Baptism. It’s something John offered, and something Jesus underwent, and something his disciples are told to do. It’s got something to do with water and washing and sin: but what is it, actually? What are we doing, what are we declaring, who are we becoming when we are baptised? What does it all mean? Tonight’s story offers a few clues, but to explore the depths, we’ll first need to zoom out a little.
A few weeks ago, we heard about John. As Luke put it, when Tiberius was emperor, Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod was ruler of Galilee, Annas and Caiaphas fulfilled the office of high priest, and so on … well, at that particular time, far from these centres of power, the prophet John was preaching and baptizing. Crowds of sinners, vipers, tax collectors and soldiers came to the wilderness to hear him, and to be baptized by him in the River Jordan. They were submerged in the water, symbolically washing away their sin and the ways they clung to it. They came up, renewed and ready to live differently: ready to share what they had (“If you have two coats, give away one”); ready to take only what they needed (“If you are a soldier, be content with your wages”); ready to reject the economics of scarcity, the politics of empire. It was heady stuff and the crowds loved it: but his radical truth-telling got John arrested.
Now, and only now, do we hear about Jesus’ baptism. Earlier in the gospel, Luke established that Jesus is already holy and favoured by God. But here he is, seeking John’s baptism of repentance for forgiveness of sins, and standing in line with all the other sinners. His turn comes. He is baptized, he prays, the Holy Spirit comes upon him like a dove, and a voice from heaven declares, “You are my Son, the Beloved; in you I am delighted.”
So Luke opens his account by listing the powers that be, then shifts to the rabble in the wilderness, then, in the middle of things, reminds us that Herod arrests John for speaking out against him. Through this structure, Luke reminds us that all around John, Jesus and the rabble seethe the chaos and violence of empire; they cannot escape it. Kings arrest holy men; Roman soldiers rape and pillage; taxes cripple farmers and fishermen; debt slaves are hauled off to market. Poor, sick, broken, messy people are excluded from religious life, and Jesus is baptized.
Now, the description of his baptism has some interesting details: a dove, and the slightly odd phrase, “the Beloved.” The first is an allusion to the story of Noah when, towards the end of his ordeal, Noah releases a dove. It returns with an olive branch and with it the message that, despite the chaos, all will be well: the flood waters are receding; life is beginning again. The second interesting detail refers to Psalm 2, where the Beloved is a king called to save God’s people from the raging violence of surrounding nations; and also to Isaiah 42, where the Beloved is the Suffering Servant: the messiah called to save the people from their sin and suffering, but only at the Servant’s great personal cost.
So Jesus’ baptismal story contains both warning and promise. All around John, Jesus and the rabble seethe the chaos and violence of empire; they cannot escape it. Being God’s Beloved is no protection against suffering, and in fact may involve great self-sacrifice to alleviate the suffering of others; while the dove declares that, despite the chaos and destruction, all will be well; life will begin again. God’s love will endure through it all, even violence, even suffering, even death; and here we have Jesus’ life, death and resurrection in a nutshell.
So Jesus’ baptism foreshadows everything which follows. It is located among so-called sinners, who are seeking an alternative to the violent economics and politics of empire. His baptism rejects sin; fills him with the Holy Spirit; assures him of God’s love; and points to his vocation of suffering and dying for the sake of others; and this vocation is vindicated in the resurrection.
And since there is only one Lord, one faith, one baptism (Ephesians 4:5), this is our baptism, too. In other words, those of us who are baptized are called to serve like Jesus, even at great personal cost. For we are called to stand with so-called sinners and with those who cannot avoid the injustice of this world. We are given kingdom alternatives to the economics and politics of empire: the rapaciousness of capitalism; the violence of patriarchy; the devastating urge to build social cohesion through the use of human scapegoats. And no matter what life throws at us—and there will be plenty—through the gift of the Holy Spirit and the enduring power of God’s love, we are equipped to participate in Christ’s own healing, liberating and life-giving Way.
Every single day, every one of us is exposed to powerful forces which try to limit us, shape us, compel us to violence, or drive us to rivalry. Every single day, every one of us is told who we should be by a multitude of voices: how we should look; what we should want; how we should spend money; what we should aim for; whom we should desire; how we should live. In this climate, fear and anxiety reign.
But through water and the fire of the Holy Spirit, Christ baptizes us into his own body, washes us free of sin, and grants us a new, if dangerous, primary identity liberated from these messages. We become citizens, first and foremost, of his kingdom, and no other; participants, first and foremost, in his body, and no other. Through baptism, we are reborn into the social order of God’s kingdom, the economy of God’s household, the life of the church. We are released from human oppression which seeks to control us and demonic powers which seek to silence us. Through the gift of the Holy Spirit, we are empowered to live freely, courageously, authentically, vulnerably and in solidarity with the other sinners of this world; and we know that God’s love will endure through everything: through celebration and suffering; love and loss; steadfastness, setbacks, friendship, betrayal, loneliness, death, and the shock and joy of new life.
Baptism: it’s a big ask, a dangerous ask, but it’s the path to human freedom; and it leads to full and flourishing life. In the words of our first song, “In the water, in the word, in his promise, be assured: those who are baptized and believe shall be born again.” And all are welcome to the waters of rebirth: sinners, vipers, tax collectors, soldiers, and people like you and me. So let us die to sin! Let us come extravagantly alive in him! In our baptism, and in everything which flows from it, let’s make a splash! Amen. Ω
A reflection on Luke 3:15-22, given to Sanctuary, 13 January 2019 (C11; Year C Proper 11) © Alison Sampson, 2019. Quoting “Father Welcomes” by Robin Mann © 1992 Kevin Mayhew Ltd. PDF download available here. Image credit: Baptism of the Christ, by Daniel Bonelli.
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