Baptism of the Lord
First Sunday after Epiphany
Before there was an ekklesia, before there was a Messiah, before there were mangers or magi or shepherds or heavenly hosts, there was talk among the common folk in and around Jerusalem—furtive whispers and improbably hopeful snippets of conversation among a people long since accustomed to injustice and subjugation at the hands of series of imperial oppressors and collaborators from among their own leaders. The topic of conversation was not new in any absolute sense. Its roots were a thousand years old, and exchanges like it had emerged and reemerged over the years whenever things became grim and the people wondered whether the God of their ancestors had abandoned them altogether.
The conversation invariably revolved around hope, and the hope voiced was for deliverance, a liberation such as their ancestors had experienced under the leadership of Moses in the Exodus from Egypt. This time the liberation was expected to come through the leadership of a “new” Moses, a descendant of King David, under whose rule the people would be freed, their oppressors vanquished, and shalom — peace and prosperity — established, not simply among the people Israel, but throughout Creation; not simply for now, but for all time.
In the second century before the Common Era, when the Seleucids sought to destroy Judaism by completely assimilating it into Hellenistic culture, the authors of the book of Daniel and some of the apocryphal texts gave this hope a name. They called it the reign (or kingdom) of God, and they looked for its advent through God’s anointed one, the Messiah.
In the early years of the Common Era, as the hand of Rome grew increasingly heavy, the conversation grew into a movement. A small group of women and men left Jerusalem for the Judean hill country, euphemistically called “the wilderness,” and began preparing themselves for God’s long expected reign of shalom. They ate together in anticipation of the Messianic banquet foretold by the prophets, and they consecrated themselves to God through tevilah, or baptism, a kind of ritual washing long practiced by converts to and renewal movements within Judaism.
Late in the second decade of the Common Era, the movement found its public voice. Luke tells us (3:2) that “the word of God came to John,” the son of Mary’s cousin Elizabeth and her husband Zechariah. He soon began to travel along the Jordan River, “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”
John’s baptism seems to have had two related purposes, neither of which would have been unfamiliar to those who came out to hear his preaching and submit to his baptism. On the one hand, it was a form of ablution, a symbolic washing away of past sins affording the penitent a fresh start in life. On the other hand, John’s baptism functioned as a rite of consecration, a turning away from the corruption of the established order and toward participation in the coming reign of God, to be ushered presently into history by the promised Messiah. God’s reign entailed a new way of life among those who would inhabit it, focused on sharing wealth and living peaceably—“Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none,” John told the people, “and whoever has food must do likewise” (3:11).
Naturally all John’s talk of the nearness of the kingdom of God led some to ask whether he was the promised son of David. His response was of course “no.” “I baptize you with water,” he said, “but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (3:16-17).
These are strong words—the language of judgment, certainly—and it is easy to read them lazily as being only about salvation and condemnation, heaven and hell. But “fire” is a much richer biblical image than such reading allows. Fire is purifying (as in Malachi 3:2, and implicitly in Isaiah 1:24-26), as well as enlivening and empowering (as in Acts 2:3). Elements of both look to be part of what’s going on in Luke 3. The overarching image, though, is one of destruction, not so much in the sense of condemnation or abandonment as that of getting rid of useless accretions that have become impediments to the work God is doing and is about to do. Hence, the baptism of Jesus.
Of the accounts of Jesus’ baptism in the synoptic gospels, Luke’s is by far the sparest. There is no conversation about its propriety, no attempt to explain what must in some sense remain forever a mystery. Ancient commentators focus for the most part on two elements, the effect of the baptism and the divine utterance that follows.
Those writing about the passage and its parallels insist that baptism had no effect on Jesus, since he had no need to be baptized. The effect, rather, was on the act itself and its medium, water. In being baptized Jesus consecrated both, making them effectual means of God’s grace for us, who as the sinners we are require them without exception.
The Church Father Proclus of Constantinople (d. 494) wrote in the fifth century that in baptism Jesus “sanctified the fountains of waters and enlightened the minds of men. Into the fabric of miracles he interwove ever greater miracles,” such that “the sea is glad because it receives the blessing of holiness in the river Jordan.”
“Come,” Proclus says, and “consider this new and wonderful deluge, greater and more important than the flood of Noah’s day. Then the water of the flood destroyed the human race, but now the water of baptism has recalled the dead to life by the power of the one who was baptized. In the days of the flood the dove with an olive branch in its beak foreshadowed the fragrance of the good odor of Christ the Lord; now the Holy Spirit, coming in the likeness of a dove, reveals the Lord of mercy.”
This reference to the descent of the Spirit in the guise of a dove directs our attention to the words from heaven accompanying it, echoing the second Psalm in declaring Jesus God’s Beloved Son. Christians of Eastern heritage have since the time of the Fathers called this the Theophany, the first explicit revelation to humankind of God’s triunity. Stanley Hauerwas, commenting on Matthew’s version of the story, calls it Jesus’ coronation, the declaration of the Father that the Sovereign of the New Creation had arrived. In Jesus’ baptism and the ensuing declaration of the Father, Stanley says, Jesus is unleashed on the world.
Without calling into question the soundness or authority of any of the classical readings of this story and its parallels, Hauerwas’ way of putting the matter serves as an important reminder of an essential yet frequently overlooked aspect of Jesus’ identity. He was and is, as Origen (d. 254) claimed, the autobasileia, the kingdom of God itself, the definitive point of reference with regard to who God is and what God is up to. In his preaching and teaching, his healings and exorcisms, his gathering and eating with the dispossessed of every stripe, and his execution for blasphemy and sedition, Jesus is the very presence of God’s reign to a world broken and characterized by the exploitation of the defenseless by the powerful, which is to say he is God’s kingdom unleashed upon the world—which brings the story back to those of us who dare to call ourselves his disciples.
The church has always maintained that baptism is a means (or symbol) of the grace by which we are cleansed from the guilt of sin. But it is much more than that, as well. In baptism we are united to Christ in his burial and resurrection. We are made members of his body. We become inhabitants of the New Creation, living in ways that display it to others and welcome them into its presence. Believe it or not we, not entirely unlike Jesus, have been made part of the kingdom that God has unleashed on the world.
In a violent and divided world, made ever more so by the effluent spewed by growing ranks of fear-mongers and fabricators of rage, spite, and hate, it is easier to take cover and wait out the storm than to believe and act as if we are the liberating presence of Christ to the world. Yet that is precisely what our baptism calls and equips us to be—busying ourselves feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, caring for the sick, visiting the prisoner, and speaking truth to power on behalf of all who are dispossessed and downtrodden: black and brown, women and children, unemployed and disabled. As we take time this week to contemplate the baptism of Jesus, let us remember our own baptism, and be thankful, and use our remembering as a reminder of just who baptism makes us to be. May it unleash us on the world.