I was baptized when I was 4 or 5 and dressed in a scratchy dress and tight shoes. I stood at the front of an Episcopal congregation along with my younger brother and sister. The priest went to baptize us and screwed up my name….he transposed my middle name with my sister’s. This might have been a quickly forgotten incident had I not, some time later, decided to share this funny story with a friend at a sleepover. When I finished talking she looked at my with concern and said “You know what that means don’t you?” “No” I replied, “What?”. “It means you are not going to be able to get into heaven, because God is not going to know your name.”
I was also ‘baptized’ in seminary. I use air quotes around the word baptism because this was not my baptism, that happened when I was little. But water and oil were poured on me one June day in the courtyard of our CDSP in Berkeley. It was part of what is affectionately known as the ‘magic hands’ class in seminary, where we learn the sacramental acts we called to perform as ordained people. My friend, David, was assigned the rite of baptism and he asked me if I would be willing to be baptized by him. I immediately said yes, he is one of my dearest friends.
One of the gifts of this class was the freedom our instructor gave to just try things out…to go for it, as it were. So my friend David decided to baptize me with, um, generous abandon. As I knelt down in front of him he took huge bowlfuls of water and dumped them over my head three times, so much water I was gasping for breath a little and completely soaked through. Then took a bottle of olive oil and began pouring it over my head. I smelled like a caesar salad and it took about 3 days of washing my hair with dish soap to get all the oil out.
Baptism is one of what are called the two ‘great sacraments’ in the church, the other being the Eucharist. These are considered the primary sacraments because they were modeled by Christ in the scriptures and given to the Church. When we are participating in baptism and communion we are participating in the very acts which Jesus himself initiated over 2,000 years ago.
Which all sounds pretty straightforward, Jesus did it and now we do too, but the history of the sacrament of baptism is a complicated one indeed. Ritual immersion was a part of the Judaism that Jesus was raised in, as an act of purification that could be participated whenever necessary. John the Baptizer (and the Jewish sect called the Essenes, of which he may have been a part) took this practice but shifted it and made it less about a ritual purification and about metanoia, repentance.
Amongst early followers of Christ, in the first couple of centuries after the death and resurrection of Jesus, baptism continued to be a sacrament marking the entrance of one into the faith. But the theology of baptism remained fraught. In the 4th century deathbed baptism was a fairly common practice as people were afraid that they might sin again after the washing away of their sins they received in baptism. In fact, Constantine himself was baptized this way. And as families began to have their children baptized, the theology of original sin, that all humans are born sinners, was clearly articulated by Augustine as a rationale for the practice of infant baptizing.
During the Reformation even more visions and theologies of baptism began to flourish. Many reacted against the practice of infant baptism by arguiung that there is little scriptural warrant for the practice and instead a believer’s baptism, requiring someone to be of an age where they can articulate their beliefs and understand the sacrament they are participating in, became the norm in some denominations.
Baptism is a big thing. And all the controversy, all the passion around how and why and when one should be baptized is all because it is important …it is transformative…it is a holy and sacred act.
And this is clear in today’s Gospel. There is a lot going on in these few short verses from Matthew that tell us what is happening is very important. This is the first time we hear Jesus speak in the Gospel of Matthew. This is Jesus’ first act before beginning his ministry. This scene of Jesus being baptized is one of only two in the Gospel of Matthew in which the heavens open and God’s voice is heard (the other being the Transfiguration which occurs right before he turns toward Jerusalem and certain death). And this incarnated, physical manifestation of the Holy Spirit, described as being ‘like a dove’ is unique and appears in all four of the Gospels only during Jesus’ baptism.
Something big is going on here, bigger than the forgiveness of sins because what would Jesus need forgiving of anyway? And also, given that all these things are happening in this scene (the dove, the voice, the heavens opening up), it seems to me that the text is trying to tell us that something more is happening than just forgiveness.
When we consider this scene of Jesus’ baptism, perhaps we might look at it as offering us a vision of a new way of looking at baptism beyond a simple washing away of sin; in the story of me being baptized with the wrong name, what my childhood friend articulated is a theological view of baptism that is pretty common I think: that baptism is a gateway to salvation, that through baptism we become beloved of God.
But today’s Gospel story points to something else I think. I think it suggests that rather than being primarily about forgiveness, baptism is primarily about relationship. It is about our relationship with God and our relationship with the Church and our relationship with each other. This scene in Matthew seems organized around the concept of relationship; this is the ONLY time in the Gospels that all three members of the Trinity are present together. God is naming and claiming Jesus in baptism through the Holy Spirit and God is naming and claiming us baptism too.
And God’s claim on us flows from an abundant, powerful and overflowing love that surrounds us and cascades over us in the way the way the water hit my head and made me catch my breath that afternoon in seminary when David poured bowlfuls of water over my head in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. I know this was not a ‘proper’ baptism, David was not ordained and I had already been baptized, but the way that water shook me and the feel of the oil cascading down my face were absolutely a sign of God’s abundant love. As one commentator suggested, God does not forgive us to make us beloved, we are already beloved so God forgives us. In baptism God claims us as God’s own.
In a few minutes we will renew our baptismal vows. For those of us who have been baptized, it is a chance to once again remember what it means to be claimed God’s Beloved in the waters of Baptism. For those who have not been baptized, it is a window into what this baptism thing is all about.
And one of the things I appreciate about our Baptismal vows is that they are framed as a covenant. And that language is intentional. A covenant is about relationship. In our baptism God welcomes us as God’s beloved child and we respond by sharing meals and prayers, by resisting evil, by proclaiming the Good News we have found in Christ, by loving our neighbors as ourselves, and by recognizing the dignity of every human being and working for justice and peace in a world that desperately needs it.
God spoke to Jesus that day when he was baptized in the River Jordan and named Jesus Beloved in front of all who were gathered there.
