All four Gospels tell the story of Jesus’ baptism, as if every reader needs to hear it. Jesus’ cousin John, outfitted in a garment made of camel’s hair and a rustic leather belt, has set up camp in an unmarked wilderness to preach and prophesy. Everyone comes out to listen: the pious and the profane. The bankrupt and the ruined. The broken and the eccentric. Religious misfits and spiritual castoffs. All get a dose of John’s caustic threats and stern warnings. Each hears the message of impending judgment. Many confess and are baptized, one repentant sinner after another. And then Jesus, the Messiah, gets in line as if he’s in a Costco checkout.
Each Gospel offers its own angle on the story. Mark starts his Gospel with it, skipping Christmas as incidental and quickly launching into Jesus’ ministry. Luke copies much of Mark’s detail, following the gist of his telling but refusing to mention the involvement of the eccentric cousin. John emphasizes the Spirit lingering on Jesus like a dove, avoiding any awkward mention of an actual baptism.
The unique feature of Matthew’s version is the cousin conversation. John admires Jesus. He believes in Jesus. That’s exactly why he rebuts Jesus. He can’t stomach Jesus’ baptismal plan. Not one to hold back his opinions, John protests: Jesus shouldn’t be in the same line as the dreck of humanity. John’s baptismal liturgy is consistent: Repent, be baptized, live a new life. Why is Jesus in that line? What does he have to repent of?
The baptizer’s harsh, prophetic words can’t apply to the Savior. So he asserts that Jesus’ baptismal plans are backward. If one cousin is to baptize the other, Jesus should baptize him. The innocent should be the one baptizing, not the professional baptizer. “I need to be baptized by you,” John says, “and do you come to me?” (Matt. 3:14).
It’s easy to imagine that in dusty first-century Palestine, where water was precious and dirt ever-present, a person might consider ritual cleansing a necessary preparation for meeting God. But when John talked about baptism, he emphasized repentance. And it wasn’t just proselytes who needed baptismal washing. Everyone did. Baptism meant repentance. It meant embracing the need for profound moral change. It still does.
Missionary-turned-Bible-commentator Dale Bruner calls Jesus’ baptism his “first miracle.” Standing in line, waiting his turn, dunked into murky water, Jesus forever identifies himself with the shadowy reality of humanity’s brokenness and our human need for repentance. His baptism miracle was his first step of humble obedience, setting him on a course to his death and resurrection.
At the very first Christian baptism, Jesus identified with sinners. It’s what he was ordained to do. Like his cousin, we may prefer that Jesus stay clear of scandalous connection with religious underachievers, but that’s how Jesus includes us. He didn’t need the heavens opened. But we do. As John Chrysostom explains, the heavens were opened to “inform thee that at thy baptism also this is done.”
Baptisms today aren’t usually accompanied by a voice like thunder or a visible flyover of the Holy Spirit. But the early church believed that the triune fullness of God is present at our baptisms. It’s as if heaven opens again. God gets to us. And maybe we get to God. The Spirit of healing and wholeness descends to make an ordinary person holy. And the Father’s voice issues another adoption decree; heaven opens and we understand that this is God’s beloved child.
Following Gospel footsteps, early church leaders taught that Jesus’ baptism identified him with forgiven sinners and launched his ministry. It was, to put it in Old Testament terms, his anointing. Jesus publicly recognized and accepted his special relationship with God and so began his public ministry.
Baptism, not Christmas, starts the story. Baptism is the set of glasses through which we can see all of Jesus’ life. His other miracles, his teaching, his friendships, his loving or tough words to broken people, his death on the cross—all are a working out of his baptism. “When the New Testament strikes the note of baptism,” Bruner writes, “all the overtones of the great chord of God’s salvation can be heard.”
Our baptisms too are anointings. Each baptism, in its specific place and time, marks the beginning of a life of baptism. Our entire postbaptismal life is lived under water. Every decision, each career move, and each sentence we speak is an overflow of baptismal waters, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. In his baptism Jesus links himself to us, and in our baptisms we get linked to him. In faith we work with the Spirit toward humble obedience, to multiply life, to live our anointed calling, just as Jesus did.
That’s why, former archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams notes, we expect to find the baptized living out their ordination “in the neighbourhood of chaos … near to those places where humanity is most at risk, where humanity is most disordered, disfigured and needy.” Williams has witnessed thousands of Christians living their baptisms in ordinary or desperate places. “If being baptized is being led to where Jesus is,” he says, “then being baptized is being led towards the chaos and the neediness of a humanity that has forgotten its own destiny.”
Like Jesus, Williams adds, the baptized need not fear being contaminated by the mess of humanity because “they have a new level of solidarity with them.” It seems a contradiction that the baptized could both be in the center of God’s joy and pleasure and at the same time the center of mission. “And that of course means that the path of the baptized person is a dangerous one. Perhaps baptism really ought to have some health warnings attached to it: ‘If you take this step, if you go into these depths, it will be transfiguring, exhilarating, life-giving and very, very dangerous.’ To be baptized into Jesus is not to be in what the world thinks of as a safe place. Jesus’ first disciples discovered that in the Gospels, and his disciples have gone on discovering it ever since.”
Barbara Brown Taylor remembers reading about two paramedics who, on seeing the chaos and misery left by a flood in Honduras, immediately left their home to help. They had no Spanish-language skills. They had no place to stay. They had no illusions. They knew they would be pulling dead bodies out of the mud. But they “thought it might help the families to give them back their loved ones for burial.” They were simply living their baptismal ordination.
Living our ordination
When I was a pastor in small-town Minnesota, a friend who managed the local hardware store phoned me to say, “You’re going to want to come and see this.” New to small-town life, I was only slowly becoming aware of its tempos and rhythms. Of course, I knew we were in a drought; we had been praying for rain every Sunday for weeks. But the level of desperation had somehow missed me. Only a couple of our attendees were directly involved in agriculture.
When I drove, as directed, to the site of our sister church, I saw a row of semi trailers. A group of men, some of whom I knew but many of whom were unfamiliar, ambled about. Each truck bed was overflowing with hay—food that would feed livestock. Food that would mean these farmers could survive the season. A group of farmers from the other side of the state, which had experienced a few more “lucky” thunderstorms that summer, had heard about the plight of their neighbors from hundreds of miles away and had come to help. There were no news outlets recording the event. There was no public spotlight. There was just a group of unassuming farmers living their baptism ordination.
Again, we are challenged by Rowan Williams, “Baptism does not confer on us a status that marks us off from everybody else” so we might imagine ourselves more elite people who can “claim an extra dignity” or a “sort of privilege.” Rather, baptism moves us beyond ourselves. It calls us to an “openness to human need” and a “corresponding openness to the Holy Spirit.”
The baptized still struggle to be decent human beings. We are still tempted to be less than God created us to be. But in Jesus, God gives us spiritual power to choose a higher and better way. Because of our baptisms, we live inside the promise that we are loved and can live love.
Adapted from Living under Water: Baptism as a Way of Life by Kevin Adams (Eerdmans). Reprinted by permission of the publisher.