Alison Donohue is our current intern at St. Mark's, and on the Baptism of Christ she was the preacher for the morning masses. The Gospel text for the day was the Baptism of Jesus from St. Mark's Gospel.
The baptism of Jesus has befuddled many a student and scholar of Scripture. Why did Jesus, of all people, need to be baptized? If John offered a baptism of repentance, for what did Jesus need to repent? And if we ourselves get baptized into Christ, what was Jesus baptized into?Theologically, it can be perplexing.
Its baffling nature is one way scripture scholars can say with confidence that it actually happened. Scholars will tell us that if a story is either embarrassing or confusing, we can be pretty certain it is historically accurate.
Looking at Jesus’ baptism conversely, we can see that if Jesus were to have forsaken baptism, if he were to have observed but not participated, if he said that it was good for others but not for himself, then we might begin to wonder what kind of human life Jesus really lived. Was he above it? Was he a human, but with VIP status? Was he exempt somehow? Was Jesus more of a bystander in his humanity than a participant?
Thankfully, Jesus was baptized, and so we do not have to ask those questions. We already know that in no place in his life was Jesus a detached observer; always Jesus was a full participant in the human drama. He was born a baby, he lived, breathed, he reached out, he called followers, he cried and laughed, and he healed. Jesus was not above being human. In fact, the story of Jesus’ baptism gives us a glimpse into how Jesus calls us to be fully human, how not to retreat from the challenges of life, how to be present and alive to all life has in store, to take a stand, and to do so in a spirit of humility not of arrogance. By being baptized himself, Jesus teaches us three important things about the Christian life.
First, by being baptized, Jesus made it clear that he was not to set himself apart from others. For us, that means that being Christian doesn’t make us better than anyone else. Feeding the hungry, giving to charity, forgiving the wrongs of others — none of these things make us better than others. Spending Sunday morning at church and not in bed or at the beach does not give us access to some elite club.There’s no Premium lane for Christians. We all are equal, fundamentally. This thinking can run counter to our culture’s beliefs, that everything is competitive, that we will be rewarded with some kind of status for doing certain things, that you know you’ve made it when you are separated from everyone else. Our airlines and credit cards entice us with perks — shorter lines, faster boarding, a free cocktail. It’s hard to not run after the dangling carrot, especially when it’s a lie-flat seat on a long haul flight. But on the Christian journey there is no business class. Jesus didn’t stand in condescending approval of all those who wandered to John for baptism. He made the exact same journey himself, and submerged himself in the very same waters. He wasn’t above it. Being disciples on the journey means the same thing for us: that we grow closer to our fellow human beings, not further away. That we more deeply understand our shared humanity, and focus on that, not whatever we thinks separates or distinguishes us.
Second, Jesus’ baptism teaches us that the Christian life is a process of transformation. It changes us. It involves listening and patience. It involves a certain level of submission. So often, especially in political rhetoric, we see Christianity presented not as a process of transformation but rather as an aggressive crusade. In this model, Jesus would have arrived at the River Jordan, taken a measure of John, and loudly proclaimed all he was doing wrong and how Jesus himself would make things different. He may even have tweeted about it. He would have arrived fully formed, with no need for growth, with all the answers. But even Jesus stepped into the river and sank beneath the surface. Even Jesus knew that staying on the surface and forsaking the depths is no way to become who we most are as human beings. Jesus understood that as he began his ministry -- a dangerous, controversial ministry that would eventually cost him his life -- that ritual is important. That participating in a ritual of new birth would lend new meaning to his ministry, meaning that he could never find by keeping his distance and remaining on the surface. Jesus knew this baptism inaugurated his earthly mission, and he knew he would need to yield to a will greater than his own.
Finally, Jesus’ baptism reminds us that the Christian life is not an individual pursuit. Jesus needed John. He needed to journey to the wilderness and to submerge himself as others had. And, when he stands up, he will need to call followers. And later he will send those followers out, in pairs, aware that solo discipleship is often far more difficult. Jesus was never a one-man show.The Christian life, Jesus teaches us, is best lived in relationship, relationships where we can be truly honest and open to growth, aware that we do not have all the answers, aware that we may need to change our minds about things, and aware that we cannot do it alone. The Christian life is best lived in community, with people who may be nothing like you, and who cheer you on, lift you up when you need it, challenge you, comfort you, teach you and learn from you.
Whenever we ourselves read aloud the baptismal covenant, we acknowledge these truths about there journey we are on. We acknowledge that our baptismal promises soften us and connect us to each other. They make us less like individuals who feel separate from each other and more like fellow travelers. We acknowledge that they signify new beginnings. Maybe we need to make a change in our life or we see a change coming. Or maybe we are quite content and could use a wake-up call to remind us of who we most are. Maybe we have been living too much on the surface and not enough in the depths.
Christianity is a process of transformation in Christ, and it cannot be done solo. Baptism begins a new journey for us, it does not complete a journey. In baptism, we are baptized into a community of believers, and we are baptized into a faith that promises us that suffering and struggle can lead to new life. Jesus’ baptism encourages us to keep moving, to keep our hearts open and to look for friends on the journey.
Alison Donahue, Intern