Genesis 1:1-5; Psalm 29; Acts 19:1-7; Mark 1:4-11
The Rev. Drew Brislin
Many of you have heard me discuss my Baptist upbringings in the past, my baptism, and the subsequent need to answer an altar call so that I could be baptized. What I do not believe I have talked about is why I decided to answer that altar call and make that long walk down the aisle that is paralyzing for most fourteen-year-olds. I really would like to say that I had a miraculous spiritual experience resulting from a mature decision to dedicate my life to Christ, but I cannot. My younger brother had decided that he wanted to get baptized and so that he did not have to make that paralyzing walk down the aisle to answer the altar call by himself, I found myself going with him. I had entertained the idea several years earlier and had even gone to meet with our pastor, I just could not muster the nerve to go by myself. So, when my brother found himself wanting to go, I said to myself, “Here’s a good opportunity.” Just goes to show that God can work through anyone and in any circumstance. When we read about baptism and especially our Gospel lesson this morning, I think it calls on a lot of us to think about the why of baptism? You hear a lot about the question ‘why’ in general? Candice and I often discuss this in terms of mission statements and how we talk about what the church is doing, referring to different Ted Talks and other various marketing and organizational gurus. These ‘talks’ that encourage big corporations to community organizations to identify and talk about the ‘Why’ as they lay out their organizational plans. So, it seems natural that we should ask ‘why’ this morning as we celebrate the Feast of the Baptism of our Lord. If baptism is about repentance and the forgiveness of sins, then why would Jesus, the Son of God, the One who is without sin then need to get baptized?
As we ponder this question, I think it is important for us to maybe try and grasp a better understanding of sacraments. Many of us are familiar with that very quick definition of a sacrament that we pull from our catechism as an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace, and this is very true. However, Andrew Davison in his book Why Sacraments? takes this a little further and says to paraphrase, ‘Sacraments are about nothing less than salvation. That is their point and purpose. This is most clearly understood in baptism which is the first and foundational sacrament. At the end of Mark, Jesus says ‘The one who believed and is baptized will be saved.’ The sacraments while they are God’s guarantees, they are not on the other hand his straitjacket. God has indeed established good order in his church and has appointed the church to be the herald and the body of his Son on earth. All the same God can also work outside those channels. Davison concludes, however, that to rely on those exceptions would be to look a gift horse in the mouth. We humans it seems sometimes like to make things difficult for ourselves when God first and foremost loves us and wants us to be happy. You will often hear me say that the sacraments are those thin places where Heaven and earth push up against each other. In the sacraments we get a glimpse of what God’s kingdom looks like and that we are commissioned to help build it up here on earth.
As we continue to consider Jesus’ baptism though I think it is important to understand that in our reading this morning Jesus is not participating in Christian baptism as we know it. What we do know is that we find accounts of Jesus’ baptism in all four Gospels contrary to other events throughout scripture that are included or left out of the various Gospel accounts. This pivotal event is one of the most secure elements in Jesus’ life which means the early church more than likely would not have created it with its focus on post Easter theology in the early years of its development and growth. The reality of Jesus being baptized by John was too established to be ignored or reframed by those who were developing the canon of the church. So then again, why would Jesus, He who is without sin, need to repent or be baptized? This first of the two Dominican sacraments of baptism and eucharist (pulling this name from the Latin ‘domini’ for our Lord) is not something Jesus or John the Baptist invented. The followers of John would have been very familiar with these ritual cleansing practices as well. What John seems to do this morning though is to connect the promises of Israel’s past to Jesus’ future ministry. We often see the scene of the Holy Spirit descending on Jesus like a dove portrayed in movies and art as a gentle and calm experience, contrary to this docile image, some commentaries pontificate that it may have been more like a dive-bombing bird. In Mark, John quickly tells us this is the one Isaiah was telling us about and then Jesus is quickly sent out into the wilderness after his baptism and then into the beginning of his ministry. It is this calling in his baptism that leads to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.
So, we ask again ‘why’ was Jesus baptized? So often we hear the message of baptism being about washing away our sins. We hear the sin language and think it is a get out of jail free card because we think about sin as the bad things, we have done rather than as our prayer book defines it as being out of relationship with God. If washing away sin was interpreted as restoration of relationship, then how different does that change our thoughts on what Jesus does this morning? If God is calling Jesus into ministry, then what is Jesus calling us into? In his book Davison speaks at length to the indissolubility of the sacraments. That once they are done, they are done and if done intentionally there is no need to redo them. We profess this in our creeds when we say we believe in one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. As a young boy I may not have had a full appreciation for what I was doing which is not much different from baptizing an infant but what was happening to the both of us was that we are both being grafted into God’s family and subsequently into the work of spreading his message of love and grace into the world. Jesus is God incarnate and the Father’s active agent in the world. In his baptism the heavens were ripped apart and the Father in a voice revealed who Jesus was and, in that moment, called him to ministry. I believe that in our baptism, Jesus reveals who we are as the blessed creations of the Father made in his image of love and calls us to share and reflect that love out into the world. It seems to me that Jesus’ baptism is maybe more about the revelation of his true identity and his commissioning into God’s shared earthly ministry here on earth rather than on a need for repentance. As beings created in God’s image, Jesus is modeling for us what our new calling here on earth will be. That the repentance in our baptisms is maybe less about our personal need for forgiveness and maybe more about an acceptance of our calling into this shared work of love.