2014-01-12 by George Kaplan
Preacher: Veronica Zundel
12th January 2014
Readings: Isaiah 42:1-9, Matthew 3:13-17
1 Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my Spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
2 He will not cry or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
3 a bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
4 He will not grow faint or be crushed
until he has established justice in the earth;
and the coastlands wait for his teaching.
5 Thus says God, the LORD,
who created the heavens and stretched them out,
who spread out the earth and what comes from it,
who gives breath to the people upon it
and spirit to those who walk in it:
6 I am the LORD, I have called you in righteousness,
I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
I have given you as a covenant to the people,
a light to the nations,
7 to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.
8 I am the LORD, that is my name;
my glory I give to no other,
nor my praise to idols.
9 See, the former things have come to pass,
and new things I now declare;
before they spring forth,
I tell you of them.
13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptised by him.
14 John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptised by you, and do you come to me?”
15 But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented.
16 And when Jesus had been baptised, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.
17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
Jesus was not christened. “Well d’uh”, I hear you thinking. “Of course not. Christening hadn’t been invented yet.” As a born Jew, he was circumcised and presented in the Temple, as recorded by Luke. This doesn’t say anything about whether our baptism should happen when we are infants or adults.
If any of you did think that, you have a point. You can’t make a complete argument about infant or adult baptism just from the fact that Jesus was baptised as an adult by John. You can, however, make a partial one. And as an Anabaptist, who supports adult and not infant, baptism, you might expect me to make one. The very least we can say, is that Jesus thought it necessary to make a public adult confession of his commitment to God, and his intention to serve God. Even Anglicans and others who practise infant baptism, acknowledge, by their practice of confirmation, that the commitment made on an infant’s behalf has to be owned and affirmed by that infant when they reach an age of responsibility.
But I’m not going to use this sermon to swop proof texts with those who advocate infant baptism. If I did that I might be standing here till kingdom come, and I’m sure none of you would want that any more than I do. Instead, I want to use it to explore the meaning of Jesus’ request for baptism from John the Baptist, John’s response to that request, and the implications for our discipleship.
I’ll start with John’s baptism and what it appeared to mean. John baptised people in the context of a challenge to them about how they led their lives. The earlier part of today’s passage from Matthew tells us that John’s baptism was about repentance, turning from a selfish and exploitative way of life to a God-centred one. Both Mark and Luke echo this, with Luke filling in more detail about how John told various groups to change their behaviour towards others. All these three Gospels also show John the Baptist telling us that someone will come after him, who will baptise not with water but with the Holy Spirit and with fire. And the Gospel of John shows us John the Baptist pointing out who that person is: Jesus.
So John’s baptism is about turning from sin: not just personal sin but also oppression and injustice, evidenced by his challenges to those who wielded power in society, the tax collectors and soldiers. In the triad of believing, belonging and behaving, John put behaving in the centre.
John was not really doing anything new to Judaism. I read a fascinating article recently by a woman who converted to Judaism to marry a Jew, and as part of her conversion process she had to immerse herself fully in a mikvah, or ritual bath, with no part of her above the water, and no part touching the sides or bottom of the pool. That looks awfully like a baptism to me. And if John’s followers included soldiers, who would have been Roman, so by being baptised by John, they were essentially turning to Judaism.
But Jesus, if we believe he was sinless, had no sins to repent of, and was already a Jew. Why, then, does Jesus seek baptism from John? This is of course the very question John himself asks. Jesus is the ‘greater one’ who ranks above him in the Kingdom of God. Surely he should be baptizing John, not the other way around.
There have been many who have asked the same question through the centuries, and come up with various answers, some of which have been condemned as heresies. One example is Adoptionism, which stated that Jesus only became the son of God at his baptism. Well, as a church which clearly doesn’t believe in what I call “salvation by doctrine”, I don’t think we need to worry too much about these various theories. Ultimately we can never know we are 100% right in our understandings of Scripture and fortunately, being right is not what brings us salvation, or what faith is all about. So since I’m probably at low risk of being burned at the stake, I want to offer some personal thoughts on why Jesus asked for baptism and what it implies for us.
