Sunday, January 12, 2020
First Congregational Church of Cheshire
© the Rev. Dr. James Campbell
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.”
It was 1968. I wore a pair of gold trousers, a white turtleneck, and some matching gold socks. Very sharp. I stood in the wings watching my father wade into a deep pool of water. I don’t know what he said to the congregation, but I do remember that he turned to me and invited me to join him in the warm pool. I swallowed hard and began to move toward him. Even though I walked on my tiptoes, the water came right up to the bottom of my nose. My dad reached out his hand and drew me close, pulling me through the water. Then he said some words about baptism and how I had decided (at the ripe old age of seven) to follow Jesus for myself. My dad instructed me to cover my mouth and plug my nose with one hand, and then to grab my wrist with the other (like this). With one of his hands, he covered mine. And with the other, he supported the back of my head. Then he said something very much like this: “Upon your profession of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, and in obedience to his divine command, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
The next thing I knew, I was literally plunged under the warm water. My feet went out from under me as I lost all sense of control. But I wasn’t afraid because my dad was literally holding me. And when he lifted me back up out of the water, the congregation rejoiced that I had made my own profession of faith.
Mine was a baptism based on a personal decision. And it was baptism by full immersion in water. It’s called Believers Baptism, a reference to the fact that you need to be able to believe first before you’re baptized. There is a whole theology around why this is the “right” kind of baptism. Like all theology, it grows out of a particular reading of the Bible, mixed in with lots of history and tradition and firm opinions.
That’s very different from the kind of baptism we see around here. More often than not, we are baptizing babies and children. We place a small amount of water on their foreheads. No immersion here. And this too is based on a particular reading of the Bible, mixed in with lots of history and tradition and firm opinions.
So who’s right? That’s a question with a very long history. That’s a question over which blood has been spilled and people excommunicated.
After I was ordained, I remember a conversation with my dad in which he was trying to understand how someone raised with Believer’s Baptism, someone who had experienced it personally, could possibly be baptizing babies. And so we talked about the Bible and tradition. We talked about what baptism means. We talked about what we think happens to a person in baptism. We talked and talked and talked. And at the end of all of that talking… we agreed to disagree.
So, what do you think? What does baptism mean? What happens to the person being baptized? I know folks who love to debate questions like that. I used to be one of them, right in the thick of those debates. But I tired of such conversations a long time ago because I understood what those arguments were really about. Most arguments about theology, it seems to me, are attempts to make divine things fit into our already conceived worldview. Theological arguments are about defending your own tradition or your history or your preferences. They are about protecting the status quo.
Now, please don’t misunderstand what I’m trying to say. I’m not saying that good theology is not important. It’s just that theological discussions so rarely happen with open hearts and minds. And while many claim to have the Bible as their source, many also do all kinds of intellectual acrobatics in order to make the Bible say what they want it to say, instead of letting the words of Scripture challenge and mold us.
Today’s reading from the book of Matthew does challenges some sincerely held beliefs about baptism and about who Jesus was and about what it is he came to do.
Matthew writes: “Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him.” What a seemingly innocuous statement. Except that it’s anything but innocuous. You see, in the Judaism practiced in ancient Palestine, to be baptized by someone meant that you were submitting to his authority; that you were literally becoming her disciple. So, what on earth was Jesus, who is Lord of all, doing submitting to anyone’s authority or becoming anyone’s disciple?
In addition, John was preaching about baptism as a sign of repentance of sins. And yet the book of Hebrews declares that Jesus was “one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.” (Hebrews 4:15) So what on earth was Jesus doing participating in a ritual of repentance? Didn’t that send the wrong message about the Sinless One?
Hi cousin John very clearly understands the problematic nature of Jesus’s request and protests: “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” John gets the dissonance. John understands how this challenges the dominant theology of the day. But Jesus replies: “Let it be so now, for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”
This shocking story does not fit easily into anyone’s theology of baptism. And it certainly messes with our Christology – our beliefs about Christ. In fact, the early church found this story to be a huge embarrassment and mostly ignored it. We no longer ignore it, but we do all sorts of theological acrobatics in order to make this story fit into our beloved systems. We say things like “Well, Jesus was just going through the motions, but he didn’t really need to repent.” Or we say, “Jesus might have been baptized by his cousin, but he certainly did notsubmit to his authority.” These are arguments from silence – a particularly weak way to make one’s point.
But theology is not arithmetic. When talking about the Divine, one plus one rarely equals two. Our problem is that we have superimposed our Western assumptions about the nature of truth onto what is actually a living, breathing, dynamic relationship called faith. And when we do that, we often miss the transformative truth of who Jesus was and how he came to remake this world.
Did Jesus need to repent? Did he submit to his cousin’s authority? To get lost debating those questions misses the more important point all together.
The River Jordan, where Jesus was baptized, empties into the Dead Sea. And the surface of the Dead Sea is the lowest place on the surface of planet Earth. And that details sets the stage for introducing the main point about the Baptism of Jesus.
You see, this is not so much a story about what happened in the water that day as it is about shared human experience. This is a tale of flesh and blood, tears and pain, laughter and hope. This is a story about the Incarnation. This is another scandalous tale about how far down God would come to meet us where we are; to identify with us fully in our messy, complicated, sinful human condition. This story dares us to ask: did Jesus only pretend to be one of us or did he come all the way down, into the mud and silt of this beautiful but broken world.
The blessed waters of baptism are many things to many people. Folks may argue about those meanings if they wish. But I am satisfied with this meaning alone: these waters are physical reminders of the fathomless love of God.
In a few moments you will be invited to come forward, if our wish, to receive some water on your head and to hear these words: “Remember your baptism and be thankful.” Some of us can actually remember it. Many others cannot. You’re not really coming to remember an event. You’re coming to remember a love that would go to any length, descend to any depth, take on any ugliness… in order to raise us up.