The story of Jesus’ baptism in Matthew’s Gospel is evocative of many other scriptural passages, including the lessons from Isaiah and Acts that we heard today as well as others. I want to draw out some of these allusions, which I believe are meant to deepen our understanding and practice of baptism. The ritual of baptism has become so commonplace, so easily sentimentalized when reduced to “having the baby done,” that we need to enter into the echo chamber of scripture to hear the deeper resonances of meaning that emerge from this holy water.
Let’s begin with water. Jesus is submerged in the water of the Jordan River. This is the water through which the Hebrew people entered the Promised Land, moving from slavery to freedom. This is the water that Elijah touched with his mantle, parting the water so that he and his apprentice, Elisha, could cross the river on dry ground, much as Moses before him parted the waters of the Red Sea so that the Hebrew people could escape from the Egyptian army. It is the water of the flood upon which the whole of life was precariously balanced in Noah’s ark. And behind it all is the water at the beginning of creation, over which the Spirit of God blew. This water marks a place of creativity and transition: the movement from chaos to cosmos, from slavery to freedom, from exile to homecoming, from apprentice to master, from death to life.
To enter into this water is to enter into the very stream of life, the process of transformation and growth that is inevitable but not always consciously chosen. To live is to be changed. Jesus chooses to enter into the water, he makes a decision to enter fully into the stream of life and be transformed. Change means death, so that the new can come into being. Baptism means living a dying life, dying so that we may live. It is complete surrender to the mystery of being alive.
Then there is the Spirit of God descending like a dove. This Spirit is the wind hovering over the water in the beginning, the breath blown into the mud creature made in God’s image, the dove returning to the ark with signs of dry land. Here is the energy of creation and recreation, the divine power that brings order out of chaos and holds all things in being. Baptism means ripping open the heavens, becoming transparent to the flow of divine energy that gives life to the world. It is absolute vulnerability to the power of God to make all things new.
Notice, also, the voice from heaven and its awesome announcement: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Here the echoes are ambivalent, perhaps even disturbing. This is the Son of the enthronement psalms, a royal anointing providing divine legitimacy to the exercise of kingship. Kings (and Queens) are made in this water, but it is an odd kind of royalty. The son whom you love, the son of promised blessing, is at the same time Isaac, willingly offered as a sacrifice to God.
I can’t help but note how many cultures throughout history have divinized kings AND sacrificed them in rituals of cosmic and social renewal. This water confers great dignity, but it also portends great sacrifice. We are reminded of Isaiah’s prophecy of a suffering servant, also chosen, beloved of God, who will bring justice to the nations by enduring a perversion of justice, even though he does no violence and speaks no lies. Sacrificial love is the authentic sign of royal dignity and the only legitimate means of establishing God’s righteous kingdom: not because God desires sacrifice, but because God desires mercy even for those who persevere in the perversion of justice sacrificing innocent victims. Baptism means claiming a royal prerogative that is exercised through forgiveness. It is a total commitment to witness to God’s justice through sacrificial love.
Jesus is himself the best interpreter of his baptism. Recall Jesus words to John and James when they ask to be given places of honor when he comes into his kingdom: “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with? You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
Jesus understood himself to be the suffering servant of Isaiah’s prophecy, the one who comes to establish justice through nonviolent witness to the power of love and forgiveness to heal and make new. He freely consents in his baptism to enter fully into the stream of life so that justice may be fulfilled. His death reveals the mockery of violent coercion masquerading as justice, the lie of community bought at the price of making victims of others. His resurrection reveals God’s solidarity with victims and forgiveness of sinners, drawing both together in a new community of reconciling love.
Baptism means becoming part of this new community, the church, no longer defined over and against anyone or anything else. It is a community defined by the Forgiving Victim, Jesus, at the center of its life, and thus marked by its refusal to make victims and its willingness to forgive enemies. It is a community with a center but no periphery, because everyone is on the inside of God’s work making all things new.
This is not an easy ideal for the church to embody, precisely because it requires a community of suffering servants. Even the apostolic witnesses to the death and resurrection of Jesus were slow to work out the implications of his baptism – and theirs. We see the light bulb going off for Peter in The Acts of the Apostles when he encounters a Roman soldier named Cornelius, who turns out to be a devout man who gave generously and prayed constantly to God. “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”
Even the enemy – the Gentile officer of the occupying army – proves to be filled with the Holy Spirit. The early followers of Jesus – all Jews – are astonished to see that the Holy Spirit has been poured out even on the Gentiles. Then Peter said, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”
Notice the order here: Cornelius and his household receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, and then they are baptized. Baptism doesn’t make them holy, but rather recognizes and celebrates a holiness already there, and so draws them into the center of the community of suffering servants for whom there is no “them” that defines “us.” There is just God’s “we.”
Peter knew that Jesus was killed because, anointed with the Holy Spirit and with power, he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by evil, for God was with him. Human beings put him to death because he witnessed to a justice that threatened their hold on power. But God raised him up. Jesus became the Suffering Servant so reveal the perversions of justice that prop up the kingdoms of this world for what they are and invite us instead to seek the kingdom of God.
The suffering servants of this world are those who share the baptism of Jesus, even if, like Cornelius, they have yet to experience the ritual bath. The Holy Spirit moves wherever and through whomever She chooses. And She usually shows up in the places and among the people who make us most uncomfortable.
Baptism is a commitment to be suffering servants, committed to witnessing to God’s reconciling love whatever the cost. It is a lot to ask. Humanly speaking, it is impossible. But if we are willing, the Holy Spirit can work through us to work that which only God can accomplish. Suffering servanthood is the way of Jesus, the means by which God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven, bring justice to all the nations. Amen.