First of all, I think of Jesus’ baptism as a public sign that Jesus was beginning his own ministry. Without his baptism, he would be just the carpenter’s son from Nazareth, or one of many independent preachers of the time, including John himself. Did he know that strange, supernatural events would be triggered by his baptism? In his human understanding, he didn’t necessarily yet think of himself as the ‘greater one’ John was predicting, but he must have felt a need to test out whether he was indeed the prophet to whom John was pointing. In the event, the heavenly voice and the mysterious dove descending must have confirmed that for him. We could therefore say, not that Jesus became God’s son at his baptism, but that this was the moment when he first knew for sure he was God’s son.
A second aspect of his baptism, I suspect, is to demonstrate that what he is starting is something new. His circumcision and presentation in the Temple, over which he had no choice, allowed him to step into a relationship with the old covenant, the Jewish covenant with God. But if he already saw himself as the initiator of a new covenant, then there ought to be some public sign of this, and baptism by John was a logical choice. As Isaiah puts it: “See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare”.
There is a third facet of baptism, which it took me at least 20 years as a Christian to notice. Circumcision is a gendered practice. Only men can be circumcised – the Jews, thank God, did not practice what we now call female genital mutilation. So a woman belonged to the covenant by dint of belonging to a circumcised man – her father, brother or husband. But baptism can be engaged in by both sexes: both men and women could and still do immerse themselves in a mikvah, both men and women could be baptised as Christians, and both men and women were later baptised as Christians.
I only really noticed this when I looked more closely at that well known statement of equality in Galatians 3:28: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” If you read the verse before, this is placed firmly in the context of baptism. Verse 27 reads: “As many of you as were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ’. What this says to me is that by its very nature, baptism makes the two genders, as well as other groups divided by circumcision, equal. Could it be then that Jesus was recognizing this, and by his very action in baptism, proclaiming the equality of all?
Fourthly, and again I think this is enshrined in the very nature of baptism, Jesus is perhaps demonstrating that his ministry will not consist in being a charismatic leader who wants submissive followers. Instead, in submitting to baptism by John, he is saying that the lordship of Jesus, whom the disciples will call Master, is about servanthood, about the first being last and the last first, about “I am among you as one who serves”, about “the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, but it shall not be so among you.” I think this is why the lectionary pairs the baptism story with the passage from Isaiah that we heard earlier, the first of the so-called ‘servant songs’ in Isaiah. Later ‘servant songs’ tell us that God’s anointed will not only act as a servant, but as a suffering servant, who will bring God’s redemption through his own suffering.
I say that this is communicated by the very nature of baptism, because of my own experience of baptism by immersion when I was 16. I don’t think I’d been taught all that much about baptism as a symbol of death and resurrection, but when I went under the water and came out again, my first thought was, “I have begun a new life”. Baptism by immersion carries with it a sense of dying and rising, and in fact in early Christian days, the baptiser would hold the candidate under the water till they nearly drowned, before lifting them out of it. I don’t know whether John the Baptist’s baptism was like that, but the Bible does tell us that he chose a place by the river where there was “much water”. So Renaissance paintings of Jesus standing in shallow water while John pours water over his head, may tell us more about baptism in Renaissance times than it does about John the Baptist’s practice.
This may be something of a problem for Mennonites, who have traditionally baptised by pouring rather than immersion. This is entirely logical, since the first Anabaptist baptisms had to be done secretly, in people’s houses, where there wouldn’t be any kind of baptismal pool. Contemporary Mennonite baptisms may however have access to a baptistry, as we do here by virtue of worshipping in a Baptist church, and as far as I know, all the baptisms we have done as Wood Green Mennonite Church have involved borrowing someone’s baptismal pool and doing full immersion. And given my own experience of how powerful the symbolism of immersion can me, I think this is the best way.
