This morning as we celebrate the feast of the baptism of our Lord, we are invited to consider the meaning of our own baptismal politics. I say “politics,” because baptism confers membership and draws boundaries. Those who are baptized assume a new identity and profess a particular allegiance that marks the boundary between those who are Christians and those who are not. Pledging allegiance and marking boundaries are always political acts that constitute a particular community: allegiance to this authority, and not that one; defining my community as these people, and not those people.
All this is true, and yet the politics of baptism is a peculiar politics. It demands loyalty to Christ, the Human One who gave his life for each and all. It marks a boundary between insiders and outsiders so as to place us firmly on the outside. Baptism is the bath that makes us dirty.[i] It washes off the clean, the pure, the invidious distinctions that separate us from “those people,” the disposable people of the earth. It makes us one with all people by accepting the beauty, dignity, vulnerability, and suffering of our common humanity. In baptism, we commit ourselves to the practice of sacrificial love for the sake of that common humanity and, indeed, for the sake of the whole creation. Baptism is the bath that makes us dirty.
It is in this sense, as the bath that makes us dirty, that our practice of baptism is continuous with the baptism that Jesus experienced. The baptismal practice of John demanded that his fellow Jews relinquish their claim to be already the people of God. Like Gentiles converting to Judaism, John requires them to undergo a ritual process of purification. “In this way, the mission of John clearly anticipates the gospel with its news that the outsider is included in the people of God while the insider can be included only on the basis of a recognition of also being an outsider.”[ii]
The baptism of John marked a change of allegiance that subverted the status quo. John gathered the people on the east bank of the Jordan, re-enacting the exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt and their conquest of the Promised Land. One-by-one, the people enter the Jordan, are washed, and enter into the Promised Land on the other side. This highly charged symbolic action, while entirely nonviolent in its practice, represented a profound commitment to the sovereignty of God, to whom the land ultimately belongs, and an expectation of God’s benevolent reign of justice over and against Roman occupation and exploitation of the land. John is preparing the people for imminent regime change, courtesy of God, and inciting hope for liberation.
What is more, all this is taking place in the wilderness at no charge, rather than at the Temple in Jerusalem. John is offering a “free and populist alternative” to the Temple’s purification process and the economy of sacrifice upon which it was built.[iii] This is an implicit judgment against the local ruler, Herod Antipas, and the priestly class whose collaboration with Roman occupation served to maintain their elite status. In his unusual choice of lifestyle and in his rhetoric, John identifies with the landless poor and assures them that God has nothing to do with the violence that keeps them in subjection. Indeed, God is coming to set them free, and they need to renounce the temptations of submission to, or collaboration with, oppression.
The baptism of John was a radical act that demanded a change of loyalty and a redrawing of boundaries between insiders and outsiders. No wonder then that, as the Jewish historian Josephus reports, "Herod decided . . . that it would be much better to strike first and be rid of him before his work led to an uprising . . . John, because of Herod’s suspicions, was brought in chains to Machaerus . . . and there put to death."[iv] His baptismal practice marked him as subversive, “dirty,” as disposable as the impoverished peasants with whom he identified. John anticipates Jesus both in his mission, and in his execution by the authorities.
The account of Jesus’ baptism in Mark’s Gospel demonstrates the continuity between John and Jesus, as well as the differences. If John redraws boundaries in anticipation of things to come, Jesus crosses them in celebration of what already is. Jesus’ baptism indicated the fulfillment of John’s expectation, and further radicalized his baptismal practice: "And when [Jesus] came up out of the water, immediately he saw the sky ripped apart and the spirit swooping into him like a dove; and there was a voice from the sky, “you are my beloved son, with you I was delighted."[v]
The very boundary between heaven and earth, the divine and the human, is transcended. God’s presence is here, now, in the power of the Spirit. The words spoken by the voice from the sky echo Psalm 2, a royal coronation anthem, as well as recalling the words of the prophet Isaiah: "Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him, he will bring forth justice to the nations . . . He will not fail or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth."[vi]
Jesus’ mission goes beyond that of John, because Jesus is commissioned to establish an international rule of justice. And the bath that he takes will make him even “dirtier” than John. Jesus expands John’s populist movement to embrace Jews and Gentiles, men and women, adults and children, elites and outcasts, neighbors and enemies. The presence of God’s kingdom already is available in the practice of unconditional healing and open table fellowship, offered freely to all. Jesus invites us to live in such a way that "God’s power, rule, and dominion are evidently present to all observers."[vii] It is to this God and God’s kingdom of justice and joy that we are to give our sole allegiance. That is the baptismal politics of Jesus.
