Epiphany 2A, 2011
Matthew 3:13-17 1/9/2011
Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.’ Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’
The first Sunday after Epiphany in the Christian calendar celebrates Jesus’ baptism. We’re moving pretty quickly through Jesus’ life, aren’t we? He was born two weeks ago; last Sunday the Wise Men came to visit; suddenly, he’s full grown and ready to begin his ministry. One reason for this time warp is the silence of the gospels about Jesus’ infancy and adolescence, except for Luke’s story about him getting lost during the family trip to Jerusalem at Passover. There are several false gospels that try to fill in those gaps about the young Jesus – they were rejected by church leaders because in those stories Jesus does things like maim or kill neighborhood kids who make fun of him, or shape pets out of the river clay and bring them to life, because no one else will play with him. I have some of those, if you’d like to read them.
No, we jump to the baptism because what’s important about Jesus is his ministry, including his death and resurrection. And right here, even before his ministry begins, Jesus shows us, at his baptism, everything he is going to tell us and show us for the rest of his life.
John has been calling Jews to turn their lives around because of the coming of the Messiah, who will bring the Kingdom of God. John appropriates the Jewish ritual of baptism, which had been used by non-Jews in their conversion to Judaism. Water was poured over the converts, symbolizing the washing away of their old life and their birth – as we are born out of the water of our mothers’ wombs – into a new life. Water must have been poured, because the Jordan River at the site associated with John’s ministry isn’t deep enough for immersion, despite what our Baptist brothers and sisters say. It’s not the amount of water – it’s the presence of the Holy Spirit which gives baptism it’s holy power. What is so radical and so offensive about John’s baptism is that he is insisting that Jews – children of Abraham and the covenant – should renounce their old lives as thoroughly as would Gentile converts.
Jesus comes to the river, and asks to be baptized. Recognizing him as the Messiah, John demurs. “You should be baptizing me, not the other way around,” says John. But Jesus insists: “It is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” What is Jesus talking about, and why does Jesus insist on being baptized?
The common misconception across the centuries is that baptism somehow removes sin. There was a period in the early church when some people thought you should not be baptized until just before you died, so you wouldn’t sin again before dying. Rich people hired clergy to follow them around to baptize them in case they got hit by a chariot. When St. Augustine was a young boy, he grew deathly ill, and his parents agonized about whether to have him baptized, lest he recover and have to go through life perfect ever after. That’s not what baptism is about: I have baptized many, many people of all ages, and I can tell you with absolute certainty that they were no less sinful after their baptisms than they were before. “You will never be anything but a sinner,” Martin Luther said, “so be honest about it. But believe and rejoice in Christ more boldly still.”
So, what does baptism do? First, it is not our gift to God. It is not a work that you and I do to show God how much we love God. It is God’s gift to us, showing us how much God loves us. In baptism, we are incorporated into the Body of Christ. Incorporated -- the word literally means to become part of a body. Now, how does this happen? It’s a mystery, but it happens because God says so. It happens because the Holy Spirit flows in, with, under, around, and through the prayers and the words and the water. You can describe a mystery, like love, but you can’t explain it. Jesus was baptized, and told us to be baptized, and that’s the mystery.
But there’s something else going on here, that represents everything Jesus ever said and did. Jesus submits himself to be baptized by John. He needs the grace of God just as much as anybody else does. He’s not an exception in any way from your life and from mine – he’s born in blood and water, he eats and drinks and sleeps and gets tired and needs a bath and laughs and cries and gets frustrated, and he’s going to suffer and die like you and me, too. At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus shows us what it means to be a child of God – it means surrender. It means throwing away any claim of status or special privilege. Jesus is a real human being throwing himself on the mercy of God, needing to start over again every day just like you and I need to start over every day by the power of God’s love. Jesus surrenders himself to baptism because he has to surrender himself to God just as much as you and I do.
And, because baptism, like faith, is a gift God gives us and not a gift we give God, in baptism we are laid before God’s throne, helpless, giving ourselves to the mystery. That’s why we baptize babies. If we have to understand what’s happening before we’re baptized, or before we receive communion, guess what?
Except that there is a deeper understanding of the mysteries – of life, and love, and family, and grace – that comes not from the head but the heart. A baby knows what it’s like to be held lovingly. A baby knows when her parents surrender her to someone else, to hold, to wash, to be spoken to with word of grace. People used to think babies weren’t aware and learning – now we know they are aware and learning even before they’re born. I know that babies know something is happening in baptism, and that it makes a difference.
Let me close with two stories about baptism. The first is about Martin Luther, the 16th Century monk turned reformer. When Luther was excommunicated by Pope Leo X and his life was in danger, his friends kidnapped him and hid him in a castle called the Wartburg. Luther stayed there for 11 months, translating the New Testament into German and writing. But during his exile he felt assaulted regularly by Satan, who tormented him with doubts about the stand he had taken against the church. He was not a Christian – he was Satan’s instrument. At the depths of his despair, wondering whether he belonged to God ot to the devil, Luther came to a great realization: I am baptized! he cried in triumph. This was an objective thing that had happened. There was no doubt about it. And, in baptism, God had claimed him, forever. And remembering his baptism enabled Luther to follow God’s call and stand against Rome and all its allies.
The second is about my baptism. We don’t baptize people any more they way I was baptized – now we baptize in the midst of a congregation, which assumes responsibility for the child and welcomes him to the family of faith. We don’t do private baptisms, except in emergencies. But I was baptized in the little Methodist church in Delaware where my parents had been married, because it was such a pretty little church. And the celebrant wasn’t my parents’ pastor, or even the pastor of that church – he was a childhood friend of my mother’s, who had become a Methodist minister. So, years later, after I had had a conversion experience my senior year in high school, and was struggling with whether I should be re-baptized, as all my well-intentioned evangelical college friends suggested, I did some reading about the church where I was baptized. It’s called Barratt’s Chapel. It’s an Historic Shrine of Methodism, built in 1780 – the oldest surviving Methodist church building in America. When John Wesley sent Thomas Coke in 1784 to America to call together all the Methodist lay preachers, ordain them, and set aside Francis Asbury and himself to be the first Methodist bishops, he met Asbury for the first time at Barratt’s Chapel. And in the floor of the chancel, directly under the spot where I was baptized, is a brass plaque that commemorates their meeting. Now, I’ve never thought that meant I was going to be a bishop. But after I heard God’s call to be a United Methodist minister, I realized that something much bigger was going on at my baptism than anybody there understood.
That’s the mystery. And on the first day of Jesus’ ministry, he shows us everything it means to love God. Jesus surrenders any claim of status and privilege, and gives himself completely to God and to God’s family. Then, when he has surrendered himself completely to God, the heavens open, the Holy Spirit descends, and God claims Jesus as his beloved child, with whom God is delighted.
Brothers and sisters, when we give up all our privilege and surrender ourselves to God, the same thing happens to us: the heavens open, the Spirit descends, and God tells us he is absolutely crazy in love with us.
Remember your baptism. It’s God’s free gift to you.