Sermon for the First Sunday after the Epiphany (The Baptism of Our Lord), January 8, 2006, delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas at Grace Church, Amherst, Massachusetts.
The Baptism of Our Lord:
Taking the Plunge
Why was Jesus baptized? What led Jesus to take that plunge into the Jordan River? John the Baptist was preaching repentance from sin, but Jesus had no sin. He had nothing to repent and nothing to confess. He was the Savior, the Son of God, living with unbroken faithfulness to the Father. He didn’t need to be baptized by John. He was the Messiah for whom John was waiting, the one more powerful than John, the one about whom John was speaking when John declared that he was “not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals” [Mark 1:7]. Why would the lesser person baptize the greater? Why would Jesus seek to be baptized at all?
One thing is clear: Jesus’ baptism seems to have made the early Church uncomfortable. It was an embarrassment that our Savior and Lord humbled himself or “submitted” – as the early writers put it – to baptism by John. And yet of all the events in his life, Jesus’ baptism is one of the most certain to have actually occurred. All four Gospels plus two other books in the New Testament – Romans and Acts – refer to his baptism. The early Church’s very discomfort with Jesus’ baptism, the need to make sense of it, adds weight to the evidence that the event really took place. John Dominic Crossan, the well-known scholar in the quest for the “historical Jesus,” concludes that “Jesus’ baptism by John is one of the surest things we know about them both.” (1)
So why was Jesus baptized? He could have held himself apart. He could have kept his distance above everyone else. He could have simply watched the masses of people crowding down to the river to confess their sins and receive forgiveness, pitying them from afar for their brokenness and need, but knowing that he himself was in a special category: holy, sinless, divine.
And yet – he went ahead. He took the plunge. He came down from the hills of Nazareth, a town so obscure that one scholar comments that when we say “Jesus from Nazareth,” we might as well be saying “Jesus from Nowheresville.” (2) Nobody of any importance came from Nazareth – just think of the sarcastic question posed by Nathanael in the Gospel of John, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” [John 1:46]. Jesus came down from – well, Nowheresville – and humbly joined the anonymous crowds that were coming to John. And then, like them, he plunged into the waters of the Jordan.
Whatever else Jesus’ baptism may mean, surely it means this: he willingly chose to live in solidarity with human beings. He chose to stand with us, we who are vulnerable and mortal, we who sin and fall short in so many ways. Rather than holding himself apart as some perfect, untouchable being who looks down on us from afar, he plunged with us into the waters. As Martin Smith, the Episcopal priest and writer, puts it, Jesus “threw away his innocence and separateness to take on the identity of struggling men and women who were reaching out for the lifeline of forgiveness.” (3)
I think of Jesus’ decision to be baptized as a plunge into compassion. Jesus was willing to dive beneath the lie that human beings are basically separate from each other. He was willing to relinquish the temptation to hold himself apart from and above other people. A Jungian psychologist once defined sin in this way: “Sin is the refusal to get our feet wet in the ocean of God’s connectedness.” (4) So maybe it’s not surprising, after all, that Jesus, the one without sin, waded into those waters and claimed the truth of our interconnection. He chose to identify with all human beings, to identify with you, to identify with me. He became the Son of Man to whom nothing human would be alien or strange (5).
And in that very moment God’s joy was revealed and Jesus was anointed the Son of God. As he rose up out of the waters he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending on him like a dove, and he heard a heavenly voice that said, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” [Mark 1:11]. The movement of reaching down in love, of reaching out in love to other human beings opened Jesus to a very personal and intimate relationship with God in the Spirit. In the very act of identifying with other human beings and loving them without reserve or holding back, Jesus discovered his own deep belovedness in God.
So baptism into Christ isn’t about joining a club or belonging to a tribe. It isn’t about connecting with people who look like you or think like you. Baptism into Christ is a radical act of humility and compassion, the sacrament through which we are joined to the One who identifies with every human being and who leads us into the awareness that, like him, we too are the beloved son, the beloved daughter, of God.
As is everybody else. Just listen again to those almost revolutionary words that the apostle Peter says in today’s passage from Acts, words that cut through any pretence that one tribe or nation or even religion has an exclusive claim on God: “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” [Acts 10:34].
Earlier this week, some of you may have watched the CNN interview with a man named John Casto that aired a few hours after it became clear that only one coal miner had survived the accident in Sago, West Virginia. John Casto looked like a perfectly ordinary man – he was bearded, maybe in his 40’s, wearing a blue work shirt and carrying a coffee mug. As far as I could tell, he was no one special. He wasn’t the mayor or some other town official; he wasn’t wealthy or well educated. He might as well have been Mr. Nobody from Nowheresville. In the caption that CNN ran at the bottom of the screen, Mr. Casto was identified simply as “friend of miners.”
Mr. Casto explained that when he and hundreds of other town residents heard of the accident, they spent a long night in the Baptist church that he’d helped to build, praying to God and waiting for news of everyone’s loved ones, rejoicing when it seemed that twelve of the miners had been found alive, and grieving when it turned out that twelve of them had died.
“I know the Lord was with us through it all,” said Mr. Casto, his voice breaking with sorrow and exhaustion.
Although his face was lined and his eyes were sad, he seemed to me so filled with the love of God that he was almost transparent, as if Jesus was shining through his face and speaking through his voice. Who knows if Mr. Casto has ever gone down a mineshaft, but he’s obviously taken the plunge – the plunge into baptism, the plunge into Christ.
“You know,” he said at the end of the interview, “I’m not kin to none of those people under that hill over there, but each and every one of them is a brother to me, each and every one of them. Because you’re my brother,” he said, turning to the startled CNN reporter, “and you’re my brother,” he said, turning to the cameraman, “because I love Christ.”
That’s what happens when we are baptized with Christ. We cast our lot with the friend of miners, friend of mortals, friend of sinners. And discover that each person we meet is our sister, our brother.
Here on the first Sunday of the Epiphany we have a chance to make a radical new start. We have a chance to renew and reclaim a covenant more powerful than any stack of New Year’s Resolutions. This morning we reaffirm our baptismal vows. We join with Jesus, who joined with us. And like him, we take the plunge. Who knows what compassion will rise up from our renewed commitment, what new cherishing of ourselves and of everyone around us, what fresh energy for justice-seeking and for peace-making in this precious world of ours?
1) Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant, San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991, p. 234 (quoted in “John Baptizes Jesus,” in Jesus Database, http://www.faithfutures.org/JDB/jdb058.html).
2) Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1988, p. 128.
3) Martin L. Smith, A Season for the Spirit, Cambridge, MA: Cowley, 1991, p. 9.
4) I think of the words of the Roman playwright, Terence – Homo sum: nihil humanum a me alienum puto (“I am a man: nothing human is alien to me”).
5) Ann and Barry Ulanov, Primary Speech: A Psychology of Prayer, Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982, p. 96.