Baptism is the bath that makes us dirty; or, at least, it should. All too often, it instead serves to make us squeaky clean, to reinforce social status and privilege. One of my colleagues, we’ll call her “Susie,” is a life-long Episcopalian who remembers her baptism well; which is very odd for a life-long Episcopalian. Her parents were both upstanding Episcopalians, the right kind of people – and alcoholics – who apparently failed to have little Susie baptized when she was born.
Later, when Susie was about five years old, her parents where sitting around one night having martinis with the parish priest before dinner. As they were chatting, her mother suddenly exclaimed, “My God, we forgot to have Susie ‘done!’” The party immediately adjourned to the church, where Susie was baptized promptly, before the main course could get cold and in plenty of time for after-dinner drinks.
I can’t think of a more stunning example of baptism reduced to a matter of social propriety, the failure to “have the baby done” being little more than a breach of social etiquette. Baptism is here nearly turned on its head, becoming a means of reinforcing social and religious privilege, defining us as already the people of God rather than serving to remind us of our need for God’s mercy – just like everybody else.
Baptism is not something that we “do” to demonstrate that we are the “right kind of people.” Baptism is something that “undoes” us and our cherished notions of a secure identity based on insider status. Baptism throws us back upon the astonishingly generous and generative grace of God as the source and foundation of our identity and security. It frees us from our obsession with who is up and who is down, who is in and who is out, so that we can become the “wrong kind of people,” the kind of people God can make use of in the struggle for a more just and sustainable world.
Like any powerful ritual act, the symbolic resonance of baptism encompasses more than one meaning. Baptism is the bath that makes us dirty, and it is also the bath that makes us clean. It makes us “dirty” because it demands a new allegiance and a new way of life that places us squarely in conflict with much that defines normalcy and success in the world.
And yet it makes us clean also. It washes off all the “not-human” that encrusts us like barnacles, all the beliefs, attitudes, roles, and competing loyalties that lure us into believing we are either more than human, or less than human. We are neither. We are simply human – no better and no worse than anyone else. When we see that clearly, it is as if the scales have dropped from our eyes. We then behold a world filled with a terrible beauty and a noble suffering, evoking the fundamental religious impulses of gratitude and compassion.
Baptism liberates us from our preoccupation with self so that we can become usable for God. Cleansed from the denial and illusion with which we try to secure ourselves against reality, we can see and participate in the reign of God right here and now. And, we can expect that our loyalty to that kingdom will meet with resistance from those who benefit from a world enchanted with denial and illusion. Baptism is the bath that makes us dirty precisely because it washes us so clean.
But we can take courage, because that same Spirit that swooped into Jesus like a dove at his baptism continues to make us “dirty” for the sake of the kingdom of God. The dove in antiquity was a symbol of generativity, rather like we conceive of the rabbit. God’s kingdom is contagious, drawing to itself an ever-expanding circle of adherents. It generates new disciples like a bunny – or, a dove, as it were. If we are able live as people of this kingdom with just an ounce of credibility, our example will be irresistible.
Baptism marks our initiation into the politics of Jesus: a commitment to the justice, generosity, and joy of the kingdom of God. It is an important beginning, but it is only a beginning. We will spend a lifetime washing off the “not human” that continually becomes attached to us, but we can do so trusting that the fecund Spirit that animated Jesus’ ministry also will continually find ways to make us “dirty” for the sake of the kingdom of God. Amen.
[i] See Gordon Lathrop’s discussion of baptism as “the bath that makes you unclean with the unclean” in Holy Ground: A Liturgical Cosmology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), pp. 117-119.
[ii] Theodore Jennings, The Insurrection of the Crucified: The “Gospel of Mark” as Theological Manifesto (Chicago: Exploration Press, 2003), p. 11.
[iii] See John Dominic Crossan’s discussion of John’s program in Who Killed Jesus? Exposing the Roots of Anti-Semitism in the Gospel Story of the Death of Jesus (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1996), pp. 42-46.
[iv] Jewish Antiquities 18:116-119.
[v] Mark 1:10-11. The translation is from Jennings, p. 13.
[vi] Isaiah 42:1,4.
[vii] Crossan, p. 47.