Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Sign of Something

In yesterday's post, I stumbled upon The Message's rendering of Matthew 3:15: "But Jesus insisted. 'Do it. God’s work, putting things right all these centuries, is coming together right now in this baptism.' So John did it." It's a beautifully contemporary and theologically significant way of stating what most translations render as "Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness." I was looking for a clearer way of understanding what it means to fulfill all righteousness, and I found it. It's God's work of putting everything right, which God has been doing for all these centuries. But that left me with another, bigger challenge: how is Jesus' baptism the "coming together" of that work?

I haven't had reason to explore it much since I've been in parish ministry, but I remember Jesus' baptism being a theological problem back in seminary. Why was Jesus baptized? John's baptism was one of repentance. But Jesus didn't need to repent. Part of what we symbolize in the waters of baptism is the undoing of Adam's sin, but Jesus did not need the otherwise indelible stain original sin to be blotted off his soul. Jesus didn't have that stain. So why was he baptized? Jesus didn't need to receive the Holy Spirit. He was (and is) God Incarnate. Before he went below the waters of the River Jordan, he was already fully endued with God's Spirit. So why was he baptized?

Some suggest that Jesus' baptism was to create a pattern for the rest of us. If Jesus was baptized, so should we be baptized. I don't know that there's anything wrong with that except that it seems an awfully empty reading of that moment. Something happened at the River Jordan. The skies were opened, and, depending on which gospel account we read (this year it's Matthew's), Jesus and possibly the crowd, too, saw the Holy Spirit come down and alight on him. A voice proclaimed Jesus as God's beloved son. That seems more than an example worth following.

Some heretics theorize that this was the moment when he fully became God's Son. But that's adoptionism. It denies the fullness of the Incarnation. It unravels the prophecy given to Mary by Gabriel that the child to grow in her womb would be a holy child conceived by the Holy Spirit. Jesus was God's Son from before the beginning. But that doesn't mean that nothing happened when Jesus was baptized. So what was it?

All three synoptic accounts portray this moment. John's gospel refers to it. It was an important part of the tradition. Those scholars who read the New Testament from a historical-critical perspective suggest that Jesus was baptized because his ministry was an outgrowth of John's ministry, and they think that the narrative associated with the baptism was invented by the early church to explain why the sinless Son of God would have gone to John for a baptism of repentance. How thoroughly uninspired! Although I don't buy the historical-critical approach to the gospel, I think there is another way to describe Jesus' baptism that has the potential to bridge traditional and scholastic readings.

Even if nothing changed for Jesus in the waters of baptism, something changed for us--for those who look upon Jesus of Nazareth and see the Son of God. There have been many prophets, teachers, leaders, and healers in the history of God's people, but there has only been one Incarnate Son of God. Several historical figures have been labeled "messiah," but only one was God-Among-Us. Could we see a difference? If we had met Jesus and heard him preach and saw him work miracles, could we tell that he was more than a powerful prophet? Would we know that he was God's own Son? When Jesus emerges from the waters of baptism, the Holy Spirit comes upon him--not in a way that changes who he is but in a way that signifies to us that God is doing something different. When the voice from heaven proclaims, "This is my beloved Son," the whole world recognizes that in Jesus of Nazareth God's work is being fulfilled.

Part of me thinks it's a little disappointing to see that dramatic moment reduced to a divine telegram, suggesting that the moment doesn't really make a difference, but the power of the moment is bound up in what God is communicating to the world through Jesus' baptism. Without this sign, would we see that the one who fraternizes with prostitutes, tax collectors, and other sinners was doing so as a way to establish God's righteousness? Without the voice from heaven, would we see that the one who touches lepers and women with menstrual discharges transmits God's purity rather than contracting ritual defilement? Without this theophany, would we see that the Crucified One is not only subjected to a tragic death but through that death is accomplishing God's plan?

Jesus is baptized for the rest of us. What happens at the River Jordan doesn't change Jesus; it changes us. In this moment, we see that God's work of making all things right comes to fruition in the person of Jesus. Whether it's Jesus' or ours, baptism opens us up to be a part of that work. It sets us on the plane of righteousness that God has unfolded in the Incarnation. I suspect that Sunday's sermon will be a bridge between Jesus' baptism and our own, but it starts with what happened at the River Jordan all those years ago. This is how we see and recognize and realize what God is doing in Jesus. May that work take hold in us completely.

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