- Isaiah 42:1-9
- Acts 10:34-43
- Matthew 3:13-17
Epiphany 1, Year A
Main Text (Hover for Text)
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.
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?