Saint Margaret’s Anglican Episcopal Church
Isaiah 42:1-9; Acts 10:34-43; Matthew 3:13-17; Psalm 29
"I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?"
The early Church really did not know quite what to make of John’s Baptism of Jesus at the Jordan. The prevailing view was that it should not have happened in the first place, since Jesus was obviously greater than John, and in any case he was not in need of repentance, much less a Baptism of Repentance. Some even called the Baptism of Jesus an embarrassing mistake. The Gospel of John for instance does not so much as mention it.
We see the conflicted feelings reflected already in today’s first-century account of Jesus’ Baptism from the Gospel of Matthew, in which John pipes us and says, "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?" This is the issue in a nutshell. The vignette by the way is only found in Matthew and does not occur in the Baptism narratives of the Gospels of Luke and Mark.
Frustratingly perhaps, Matthew’s Jesus does not give John much of an answer to his quite sensible question; saying in essence and a bit cryptically, just let it be for now. The early Church however – and Christians ever since – could not simply let it be. And so scholars and theologians have over the centuries made a cottage industry out of offering meaning to and explanation of Jesus’ Baptism. Allow me to add my own humble reflections to theirs.
Warning: This will be a bit theological.
Baptism as a religious rite has a long history and pedigree in many of the religions of the world, including Judaism of course, and Islam. For the Jews of John’s time, regular ablutions were apparently commonplace, representing a sort of symbolic cleansing from ritual impurity – impurity which was not to be confused with outright sinfulness by the way. And, until John came along, people in essence washed – or baptized if you will – themselves, pretty much as we might wash our own hands or face today without anyone’s help.
John on the other hand personally baptized – or washed – the people who came to him at the Jordan, presumably one at a time, suggesting for the first time that one could not, of one’s own efforts, bring about either ritual purity or for that matter forgiveness of sin. And indeed, John was also unique in his call for more than simple ritual purity in accordance with arbitrary laws and customs, as important as that was. John demanded more. He demanded inner repentance for sin and a Baptism of Repentance.
That was new.
And, it was perhaps this as much as his preaching that drew people to him – including Jesus. People instinctively knew or felt in their hearts that rote compliance with innumerable rules and regulations and ritual ablutions could not bring inner peace. Yet at some deeper and more troubling level, neither could repentance, as they came to see, if it was purely an act of one’s own volition and desire. You cannot, in other words, make God love or forgive you. And, that was a problem.
Jesus offers a solution. At his Baptism, our Lord takes upon himself the sins of all humankind and receives John’s Baptism of Repentance on behalf of us all. In our Lord’s Baptism, repentance is no longer the action or decision of the individual alone. It is a grace and a gift from God, freely given and bestowed to humankind. You still cannot make God love you. But then, you no longer need try.
Jesus humbled himself before John in order to inaugurate his work of redemption of all humankind. Thus, the ancient Fathers of the Church called Jesus’ Baptism both the end of the ancient, exclusively Hebrew, Covenant and simultaneously the beginning of the new Covenant of grace, or “all righteousness,” as Matthew has Jesus describe it, a Covenant which is sealed by the words from heaven, "This is my Son, the Beloved.” And, those words in turn find their final fulfillment at the Cross and Resurrection.
What to make of it…?
Well, our Baptism in a way is also an embarrassing mistake. It should not have to be. It should not be the case in other words that sin should still exist, much less that we should engage in it. Nowadays after all, engineers tell us, even computer programmes and Smart-Phone applications learn from their mistakes and auto-correct. Surely, humankind should be able to do as much. Surely by now, wars as well as political and business corruption should have long ceased. Justice should rule the lands, and people should live in peace.
Workplaces too should be places where productivity is based not only on forints and pence and the bottom-line but on the commonweal, on the common good. Families should provide homes and reservoirs of love and acceptance. Jealousies and envy should have long been replaced by good will and self-giving. How embarrassing indeed that things are not so. What John proclaimed long ago still holds true: If we cannot seem to perfect human nature, then we must at least accept the Baptism of Repentance -- and the Baptism of grace and all righteousness.
Our Baptism is then a sharing in the Redemption, and so a sharing in our Lord’s Baptism as well. It is a poignant reminder that Christ’s work of Redemption is far from over, for the world around us is still a world of sin and madness from which we cannot escape, except through the grace of God. In Christ and in his Baptism, we find hope for the world and for ourselves. His Baptism -- and ours -- remain works-in progress as long as human nature is, well, human nature.
Matthew’s Gospel seems to be the only one which suggests that the words from heaven, "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased," are heard not just by Jesus but also by John and those surrounding our Lord at his Baptism. Stay true to your Baptism, my friends, be still and listen closely, and you too may hear those words addressed to Jesus but by extension to us as well: "This is my Son, my Daughter, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased."
The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedűs