[Image by Daniel Nebreda
The account of Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptizer at the Jordan River is an essential aspect of the life of Jesus. It appears in all three of the synoptic Gospels and is indirectly referenced in John’s Gospel as well. Clearly, for the early Jesus movement which would produce the Gospels, this was a key event in understanding who Jesus was and what he was about.
Interestingly, there is no direct reference in the Gospels to Jesus having ever baptized anyone himself. He is seen sending out his disciples who will baptize others. But Jesus is not the one who baptizes in the Gospels, John is.
John’s symbolic act of baptism will strongly shape the early Jesus movement and in time it will come to be seen as one of two sacraments the later Christian tradition will be able to agree upon, eucharist being the other. Thus, it is important to try to get a clear picture of what is happening at the Jordan River with John and Jesus.
Baptism in the Gospels: Not About Original Sin
[Image: Michael Pacher, “The Devil presenting St Augustine (of Hippo) with the book of vices.” oil on wood (ca. 1435-1498)]
In all truthfulness, it has always been a problematic idea.
Bear in mind that Jesus and John are both Jews. Judaism has never understood its scriptures to refer to a doctrine of original sin. Neither Jesus nor John had ever heard this idea and would not have been inclined to believe it. That is not what they are doing at the Jordan River. But what they are doing is much, much more important.
Joining a Demanding Community
The first aspect of this story is recognizing that baptism is an initiatory rite. Jesus is becoming a part of John’s movement by this symbolic, public act. Like all such initiatory rites, it signals that Jesus has engaged John’s movement, found it to be compelling, and thus sought to publicly identify with it. Jesus is seeking to belong to John’s community and is making a public profession of that desire, just like we do today in our own sacrament of baptism. Becoming part of a faith community always requires public commitment.
It’s important to note that becoming a part of John’s community came with no small amount of expectations. In the verses which immediately precede today’s lesson in Luke, the crowds ask John how they should live now that they have been baptized. John is pretty clear: “Whoever has two shirts should share with someone who has none, whosever has food should do the same.” To the tax collectors he would respond, “Charge no more than the official rates.” And to the soldiers his response would be “No more shake downs. No more frame-ups, either. And be satisfied with your pay.”
In short, to be a member of John’s community meant becoming conscious of the suffering in the world around you and your own role in causing and responding to that suffering. Most importantly, it meant living in a way that ran counter to the values of an exploitative culture driven by power and greed.
Washing Off the Grime and the Shame
That leads to the second aspect of the story. This ritual act is loaded with subtext just below the surface. Bathing was a patently Greco-Roman practice. The Romans engaged it as both an aesthetic consideration, a means of hygiene, as well as a communal focus. Roman baths were places of socializing, places where business deals were cut, places of relaxation and recreation, places where sexual encounters occurred. Indeed, it is the point where the Romans install baths around the Temple Mount that tensions would rise within Judaism that would ultimately prompt a rebellion resulting in the Romans’ destruction of the Temple in 70 CE.
The location where these baptismal rites is occurring is also no accident. The Jordan River is highly symbolic as the site where the Hebrew people had entered into the Promised Land centuries before. To return to the Jordan and wash in its waters signaled a rededication to be the people of Israel under the kingship of YHWH, purified of the Greco-Roman culture of the Roman Empire. Washing in the Jordan allowed the humiliation and shame imposed by these invaders and exacerbated by Judean governmental and religious officials who collaborated with them to be washed from the bodies of the baptized along with the ordinary grime of daily life. It was a direct symbolic refutation of the culture and thus the authority of the empire and its collaborators.
This public refutation, however symbolic, was hardly subtle. It was directly aimed at the empire. And it had hardly escaped the attention of the Romans. The Gospels tell us that John the Baptizer will be beheaded for condemning Herod, the king of Judea and Roman puppet, for marrying his brother’s wife. But John had been on Rome’s radar for a long time prior to this because he was the leader of a sect seen as seditious. John’s movement, much like the later Jesus movement, implicitly drew the legitimacy of the Roman Empire and Herod’s vassal state into question. For both John and Jesus, there was only one king in Judea, and it was not Caesar. Thus, much like Jesus, John’s fate was a foregone conclusion long before it finally arrived.
