The River Jordan & Easter Day

“We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” (Romans 6:4).

More than a decade ago our family had a discussion about Baptism on Easter Day. We had sung the hymn ‘Guide me, O my great Redeemer’ (‘Jehovah’). It led to me posting this on our old family blog:

A big discussion about the sacraments over a family luncheon today…what is the place of baptism in our Christian walk. So with that and the crossing of the river Jordan…let’s throw in a bit of theology into the blog on this Easter day…with thanks to some excerpts from a sermon about the River Jordan preached on 4th October 2009 by the Reverend Canon Dr David Kennedy at Durham Cathedral:

The River Jordan stands as a boundary, a marker, a separation. It divides off the people of God, called to live as a holy nation, from the surrounding nations, who do not know God. So the symbol of passing through water, at the Red Sea and at the Jordan, became embodied in Israel’s consciousness; no more is this better expressed than in Psalm 114.

And so we should not be surprised, that in the New Testament, Jordan appears again, as the scene of the ministry of the Baptist, where John’s baptism was also a boundary, a marker, a separation, not this time dividing Israel from the nations, but making a separation within Israel itself, between those who wished to be washed in readiness for the coming of Messiah and those who thought they were clean. And of course, John’s baptism is the place of a new theophany, the revealing of the Son of God, the new Joshua or Jesus, the name is the same, meaning God is salvation; the one greater than Moses, who accomplishes a better salvation.

Last week, on a visit to the National Gallery, I found myself standing before one of my favourite paintings, The Baptism of Christ by Piero della Francesca. Jesus stands, in focussed, prayerful, self-consecration as the Baptist pours water on his head and the Spirit as a dove hovers above him. But what interests me is the water. The water of the Jordan is depicted as being behind Jesus, possibly touching the back of the sole of his feet. But before him, the river bed is dry.  Jesus comes through the water and stands on dry ground.  So here is symbolised the greater fulfilment of the Exodus, the greater fulfilment of the Red Sea and the Jordan.  For as Jesus passes through on dry land, and in doing so is declared to be the Son of God, so Jesus’ baptism prefigures his Exodus, the cross and the resurrection, as he passes over from death to life.

And that is why the Jordan is such a powerful symbol for us.  For in our baptism we too pass through the waters. Jesus’ story becomes our story. In baptism we die with him, we are buried with him, we are raised to new life with him. We pass over, through water, from death to life, from slavery to freedom; we enter our inheritance, not in a physical land requiring the displacement of others, but into all the gifts and graces of life in Christ, the milk and honey of the new creation.

But as the Jordan for Israel stood as a boundary, a marker, a separation, dividing off the people of God, called to live as a holy nation, so our baptism is a sign of our call to walk in newness of life, to seek to live as the General thanksgiving says, in ‘holiness and righteousness all our days’.

And of course, as the Jordan was a prefigurment of Jesus’ crossing over from death to resurrection life, so the Jordan becomes a symbol of our crossing over from death to life eternal, a crossing over which is a reality now, but will also be wonderfully fulfilled when these bodies of flesh and blood are laid aside. And so, I return to that Easter hymn,

Make us more than conquerors through thy deathless love,

Bring us safe through Jordan, to our home above.

But it’s not the only one, and so I conclude with yet more familiar words, as on this Day of Resurrection we bring to God our praise and prayer:

When I tread the verge of Jordan

Bid my anxious fears subside;

Death of death, and hell’s destruction

Land me safe on Canaan’s side.

Songs of praise, songs of praises,

I will ever sing to thee;

I will ever sing to thee.

With thanks to Dr Kennedy for these thoughts. That was our theological reflection for Easter Day 2012.

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