Epiphany I, Year A
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.
He will not cry or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
He will not grow faint or be crushed
until he has established justice in the earth;
and the coastlands wait for his teaching.
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:
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,
to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.
I am the LORD, that is my name;
my glory I give to no other,
nor my praise to idols.
See, the former things have come to pass,
and new things I now declare;
before they spring forth,
I tell you of them.
Then Peter began to speak to them: "I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ–he is Lord of all. That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name."
Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?" 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. And when Jesus had been baptized, 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. And a voice from heaven said, "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased."
John the Baptist came fulfilling the prophetic witness, he was ‘one in the wilderness.’ He came bringing ritual, a baptism of repentance. We have previously noted the implicit, if not explicit challenge John’s baptism is to the ingrained sacrificial system (Temple) and its ideology (sacrifice). For with John’s baptism, apart from Temple and sacrifice, one could turn to God and be accepted. The only requisite was that one ‘change one’s way of thinking’ and submit to the waters.
In each of the four gospels Jesus’ baptism stands at the head of his story. Why? Why is Jesus baptized and what makes this baptism so important? Was this not a baptism of repentance? From what did Jesus need to repent? Wasn’t Jesus sinless? Right from the get go in all four gospels we are faced with a major stumbling block.
The author of Matthew’s gospel felt this problem too. His additions and subtractions from the Markan narrative are indicators of this. For Matthew, Jesus is baptized ‘to fulfill all righteousness (dikaiosune)’. Righteousness is a key word in Matthew’s gospel as much as it is in Paul’s writings. Righteousness in Matthew has fundamentally to do with obedience to the will of God, the doing of what is right before God. ‘To fulfill all righteousness’ is Matthew’s way of saying that what Jesus is doing here in submitting to the waters is that which is right before God.
From the early church to the most contemporary scholars, the two part movement of Jesus’ baptism has been noted. He goes under the water and when he comes up the Spirit of Holiness descends upon him. This two part movement is so fundamental it carries right through into the Christian ritual of baptism as can be seen in the epistolary literature of the New Testament. At the beginning of all things new there is a going under and a coming up, or as Paul would say, “a dying and a rising.”
Something dies in baptism. That something is not just ‘us’ in the abstract, it is how we think and perceive of God, ourselves, others and the creation. It is the ‘noia’ part of ‘metanoia.’ It is the death of ‘deathly thinking’, death dealing thinking, the thought processes of the logic of sacrifice. In baptism, the primordial waters of chaos swallow up our chaos, our chaotic ways of conceptualizing and from those waters we rise, new, cleansed, whole, with an entirely new vision of God: God present to us as our Daddy. In short, baptism doesn’t cleanse us from sins in some abstract mechanical manner, it washes away the filth and infection of our distorted theologies and the justifications of all we deem honorable and right and true. The waters of baptism are the end of sacrificial thinking and action and the beginning of a new way of relating, as a child to a nurturing parent.
So Jesus submits to this baptism of John’s pointing the way, his way out of the sacrificial process. It is in these waters that Jesus will drop any last vestige of his perception of God as one who authorizes force, violence, power to dominate. It is from these waters that the filial commendation is made and the right of sonship/daughtership is established. In these waters, the old passes away and the new comes. Some in the ancient church thus could refer to baptism as ‘the tomb and the womb’, the death of death and the birth of life.
In these waters, part of John’s theology will also die. John still seeks an ancient deliverer full of power and might, riding a powerful steed, coming with wrath and vengeance. We know this from the articulation of the apocalyptic side of John’s message and later from his puzzlement: was Jesus the One who was to come or should John pin his hopes on another? So from John’s side too, there is a clear death, the death of his vision, his way of seeing things, his way of perceiving how God acts. And later what is Jesus message? That his Daddy heals, binds up wounds, sets captives free and opens the eyes of the blind, yes, even the spiritually blind. This is the Daddy of the baptism, the lover of the beloved (ho agapetos), and this carries through the entirety of Matthew’s gospel.
Note again that this is a ‘baptism of repentance.’ It is a ‘metanoia’ not a ‘metapoesis.’ It is not a baptism for a change in the way we behave first, it is first of all a change in our way of thinking. Why is this so? Because as Einstein reminded us ‘everything has changed but our way of thinking.’ If we think of baptism as the forgiveness of our individual sins we prove to ourselves that we are still mired in the Cartesian ego, the self-centered self, or as Luther would say, ‘the cor curvum in se’ (the heart turned in on itself). If we think this way about baptism we have not yet discerned with the Liberation theologians that sin is structural and that sin structures our thinking and our theologies. As long as we take refuge in the delusion of the autonomous self, as long as we think of salvation and baptism as primarily individual, as long as we continue to concern ourselves with how ‘I shall get to heaven’, we have yet to undergo the baptism that Jesus underwent.
“I think, therefore I am”, said Descartes. No. The New Testament writers would say, “I think wrongly, therefore I sin.” To change our way of thinking, to repent, is to return to the Lord, it is full of ‘shuv’, a return to the pre-chaotic state of our sinful existence, a return, a coming back to the land, the earth and thus the maker of heaven and earth. It is a submission to the waters of creation and recreation. To change our way of thinking as Jesus acknowledged we must do, it is incumbent upon us to go into these waters ourselves and to let go of all we hold near and dear in our doctrines, dogmas, rituals and theologies. If we do this we will find that upon rising from these waters that the only thing we need we already have, the Love of the Daddy, the maker of all life, the maker of water.
So much has been written about Jesus’ baptism it is almost useless to try and summarize. So we won’t. There are no real historical or cultural issues that interest us here today, excepting perhaps the connections to be found in John’s baptism and the ritual lustrations of Qumran, on which please see the literature.
What is the etymological opposite of ‘metanoia?’ It is not stubborness nor is it pride (hubris). It is not staying the same (stasis). The opposite of ‘metanoia’ is ‘paranoia.’ They both share a ‘thinking with’, the question is a thinking with whom or what? You can tell a religion’s baseline or fundamental ground by whether it is ‘metanoic’ in character or ‘paranoic.’ Have you noticed the palpable fear of much modern Christianity? The fear of losing this doctrine or that dogma? The fear of leaving this tradition or that theology? The fear of others who are not like us? Have you noticed this? Have you noticed that far too many TV preachers capitalize on people’s fears? Or how far too many so-called ‘gospel’ messages nurture fear, particularly fear of the other, fear of God, fear of death, fear of hell?
Is Christianity paranoid or repentant? This is our key question for today. When we submit to baptism we are not given a spirit of fear but the Spirit of One who cries loudly in our hearts, “Abba, daddy.” When we are full of this Spirit we recognize all life as sacred, all creation as alive, for God is not a God of the dead but of the Living, God is the God of Life! So what were we baptized into, metanoia or paranoia?