January 9, 2011

I need to be baptized by you

It had to be disconcerting, to say the least, for John the Baptist—standing in the Jordan River that day baptizing those who had heeded his call to repent—to see his cousin Jesus in the line of people approaching him seeking baptism. Someone once said: “if you make people think they are thinking they will love you; if you actually make people think they will hate you.”  John was in the habit of making people think.

John’s one-and-only sermon he kept in his head and his heart. It was a simple sermon. The judgement of God is so close at hand that even now you can feel God’s fiery breath scorching you and withering everything about you that can’t stand the heat. When John preached many people scoffed.  The name John means “gift of God”; “baptizer” was the everyday Greek verb meaning to dip or to dunk, as in "dip your paintbrush" or "dunk your doughnut."  The baptizer, the dipper, the dunker" was the term hung on him by those who thought that John was the most ridiculous spectacle they had ever seen.

John had thundered repeatedly in his message: “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”  And now this one whose sandals he was not worthy to carry was approaching him to be baptized like all the others who were coming to repent.  To be baptized in the Jordan by John meant that John's convictions were your convictions. You were stating publicly that you and John were of one mind about the kingdom of God and the urgency of entering it and serving it.

Had these cousins—John and Jesus—met previous to this day?  Perhaps; we can imagine the possibility at a family gathering.  At the very least they knew about each other; their mothers Mary and Elizabeth had spent some weeks together while pregnant.  I think we can be certain that both mothers shared the unusual aspects of their child’s birth and that of their cousin with their sons.  So when John sees Jesus coming to him to be baptized we can understand his bewilderment; “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”

In the baptism narratives of the gospels only Matthew gives us this detail of John’s hesitation to baptize Jesus and Jesus’ convincing John they should go ahead.  Matthew knows what this looks like—Jesus’ tacit admission of a need for repentance—and he wants his hearers to know otherwise.

1. In being baptized by John Jesus identifies himself with John’s message and mission.  Indeed the gospel writers agree that the essence of their message was identical; “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”  To be sure their styles were different but they were equally mocked for what they preached.

One day Jesus said to the crowds: “John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, “He has a demon” (he’s a fringe kook); the Son of Man (meaning himself) came eating and drinking, and they say, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners!”

John relentlessly exposed the false security of those who were counting on their parentage
"We don't need to repent. We have Abraham as our father", they threw back in John's face. "Why talk about Abraham's blood-line?", John replied, "What alone counts is Abraham's faith."  Jesus took up this same theme answering those who trusted in parentage: “If you were Abraham’s children you would be doing what Abraham did”. (John 8:39)

Some were trusting in their piety: "We are extra-careful about religious observances". (This is piety talking.) “But what is the virtue in outward conformity to a pious code”, questioned John, “if inwardly there is lacking that single-minded self-abandonment to the living God?”  To the rich young ruler with scrupulous piety Jesus said that he still lacked something vital; the young man couldn’t see that his wealth was his god.

Others sought refuge in privilege: "We belong to Israel. We don't belong to the pagan nations who wouldn't know God from a gopher. We belong to a religious tradition over a thousand years old. And not only is our tradition old, it embodies the truth of God". "Substituting a tradition for intimate acquaintance with God himself", countered John, "is like reading a handbook on lovemaking and assuming you are therefore married."  Jesus was making the same point to Nicodemus when he told Nicodemus that his privileged position as a teacher in Israel was not enough; you must be born again.

2. John summarized it profoundly—accurately, succinctly—when he said to Jesus “I need to be baptized by you”.  John recognizes his own need of Jesus; he knows their roles should be reversed—Jesus should be the baptizer and John the baptized.  John surely is not counting on the things he has exposed as false security: parentage, piety, and privilege.  It would also not be lost on John that it was the false security of piety to believe that his preaching ministry entitled him to salvation.  John knows better; he knows he needs Jesus.  John is set on fire by his relationship with God.

Some have correctly noted that while we have biblical record of Jesus’ disciples baptizing people we have no record that Jesus himself baptized any.  It would be more accurate to say that all whom Jesus’ disciples baptize Jesus himself baptizes with the Holy Spirit and fire; that is we are indwelt by God’s Spirit and the bonds of sin’s penalty and power are burned by his cleansing fire.

We all need to come to this place standing with John looking in Jesus eyes confessing, “I need to be baptized by you.”  It is the same as saying to Jesus, “I need your salvation.” The sacrament of baptism is the sacrament of initiation into faith; it is to publically identify ourselves with him and to claim his message about our lives as our own.  We post-modern Christians, strongly influenced by the dualism of the Enlightenment, have often made a sharp distinction between the sign and the reality that is signified.  Baptism gets reduced to merely symbol; we are so paranoid of the slightest hint that the act of baptism triggers God to do something.

The Bible rejects all such dualism; John is standing in the water of the Jordan River when he says to Jesus, “I need to be baptized”.  On the one hand we must be careful not to give the impression that religious observance saves us; this is trust in our acts of piety that John rejected as false security.  On the other hand we must be careful to hold, with Jesus, that religious observance of sacrament has an important role to play and should never be reduced to mere symbolism.  Jesus himself insisted that he be baptized to, as he said, “fulfil all righteousness.”