If Jesus’ baptism was by immersion or something close to it, I think it must have both been a foreshadowing of his death and resurrection, and perhaps a preparation for it. This leads me to my fifth aspect of the meaning of Jesus’ baptism. I’ve already said that Jesus’ parents, in having him circumcised and presented, were committing him to a faith tradition, that of Judaism. But Jesus, while by no means rejecting Judaism, chose to make a second public commitment to serving God in his own right. From an Anabaptist viewpoint, his baptism tells us very clearly that a commitment made as an infant is not enough. We have to own our commitment to God as adults, whether that’s through confirmation if we’ve already been baptised as an infant, or through adult baptism if we haven’t. The early Anabaptists were nicknamed ‘Anabaptists’, or re-baptisers, because everyone they baptised as adults, had already been put through infant baptism. But as they became a church in their own right, they could choose not to baptise their babies or small children, and instead to wait for them to make their own profession of faith through baptism when they were old enough. So they were no longer ‘re-baptisers’ but just ‘baptisers’. Which is why those who followed their example in Britain, unlike those on the continent of Europe, were just called ‘Baptists’.
There is a sixth aspect I want to suggest, and for me this is at the heart of why I reject infant baptism. Jesus’ baptism, I believe, was not just an example for us to make a public, adult profession of our faith. Because his baptism was into his death and resurrection, when we are baptised, we are also baptised into that death and resurrection. So baptism asks us to commit to suffering, both as the gateway to our new life, and as a consequence of our new life. Paul puts it this way in chapter 6 of his letter to the Romans:
“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death? 4 Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”
Earlier this week I was rushing to finish reading James Baldwin’s amazing first novel, ‘Go Tell it on the Mountain’, for my book group. The novel is based on his own childhood in a black Pentecostal church in New York in the 1930s. He quotes a lot of songs, some of which are still sung today. One, which I didn’t know before, starts like this:
“Must Jesus bear the cross alone,
And all the world go free?”
This is for me the major reason that Anabaptists rejected infant baptism. If baptism is a commitment not only to love God and neighbour, but to be prepared to suffer for God and neighbour, then it is an entirely inappropriate commitment to make on behalf of an infant. In the past, and in some cultures today, we committed children to engagement or even marriage. Royalty and the aristocracy might decide who an infant was to marry almost as soon as they were born. We no longer think it appropriate to commit infants to marriage, and we deplore the marriage of children under 16 in other cultures. So why would it be appropriate to commit infants or children to baptism, which implies willingness to die for God or for our neighbour? I once got into a lot of trouble in an online forum for describing infant baptism as ‘spiritual child abuse’. But if baptism implies a willingness to follow in the cross-shaped footsteps of Jesus, isn’t committing an infant to this a kind of abuse? Of course those who see infant baptism as simply “joining the family of the church” wouldn’t see it this way, which is why they objected to my phrase.
This might also give us an explanation of why Jesus, although he was baptised by John, did not himself baptise anyone during his ministry. Before his Cross and Resurrection, people he baptised could not possibly understand this new meaning of baptism. His baptism would simply have been a repetition of John’s.
Well, this might seem like a rather dire message – why would anyone become a Christian and be baptised if all it leads to is suffering? But there’s a second verse to that song Baldwin quotes:
“No, there’s a cross for everyone.
And there’s a cross for me.”
In baptism, and in discipleship, you don’t only go under – you come up again too. I don’t entirely agree with the song, because it places the cross in this life and the crown entirely after death. I believe God has many crosses and many crowns for us, all on this earth; and that our destiny is not going to heaven, but living in a transformed world. But it’s understandable how black Americans in the 1930s, whose earthly lives were often horrendous, would think this way. Ultimately the song is right: Jesus’ baptism, and ours, are both into danger and into blessing, into death and into resurrection.
Before I finish, I’d like to add that I think my interpretation is supported by what happened immediately after Jesus’ baptism. According to the Gospels, he had no sooner been baptised than he was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted – or, in other translations, to be tested. Mark’s Gospel in fact says the Spirit ‘drove’ him into the desert, a much more aggressive word.
We are baptised into Jesus’ death, to live a cross-shaped life. We are also baptised into life, to live joyfully by the Spirit of God. Our life of discipleship will have high points, when God says to us as he said to Jesus, “This is my beloved child”. It will also have deserts, wildernesses, when we struggle with trials and the apparent silence of God. That’s why we need each other and the whole people of God to support us in following it. Amen.