Beloved Child of G-d
The third aspect of the story is perhaps the most crucial. Luke’s version of the baptism narrative gives us no detail of the event itself, cutting straight to the chase. As Jesus stands on the shores of the Jordan, water dripping from his hair and beard, a voice from heaven will say,
“You are my son, my beloved. With you I am well pleased.”
That recognition will prove momentous for Jesus. The synoptic Gospels all report that Jesus is so overwhelmed by this experience at the Jordan that he flees to the desert to be alone with this G-d who has proclaimed him as his beloved son. Jesus will spend the next 40 days figuring out who he is and what he is called to do. It is only then that he begins his public ministry.
It’s an interesting history. But what does that have to do with any of us?
A Baptismal Covenant That Is Countercultural
As Christians, we are
inheritors of this Gospel moment. Baptism
comes to us with all of its history and symbolic depth. For us, baptism is a
public commitment to a faith community. It signals to the world that we belong
to this particular way of following Jesus.
Like the baptism of Jesus into John’s sect of Judaism, our baptism calls us to embrace values that are deeply countercultural. The Gospel of Gordon Gecko proclaims that “Greed is good,” an understanding that sees other human beings as either a means or an obstacle to the amassing of material goods. Our baptismal covenant requires us to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself.”
The Gospel of the Culture Warrior warns us that those outside our tribe are enemies against whom violence can be committed with impunity. Our baptismal covenant requires us to “strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being.”
Jesus knew at the moment of his baptism that he would need his heavenly father to guide and strengthen him in his ministry that lay ahead. That awareness would propel him into the desert for prayer and reflection. Jesus knew he could not live into his calling without the ongoing presence of G-d.
Our baptismal covenant
evidences a similar recognition. We know that we cannot live into any of the
promises we make each time we celebrate a baptism without the divine presence
in our lives. To all the questions our covenant poses, we respond, “I will
with God’s help.” Both our openness to G_d’s guidance and our awareness of our
need for G-d’s energizing presence in our lives is evidenced in that humble response.
What Do We See in the Mirror?
But here’s the most important part of this story. After his baptism, Jesus becomes aware of G-d’s loving embrace of him as G-d’s child. We, too, are children of G-d and have been since the moment of our creation. We, too, are beloved by the G-d who created us, complete with all of our faults and failures. None of that is in doubt. The only question is how we ultimately come to believe it.
So try this. Tonight, when you go into your bathroom to wash your face before bed, look straight ahead into the mirror. What are you looking at? Nothing less that one of the infinite images of the very G-d who created you. Now ask yourself – do I believe I am a beloved child of G-d? And if not, why not? What must I let go of to let G-d love me?
Jesus calls his followers to love our neighbors as ourselves. That begins with loving ourselves, just as we are, warts and all, just as G-d loves us. And that’s a critical beginning point for living into all of the callings we have agreed to at our baptisms. Like Jesus, we are called to live in a way that runs in the face of many of the values of our own culture. Like Jesus, that calling is laden with no small amount of challenge if not danger. And like Jesus we will need G-d’s guidance, courage and strength to live into the promises we make.
So let us pray:
Father in heaven, who at the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan proclaimed him your beloved Son and anointed him with the Holy Spirit: Grant that all who are baptized into his Name may keep the covenant they have made, and boldly confess him as Lord and Savior; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.
Sermon offered Epiphany I, 2022 at St. Richard’s Episcopal Church, Winter Park, FL
Harry Scott Coverston
If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.
Those who believe religion and politics aren't connected don't understand either. – Mahatma Gandhi
For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? - Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures
Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. - Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom of the Jewish Sages (1993)
© Harry Coverston, 2022