I was intrigued by the conclusions drawn from a study published in the December (2010) issue of the American Sociological Review: “Church, not faith, leads to satisfied life.”  Two studies exploring the link between religiosity and happiness found that religion’s “secret ingredient” that makes people happier was friendships built in religious congregations. Sociology professor Lim wrote: “the evidence substantiates that it is not really going to church and listening to sermons or praying that makes people happier, but making church-based friends and building intimate social networks there.”

While a key feature of the gospel is its “one-another-ness” the gospel can never be reduced to a single feature.  The mistake of this research is to suggest that you can reduce or isolate friendships from the environment that produces them; that church friendships are somehow independent of acts of worship through which they are formed.  It is the akin to saying that it isn’t sitting down to dinner with family or saying grace or talking of the day’s events that promotes health but the right balance of vegetables in the meal.  Certain things belong together—the hands that prepared the food, the employment that made possible the food and home that is the setting for the meal, and God who enlivens food to nourish our bodies—that is the environment for vegetables to have their benefit.

Jesus saying, “let no one separate what God has joined together” is not limited to the institution of marriage.  The United Church doctrinal statement defines baptism as “the sacrament by which are signified and sealed our union to Christ.” Sign and sealing—what we do and what God does—belong together.

With Jesus example before us I encourage you to be baptized.  Perhaps you were baptized as an infant and for some reason never went through confirmation; you have now come to this place in your life believing in Christ.  The church has a wonderful liturgy for affirming your faith, coming to the baptism font inviting you to remember your baptism with joy—(I would invite any who wish to affirm their faith in this way to speak with me.)

3. In being baptized Jesus initiates his ministry.  When you read a sentence like this one—“then Jesus came from Galilee to John”—we treat it as a sort of filler phrase to indicate the beginning of a story.  I wonder what it was like for Jesus to decide to go the Jordon.  We know very little of Jesus’ life prior to this; the last word we had was Jesus at 12 years of age coming to Jerusalem with his parents for Passover.  There is no mention of Joseph after that point; we conclude that Joseph has died and that Jesus is running the carpentry business on behalf of the family.  This is a decision of no small import for him to take this turn in his life.

Baptism/confirmation is the beginning for our ministry too.  It is to decide to live life following him; a decision of significant import.  One of the struggles we have in a main-line protestant church is that baptism/confirmation is often treated as the end of the process.  Our two sacraments tell the faith story. We are baptized once because Jesus died once for all for sin.  We take communion throughout our lifetime as the sacrament of being sustained in our faith.

3.  Unlike the people who responded to John Jesus wasn't publicly declaring a change in life-style. He had no need to change anything.  He was inaugurating his ministry a ministry that entailed his complete identification with sinners.  By taking his place with sinners in this line of people in need of repentance coming to John, Jesus initiates an identification with us that will culminate on the cross crucified between two criminals—becoming sin for us.

To be sure different Christians have different ministries. Yet underlying the many differences there forever remains a commonality that we must own together. The commonality arises, of course, in that the ministry of every Christian is generated from the ministry of Jesus Christ.

On November 16 (2010) TV personality Bill Nye—popularly known as the “Science Guy”—was making a presentation at the University of Southern California.  He collapsed midsentence as he walked toward a podium; it turned out to be a minor health setback for Nye.  What is odd about the incident is the crowd’s reaction—more precisely its non-reaction.  Students in attendance, rather than getting up from their seats to come to Nye’s aid, instead pulled out their mobile devices to post information about Nye’s loss of consciousness.  It prompted this headline—“if the Science Guy passes out and nobody tweets it, did it happen?”

Jesus ministry to people was the opposite; it was to come to people at the moment of their need—not to merely observe their need and pass by on the other side.

The apostles know that our Lord has fused himself to all humankind in solidarity with us. One with us all, he lifts up before his Father every last sinning, suffering human being. The ministry of the Christian is intercession too. Which is to say, our ministry consists of fusing ourselves to those whose lives intersect ours, in order that they might know their sin can't deprive them of our compassion, know they are never alone, know their pain isn't unnoticed, know themselves cherished.

I am thinking of a man from our congregation afflicted with Alzheimer’s; he is confined by medication to a wheelchair.  When I go to visit him there is no two-way conversation; I sit, read a text of scripture, pray, but mostly just sit next to him.  The temptation is to hurry away because it feels like I am accomplishing nothing.  Yet because our Lord completely identifies with the suffering of humanity I know that God voluminous love for him is as great as his love for me or the next person I will visit with whom I can have a conversation; so I just sit for while.

A novelist Barbara Kingsolver wrote “The friend who holds your hand and says the wrong thing is made of dearer stuff than the one who stays away.”  Sometimes we are afraid of being with the sick or dying because we fear saying or doing the wrong thing.  I am not saying we are excused from learning what is appropriate; still it is the ministry that Jesus gives us all to go to them.

Baptism in the Jordan is a public declaration that we have been called into the service of our Lord whose intercession in behalf of all sufferers is relentless.

13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ 15But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness.’ Then he consented.