The Baptism of Jesus
Some years ago, as I was sitting in the front pew at Trinity Episcopal Church, Wall Street, just as the priest and chalicist came forward to distribute communion, a man from off the street came skipping down the aisle, stopped in front of the communion station and asked, “Is that there the Body of Christ?” And the priest said, “Yes.” Then the man asked, “And is that the Blood of Christ?” And the chalicist said, “Why, yes it is.” After a moment’s thought the man said, “Then I think I’ll have me some of that!” And with that he took the bread and the wine, turned, and skipped out of the building. He had a smile on his face because he now was a part of who we are and what we were doing.
For some reason every year when the Feast of the Baptism of Jesus comes around I remember that man. One thing all four gospels agree upon is that one day Jesus appeared at the River Jordan as John was baptizing people from all over to repent of their sins. John felt it was time for a full reset – time to recommit to the covenant with the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Jesus says in effect, “I’ll have me some of that!”
After some hesitation on John’s part, Jesus is baptized by John. After which the heavens open, the spirit descends upon him like a dove, and a voice from off-stage proclaims, “You are my Beloved; I am well pleased with you.”
Often it is asked why Jesus, who is presumed to be without sin, submits to John’s baptism? There are long discussions, theories and theological explanations. Yet, it has always seemed to me that the simplest explanation is that God in Christ wants the full experience of being one of us. It is a sign of his full humanity. It is a fulfillment of identifying himself with the words of the prophet Isaiah who wrote that one day will be born of a young woman someone known as Emmanuel – God with us. Bathing in the waters of the River Jordan, God in Christ says, “I am with you in the fullness of human reality and experience. I am with you. I really am God-made-man so as to accompany you on your journey – so as to know what it is like to be a living, breathing part of my creation.”
Like all of us, he was born to die. And die he did on a Roman Cross for persisting to challenge the status quo of the Empire and the religious authorities. Later, after his return, he promises, “I will be with you to the end of the age.” As priest and storyteller John Shea has pointed out, this not only means that we cannot get rid of him, but that he will not ever leave us alone!
So what can we make of all of this? God’s arrival in Jesus, whether in the manger, in a house or on the banks of the River Jordan reset the calculation of time or existence itself. Everything B.C. includes not only the Caesars, the Herods, the Greeks, the cave peoples, the dinosaurs, but all the geological ages, all the way back to the Big Bang and to whatever was before that first moment in time some 14 billion years ago. After that moment by the river comes everything else – and although it is some 2,000 years, it pales against the time before.
We are of the after moment, and in some sense it is till just that – a moment. I find it overwhelming to contemplate! At the same time it is simple. He wants to be with us and so God chooses to limit God’s self as a way of showing us just what it means to be created imago Dei, in the image of God. It flies in the face of the bigger-is-better, more-is-best approaches to life. In Jesus God becomes less and in so doing empties himself even more from that moment on the banks of the river to the moment he hands over his spirit on the cross.
It is all one moment. It is all one action. It is all one demonstration, one example from start to finish. It’s all a part of God’s wanting to be with us so much, so deeply, so that we can know what it is like to be God’s Beloved. The God who stood before the first moment in time 14 billion years ago even now is well pleased with us and hold us as his beloved despite little evidence that such love and forgiveness and desire to share in our deepest experiences can in any way be justified or deserved. Thus, his need to be with us to the end of the age.
I try to wrap my head around it all and still, the best I can come up with as to why he showed up on the banks of the River Jordan was because God saw how hard and how intentionally we were trying to reset the whole thing and he said to himself, “I think I’ll have me some of that! I want to be a part of the reset too.”