Just as God spoke to Jesus through the sacrament of baptism, so God speaks to us through the sacraments we share here in this place.
God speaks to us through wine.
God speaks to us through bread.
God speaks to us through oil.
God speaks to us through water.
God speaks to us and says “You are my child, my Beloved, in whom I am well pleased.”
This is the very beginning of the Gospel of Mark – the shortest of the Gospels, the oldest, the one written in the roughest Greek, and the one told with the most urgent excitement. Mark tells us the good news like an out of breath child on the schoolyard who has just seen the most amazing thing: and then, and then, and then he says.
Because of Mark’s roughness, because of his breathlessness (there is a fascinating new translation of scripture, in which the translator renders Mark’s rough Greek into rough English), we might be tempted to suppose that his writing lacks sophistication or nuance or even intelligence. Words are a kind of a currency, they are a marker of privilege and status, and we have a long history, thoroughly tied into class and race, of declaring that those who use language differently from the wealthy and the powerful are stupid.
But to fall into that temptation is to do a disservice not only to the one who speaks or writes but to ourselves. Because to dismiss a whole section of our neighbours as stupid is to miss what those neighbours have to teach us. In the case of Mark, to contrast his rough and racing style with, say, the educated polish of Luke and to then conclude Mark’s Gospel is lacking would to miss Mark genius.
Mark might very well have been a guy who was lived most happily in the world of oral story telling, he might have been more at home around the campfire or the water cooler than in front of the quill or the word processor. But that doesn’t diminish his craft, his brilliance as a writer and as an evangelist. The part of his craft that I want to focus on in this passage this morning is his staggering and wondrous use of symbols.
Mark’s begins the story of Jesus at the Jordan River. So, unlike Matthew and Luke, there is no genealogy of Jesus’ ancestors, and nor is there an infancy narrative. If we only had Mark to draw on, there would be no Christmas pageant.
Mark starts here at the water, with the eccentric and mystic and dangerous figure of John standing at its side.
The river itself is the first symbol that I’d like us to notice. This the body of water that, in the tale of Israel’s escape from oppression and slavery in Egypt, the people of Israel cross in order to enter into the promised land. This river, in other words, is heavy with metaphor. To step into its waters, to cross over it is to pass from bondage into freedom, from death into life.
At the time that Mark’s story begins, Israel is once again oppressed, once again living under the boot of a brutal dictatorship. Israel is living under occupation. So, to begin here at the Jordan is a profoundly political statement.[i] It is a statement about freedom. Mark begins the story of Jesus in a physical location that announces that Jesus will critique the occupation and resist the occupation and offer a non-violent and holy and liberative and healing alternative to the occupation.
The meaning of the setting at the Jordan would almost assuredly have been obvious to Mark’s Jewish listeners. But it likely would’ve been hidden to any Roman soldiers listening in. Like African American slaves singing songs about going to heaven which are also songs about going to Canada or otherwise escaping slavery, like millions of oppressed people before and since, Mark speaks about liberation in code.
Beginning the story at the Jordan means that in Jesus you and I will find freedom.
The river also informs the next symbol that we will encounter, that of baptism. We are out in the wilderness, in a location – then and now – of danger and of discovery, of getting lost and getting found. And there we see John employing a ritual from the city. The baptism that we see today in the wilderness, on the river, on the outside, on the literal and figurative border of Israel, is something that we would expect to see in civilization, in the Temple in Jerusalem. We would expect to see it under the stewardship – or, if we are feeling more critical or even cynical, under the ownership and control – of the priests who serve there.
What does it mean that in Mark we encounter baptism in the hands of John – in the hands of someone unqualified by the rules of the Temple to perform it? What does it mean that this baptism happens just about as far as you can get from the Temple is that God?
Perhaps it means that God, whom we will meet in the person of Jesus, will not and cannot be bound by our rules or by our borders. Jesus will share meals with anyone, heal anyone, tell stories with anyone, share the Kingdom with anyone, whether they be found on Israel’s side of the Jordan or beyond.
Beginning the story with baptism in the wilderness tells us that, to borrow the provocative words of Ellen Clark-King, the holiness of God is promiscuous. We will find that love even in the borders and the margins, maybe especially at the borders and the margins.
The last symbol that would like for us to encounter is the one that comes after Jesus’ baptism, after John raises him back up after the water. This is the rending of the heavens in two, the breaking that allows the Spirit to descend. Mark uses the Greek word that we translate as “torn” twice in the Gospel, once here at Jesus’ baptism and a second time when Jesus dies on the cross and the curtain of the Temple is torn in two.
That fearful symmetry is not a coincidence.
In the cosmic tearing apart that begins and ends Jesus’ earthly ministry, we see that there is no longer a divide between heaven and earth. Or no, that’s wrong: in this seismic event, God brings our attention to the reality that there was never a divide between heaven and earth.
Maybe all three symbols actually proclaim the same message: that we are free and that God is free and that God is freely choosing to be right here, right now, among us. We don’t need to go somewhere else to find the Kingdom, to find God. This is what Jesus will affirm in the prayer that he will teach us, the prayer that we say every Sunday:
Your will be done,
On earth as in heaven.
Tear down the subdivision, tear down the illusion of a subdivision. It was nothing more than a veil, anyway.
Three symbols given to us across the centuries by Mark, by this rough and rushed storyteller. There are more symbols to be found with Jesus in John’s arms at the Jordan. But that is where I am going to stop now. All of them are about how God ends limits, all of them are about how God is found in the plainest of places. All of them are about how God will not be constrained – by empire, by the priests at the temple, by a worldview that tries to contain the holy or exclude the holy from certain places, by you and me. All three symbols proclaim the frightening and wonderful news that God is Emmanuel: God with us.