I am not sure, but I was probably a month old, but shortly after I was born, I was brought to the Church to be baptized. I was dressed in a white garment, denoting my innocence that I still carry to this day. My family and some friends gathered around the marble font that was at the back of the Church; the priest read some prayers, promises were made on my behalf, and water was poured from a gold seashell over my forehead with the words, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and the Holy Spirit. I had been part of an ancient ritual that we still practice today.
Today, we gather on the banks of the Jordan River and see John the Baptist, dressed in his ragged clothing, calling people to repentance and a change in their way of life. When Jesus comes, John hesitates; he tells his cousin that he should not baptize him, but that Jesus should be the one doing the baptism. Jesus tells John that he must baptize Jesus to “fulfill all righteousness.” And so, John Baptized Jesus.
Immediately after, the heavens were opened, and a voice was heard, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Scripture also tells us that a dove landed on Jesus’ shoulder; the dove is often the symbol used to denote the presence of the Holy Spirit. This is one of several theophanies or epiphanies that we encounter in Scripture, moments when Jesus reveals that he is God, not just at that moment but from in the beginning.
But why did Jesus have to be baptized?
To answer that question, we need to look at a few things. First, what is the nature of baptism? What does baptism do? And the most fundamental question is, what does baptism mean?
The answers to each of these questions could be a sermon or a lecture in and of themselves, so I will try to summarize 2,000+ years of theological study and understanding; you might want to hold on, this might get a little bumpy.
Water is the ordinary means of baptism, and water is vital to life. We need water to sustain our life and the life of all of creation. Water is the substance that joins creation together; without it, creation will cease to exist. We use warm water to clean and sanitize and cool water for refreshment. We find peace beside the still water, and very often, the sound of gentle water falling during a rainstorm calm and soothes us.
Water is also essential to us in the life of the Church. In the introductory words of the baptism service, we hear these words, “we are initiated into Christ’s holy Church, … incorporated into God’s mighty acts of salvation and given new birth through water and the Spirit. All this is God’s gift, offered to us without price.” The Rev. Taylor Burton-Edwards explains, “Baptism is the ordinary means of rebirth and initiation into the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.”
Scripture tells us that God created all of creation, including humanity, to be good, but that goodness was distorted when sin entered the picture. Sin distorts the image of God contained inside of each of us and degrades the whole of creation. In baptism, we reject the power of sin and begin our journey as disciples of Jesus Christ.
The baptism ritual begins with a series of questions asked by the minister and answered by either the person being baptized or their parents, Godparents, or guardians if they cannot answer for themselves. The questions ask if we renounce wickedness, reject evil, and repent of sin; accept the freedom and power of God to reject evil, injustice, and oppression; and confess Jesus as Savior, trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as Lord alongside all who are part of the universal Church.
But baptism is only the beginning. Rev. Burton-Edwards explains, “Baptism starts that process of breaking us away from sin’s power, but it is sanctifying grace throughout our lives that actually accomplishes it.” Baptism makes room for God’s grace to begin to work within us.
Now just a quick bit about the so-called “original sin.” We often hear this term, which relates to that first “sin” of humanity in the garden. You will remember I talked about this recently and said that the original sin was pride and arrogance. This sin is what distorts the image of God in humanity and degrades all of creation.
The idea of original sin is that we not only carry a propensity to sin but that we are somehow tainted with that first sin. It would be like someone in your family, say, your father committed a crime and was sentenced to prison. For whatever reason, he could not fulfill the sentence, so the court told you that you had to finish it. Not only do you have an association with the crime because it was your relative that committed it, but now you have the guilt of that crime.
Theologically this is not the case. At baptism, we are not cleansed of something that happened eons before we were born by people, even if they did exist, that we did not even know. This idea that we must be cleansed from something beyond our control does not line up with my understanding of a God who loves and cares for me. Why would I carry such a sentence before I can do something about it? It is theology like this that has done damage to people and the witness of God’s love for all without exception.
As I have said, baptism prepares the way for grace to begin to work in each of us. Through the grace of baptism, we are entering a covenant relationship with God, and God is entering a convent relationship with us. Baptism gives us the tools to walk in the light rather than the darkness, but we have to choose to use those tools and learn how to use those tools.
“Baptism is not an act that imparts something just to you,” Burton-Edwards clarifies. “It is an act that brings you into a spiritual relationship with the whole body of Christ. In which you are becoming one with them and they are becoming one with you.”
Just a quick bit about baptism and church membership.
In a United Methodist Context, baptism makes one, regardless of age, a member of the Church universal, the denomination of The United Methodist Church, and their local congregation. In the United Methodist Church, there are two types of membership: baptized and professed.
Professing members are those who have been received into membership by profession of faith and those who were baptized into the Church but have made a public profession of that faith by confirmation of the promises made at your baptism and by reaffirmation of those same promises.
Let us now turn our attention back to Jesus and the Jordan.
John’s baptism was about repentance and confessing sin, so does John consider Jesus, a sinner? Did Jesus consider himself a sinner and in need of repentance? Scripture mentions nothing about sin as it relates to Jesus’ motivation to be baptized by John. Jesus’ baptism is more likely a signal of identification of Jesus with God’s kingdom, which John says is at hand and which Jesus will shortly proclaim and inaugurate. In this way, repentance is not only preparation but a response to God’s presence among us.
But wait, there’s more.
Jesus’ baptism signals his humility in submitting to God’s call through John. Jesus fully identifies with all those coming to John seeking deliverance and preparing for the suffering to come for God’s chosen servant.
John is saying there is no longer confidence in the Jerusalem authorities as the exclusive arbiter of God’s redemptive activity. Jesus’ baptism by John anticipates his own denunciation of the temple authorities and his crucifixion at their hands.
Our baptism may signal for us a turn from the power of sin and death, but it is often less clear what false gods in our lives we are turning from and what new ways we are turning towards. Jesus’ baptism signals his denial of the power of sin over him generally and a refusal to bow before any power but God, including the power of empire that dominates Jerusalem. Our baptism signifies our commitment to his story, his ways, and his fate as our own.
Water is an integral part of the story for the reasons I have mentioned and a few theological reasons. Creation came out of water. Water was the first element created by God. Water became a sign of the covenant made between God and humanity through Noah. Salvation for Israel came from the parting of the waters during the exodus from Egypt, and it is through water that the redemption of humanity in the earthly ministry of Jesus began.
Jesus’ baptism formally marks the beginning of a new stage in God’s action as creator. A new time is brought forth, and the realization of God’s intentions not only for humanity but for the whole of heaven and earth, whose unity, disrupted by human disobedience, is now being restored by the obedience of God’s son and servant.
Matthew’s story of Jesus contained in his Gospel is not just about the salvation of humanity and is not just about our transport from earth to heaven. Instead, this is a story about the reconciliation of the whole of heaven and earth.
This is what the idea of a new creation is all about and why the baptism of Jesus is not just an event for him. On the contrary, this action of Jesus submitting through humility to John is the beginning of fulfilling God’s purpose for the whole of heaven and earth.
Our baptism prepares us to continue and participate in this redemptive work. So let’s get busy and get to work.