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Acts 10:34-43 & Matthew 3:13-17
I picture it as a typical day, maybe early in the morning, before the heat has set in and people are gathered at the river Jordan. Only they’re not there for any baptism. They are there to wash their clothes or their bodies, to gather water for the stove at home, to give the baby and the grandfather something to drink during the afternoon. Whatever we might say about baptism, and this baptism in particular, it takes place in the same fluidity that marks our everyday life. The waters that wash Jesus and pronounce him “Son of God” are the same waters that will wash the scab on a someone’s arm, and provide a cup of tea, and clean the amniotic fluid and blood off a newborn.
Baptism comes right in the middle of the everyday. This life-changing, transformative, epiphanous event is acknowledged with the same substance that constitutes 60% of our bodies and seventy percent of the earth already. Water in Genesis is both deliverance and destruction, in Exodus it becomes the very presence of God in the desert. Isaiah and Amos use water in their imagery of God’s justice, that it might “flow like a mighty stream,” and all of that Hebrew imagery greatly influences the writers of the Greek texts, this “new” testament in whose words we find the basis for one of our sacraments – it’s like transformation is all around us, celebrated in our scriptures, already in us – baptism is just the ritual where we point it out.
There’s not a lot of compelling evidence that baptism is a big deal in the time of Jesus, except amongst a sect of Judaism that lives out in the desert called the Essenes. It is this sect from which John the Baptist apparently comes to the river seeking to baptize people for the forgiveness of sins. These Essenes seemed to have abandoned Jerusalem, opposing the way that the temple was being run, and established a community at a place called Qumran. They had been around for hundreds of years before Jesus, but something about the reign of the Herods and the Roman authority seems to have pushed Essenic membership way up. They still lived in the desert, far away from the city, and they had a code, a set of disciplines by which they all lived. There was an oath to enter the group, a set of dietary and religious practices, and a dedication to communal living, with all possessions shared with one another…oh, and there was this entry ritual that involved immersion in water…maybe this sounds familiar?
But elsewhere in Judaism, the story of ritual immersion is complicated. The tvilah is the act of immersion in a small pool or bath of water, called a mikva. Immersion in water for ritual purification was traditionally used for restoration to a condition of “ritual purity” in very specific circumstances. Later in Jewish development, immersion is required for any converts to Judaism as part of their conversion, something that is true even today. Immersion in the mikvah represents a change in status in regards to purification, restoration, and qualification for full religious participation in the life of the community.
When John stands in the Jordan, however, it is not for conversion for anyone, nor is it for that specific ritual purity. It is for the forgiveness of sins. Repent, he always cries alongside the call to baptism. Repent, or turn around in Aramaic, like you had forgotten your wallet and returned to your house to get it – turn around and head back to where you came from, as if this baptism is restoring people to something of which they are already a part. Then Jesus shows up and John’s first response is, “What are you coming to me for? I need to be baptized by you.” Now, we can read this as a mark of the “sinlessness” in Jesus, John recognizing the Messiah early on and admitting to his own unworthiness, OR we can also see this as Jesus teaching a whole new framework of power and strength, one that he will model right here, in one of the first public appearances, where he takes a chance to puff himself up, to publicly claim this title and “lord” it over people, pardon the pun. Instead Jesus takes the road of humility and weakness, not asking us to do something that he is not willing to do.
And that brings up another point. Christianity holds baptism in high regard. It is recognized almost universally as a sacrament by the thousands of expressions of the Christian faith across the world. And yet, Jesus never asks any of his followers to be baptized, nor does he ever baptize single person in any of the gospels. Paul, however, and the accounts from Acts, are full of baptism stories, often multiple baptism stories for the same persons. Acts has Paul asking people – into what were you baptized? When they say, “the baptism of John,” he tells them to be baptized into Christ Jesus, as if baptism marks the acceptance of something, even the full arrival of something in us.
One of the earliest Christian documents, The Didache, or “the teaching,” has a whole section on baptism that dispels our idiosyncrasies about the ritual and the “proper” way to baptize, a debate that has probably created most of our denominations themselves. It says baptize in cool, running water…unless you don’t have that. Then use standing water…unless you don’t have that. It wanders through about every example of baptism we use, finally saying that the point is the transformation, not the details of the ritual. So, what does it mean to prioritize a baptism that Jesus never performed, that comes in a zillion different versions, and which clearly wasn’t a “one-time” event, not an act of membership as much as an acceptance of something coming to live in us?
