would point out ahead of time is that Fujimura is a Christian – he came to faith as a young adult and today he is a member of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan.

Our New Testament reading for today is from a letter the Apostle Paul sent to Christians living in the city of Rome. In that letter the apostle offers a foundational statement about who we are – a foundational statement about the identity of those who belong to Christ. Now the truth is that Paul doesn’t spend a lot of time on the question of baptism in this letter – just a few short verses. Yet in his very short discussion of baptism, we discover that baptism captures almost every aspect of Christian faith and life. Here is one key statement that Paul offers on the subject: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death…”

There are three moments in baptism, if you will – three moments in our baptism. The first moment in baptism is a moment of dying. In a profound sense, of course, death is at the heart of the gospel narratives. Not death in a general sense – and not just anyone’s death – but the death of Jesus. His death is at the heart of the gospel narratives. And the astonishing message of the gospel narratives is that the new thing God is doing in the world involves or entails the death of Jesus. Somehow, the suffering and dying of Jesus is the way to God’s renewal of our world and lives. According to the earliest writings of the Christian community,

through his death Jesus takes upon himself human alienation,

through his death Jesus takes upon himself the human reality of exile,

through his death Jesus takes to himself our broken hearts and lives,

through his death Jesus bears in his own body the injustice and the brokenness of human community

It was, of course, no small thing for Jesus to approach the reality of his own suffering and death – the gospel writers make it clear that it was painful and difficult for him as he anticipated his death. But at the same time, as he approached that decisive moment, that difficult moment, Jesus went hoping and trusting that he would be vindicated – he went to the cross hoping and trusting that the heavenly Father to whom he prayed, and to whom he was so closely related, would not let his death be the final word. Yet suffering and death remained a part of his path in the world.

In the first moment of our baptism, we share in the death of Jesus – we share in that dark and painful moment when all seemed lost. In our baptism we share in the death of Jesus. We share in that moment when he bears human alienation and exile and brokenness and injustice. This first moment of baptism is a moment of deep mystery, a moment of real darkness, a moment in which there is a difficult, even if hopeful, waiting for vindication.

At the outset of this short video we have watched, we hear Kai Tatejima describing this painting – “Golden Sea”. And here is what he says: “It’s like the deep, deep sea – the quietness of the water when you go deeper and deeper into the sea.” Behind the shimmering gold leaf of this piece of art, and behind the lovely turquoise and blue of this piece of art, there is a great depth to this painting – there is a depth of mystery and of darkness – a depth of mystery and darkness that represents for us that first moment of baptism. That first moment in the water – a moment when death is real – where Jesus’ bearing of human pain is real.

One art critic who reviewed Fujimura’s exhibit of the same name (“Golden Sea”) had this to say: “The show revolves around its central subject, that of the awesome and awful power of water, [but does so] with a certain muted fury… It is an attempt to strike a balance between water’s cleansing and calming qualities and the horrible havoc it can wreak on a single psyche, a family, a city, or an entire civilization.” Water carries with it these dark possibilities – the sea carries within itself these dark possibilities, as we have seen so many times in past years and even weeks. In this piece of work, there is a darkness that lies below the surface. And in that darkness we perceive the first moment of baptism – that of Christ’s death, and of our sharing with him in his hopeful dying.

There is a second moment in our baptism. We read Paul’s words again: “Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead, so we too might walk in newness of life.” In a very similar vein, just a few verses later, the apostle adds: “So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”

The second moment in our baptism is a sharing in the resurrection life of Christ. Even as we share with him in his descent into the vulnerability and abandonment of death – so we are united with him in the moment of his vindication by the Father.

While the cross is at the heart of the gospel narratives, the gospels do not tell only the story of Jesus’ suffering and death – and there is something profoundly wrong with a spirituality that is preoccupied exclusively or even predominantly with the cross of Christ. The narrative of Jesus is a rich and beautiful life-giving narrative:

Jesus heals the sick and the dying.

He embraces tax collectors and prostitutes.

He affirms those who put their faith in him.

He speaks of forgiveness, and embodies it.

And so in his resurrection life there is a kind of promise:

a promise that his kingdom has been accomplished,

a promise that exile has come to an end,

a promise that forgiveness has been extended.

a promise that God’s final word to us is Yes and not No

We go back to the words of Kai Tatajima, whose voice introduced the film. Of this painting, “Golden Sea”, he says: “It is like the deep, deep sea – the quietness of the water when you go deeper and deeper in to the sea. There is the contrast between that and light, and our hope.”

If “Golden Sea”, with the depth and darkness of its background, gives expression to the destructive possibilities of water and of the sea, this piece also captures the light that dances on the surface of the water.

It captures the beauty of the water in its shimmering movement.

It captures the blues and greens that comes back to our eyes through the interplay of water and light.

There is the contrast between the depths and the darkness on the one hand, and the light – our hope – on the other hand. In our baptism we are united to the one who is life and light and hope and joy. Through baptism,

our being is defined by his being;

our lives are defined by his life;

our future is defined by his futurel;

our behaviour is defined by his behaviour.

His resurrection life becomes ours.

In his letter, the point that the Apostle Paul is making to the Christians of Rome is this – that once we belong to Christ, once we are drawn close to him through baptism, there is no looking back. We are with him, and he is with us. He is risen – we are risen.

Briefly and finally this morning, a third moment in our baptism. In a way this third and final moment cannot be separated out from the first moment or the second moment. This is the third moment: that Baptism gives us our vocation, our calling – and it is a calling to pursue the way of Christ in our daily lives, in our professional lives, in our relationships, in our private thoughts and decisions.

Living Faith, our Presbyterian statement of belief, puts it this way: “Baptism is also an act of discipleship that requires commitment and looks towards growth in Christ.”

If we look again at Makoto Fujimura, we remember the words of his teacher: “It was really when he became a Christian that the world of his paintings began to change and increase in depth and profoundness.” Our union with Christ through baptism carries us back to the world, to life, to work – with a difference. This difference may not always be on full display – we are not superhuman, we are not freed of every pain or struggle – but as we go back to the world, as we go back to life, as we go back to work, as we go back to friends and family, we do so united to the one who is love – and we go embodying his love, his way, his kingdom.

The words used by Fujimura’s former teacher to describe his work are beautiful words. And if those same words were true of our lives, then we would most certainly know that the Spirit had been at work in us. His teacher said this: “His work doesn’t have an intensity that loudly calls people’s attention but it has a beauty that resonates slowly and deeply.” This is the life to which we are invited through our baptism – this is the life that defines us through union with Christ: “a beautiful life that we pray will resonate slowly and deeply with others.”

In baptism we share in the death of Christ – we share in his bearing of everything broken and sinful in the human, and in us. In baptism we share also in his resurrection, and are defined by his hopeful new life. In baptism, finally, we receive a vocation – that in our words and our actions, that in our work and our relationships, we would be defined by the beauty of Jesus’ coming kingdom – a beauty that we pray and trust will resonate slowly and deeply with those around us.

Baptism is all about beauty.

Thanks be to God. Amen.


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