For the disciples, our scriptures tell us, baptism meant a whole lot more than they could now vote at the annual meeting of the congregation. It would completely change their lives and, as we heard from the passage read this morning, would bring about the work of the Holy Spirit on them, pestering, cajoling, almost haunting them with visions of God’s love without exceptions, until such a reminder of Grace caused them to question even their own previously held assumptions, their own cultural and implicit bias. That work of the Holy Spirit happens in our everyday lives, only we likely think of it as something else – a conscience, a desire to be a better person, or our ideological dedications guiding our actions.
“I truly understand,” Peter says to the gathered group of gentiles, “that God shows no partiality, but amongst all people anyone who honors God and works justly is acceptable to God.” This bold statement, made quite in opposition to the social customs and religious practices of his time, is a direct result of whatever it is that we call his baptism…in this case, Peter’s receiving of the Holy Spirit through the ritual of water…
a gift that keeps on giving, taking him to new places, opening his heart again and again to deeper love, stronger faith, more courageous compassion. It is the Spirit, accepted into his heart in a baptism, that keeps working on him. Because baptism, as we discover in the subtext of scripture, is not a single event, but a chronic condition, a transformation that takes the rest of our lives to unfold if we have taken it seriously. For God’s Love is never done with us. It is never finished in it’s task of reshaping our hearts and refining our souls. There’s always a way to draw our circle wider, to expand our understanding, to learn and re-learn and even un-learn as we are exposed again to God’s liberating Love.
The Gospel story from this point on in Matthew’s version will be the unfolding of that identity that Jesus has claimed in the baptism, the manifestation of all of the promises that have come up to this point in Matthew’s telling of the story – the visitation of angels, the promise, the dreams, the birth, the magi, the flight to Egypt, all of it part of who Jesus will be, just as our identity is part of who we will be both before and after our own baptism, found in the very real, daily events of our lives.
As a pastor, I have had the privilege of presiding over many baptisms – the baptisms of infants next to their wide-eyed parents, of children who were old enough to not want any part of the sprinkling, teens who had gone through confirmation and chosen a baptism…even adults, some whom late into their adulthood, who chose baptism as a ritual of personal modification. I have baptized people in swimming pools, and in a lake, and I have watched as my own children were baptized by clergy very close to me. We’ve had one right here, during a sermon on baptism. It was as much a surprise to me as it was, I think, to Jeff, who stepped up when I had the UCC version of an altar call. Each one has been unique, not so much because of the ritual itself, but because of the people involved and what it was that we are up to in this thing we call baptism.
We can talk about baptism as “washing away sin,” I suppose, or as the act that brings us into fellowship with the Christian community, but what happens to Jesus, waist deep in the Jordan with John, what he carried on in his ministry, what the disciples first found themselves claimed by and then set about claiming other with is identity. This is my son, the voice calls out from heaven. And it calls out again with every other baptism –
“This is my child, beloved and accepted.” David Lose reminds us in his commentary on this passage that, “We are at a time and place where so many would like to identify and define us by many, many names: Democrat or Republican, conservative or liberal, American or foreigner, gay or straight, rich or poor, Black or White, and the list goes on.”
But that’s not who we are. Baptism claims in us an identity as a beloved child of God, which we often say, or sing, as if it is a healing balm. It can certainly be that, especially for those who have been taught that God hates them, or rejects them. Yet it is also a claim on our identity, a way to mark us in the everyday, so that the Spirit residing in us can be heard…so that we might be listening for – even expecting – that voice to whisper to us when the world comes at us with names that wound, or belittle, with names that challenge or limit, the voice reminds us that we have an identity that is more than just mitigating. It is inspirational, it is hopeful, it is powerful.
We ought to note that it is after this dip in the Jordan that Jesus is sent out into the desert to be tested…afterhis baptism that the adversary comes to tempt him with the shallow and shiny…after his identity is given to him that he faces the world knowing who he is –
a beloved child of God, created in and for Love, with malleable hearts that can grow to receive, experience and give more and more love. It’s an identity that allows us to know that God is at work in us, right now, and we are part of something much larger that just ourselves…we have been called into being by nothing less than the same force behind the Big Bang and the cycle of life itself.
As you leave today, I invite you to dip a finger in the water, to remind you of your own baptism…an event that might have taken place in a church, that probably involved water (but maybe not), a moment that you felt the presence of God surrounding you and lifting you up, an event that may have happened only once for you in your whole life, an event that you may struggle to remember, an event that may have happened when you were very young…you may not even remember it at all. That’s OK. It remembers you.