Revisiting Jesus' Baptism


    I preached about the baptism of Jesus last Sunday. As one person was leaving the sanctuary, she shook my hand and said, “I’ve always wondered why Jesus was baptized in the first place. Jesus didn’t have any sins to repent for and he didn’t need to have any sins forgiven.”
    It’s a very good — and popular — question. Almost every commentary written about the gospels has to address this matter, since Christianity traditionally holds that Jesus was sin-less.
    For one thing, scholars across the board agree that this event actually took place. The fact that all four gospels tell the same story lend credence to the idea that Jesus really was baptized by John. It appears to be a very important story to the followers of Jesus.
    So why was Jesus baptized?
    I’ll be honest; I think this is a misleading question. It assumes that Jesus knew he was sinless, or conscious of his status, when he was baptized. I think this story is best read as Jesus’ own call story. This is the event in Jesus’ life which jolted him into awareness of who he was, and what he was called to do.
    You may have noticed that the gospels are extremely light on details of Jesus’ life before his baptism. All we have are birth stories from Matthew and Luke, and a story about Jesus in the temple as a 12-year old (Luke 2:41-52), and those stories are all of dubious historicity.
    The truth is that nothing is really known about Jesus before he was baptized. He came down to the Jordan River that day to see and hear John the Baptist. He was moved by John’s proclamation, decided that he wanted to be part of John’s movement, and went down into the water with everybody else to be baptized.
    But when he came up out of the water, something happened. He saw into heaven, he saw the Spirit of God descending and entering him, and he heard God’s voice saying to him, “You are my Son, my beloved; in you, I am well pleased.”   
    What happened in the Jordan River was the defining event of Jesus’ life, up to this point. This is his coming out party, his debut, his “burning bush” moment. From this time forward, Jesus begins to live into the reality of who he is. He begins to understand more and more about his calling and his task; he starts to speak and act with authority.
    I think he didn’t fully understand his identity before the baptism; he didn’t know who he was or what he was supposed to be doing. I don’t believe this is a heretical idea; the orthodox belief is that Jesus was fully divine and fully human. To be fully human means to have knowledge which is limited to one’s own experience. Until Jesus experienced God’s call, he couldn’t have known precisely who he was.
    The more important question that this story raises is whether or not each one of us has heard God’s call upon our lives. God didn’t call only Jesus; no, the New Testament is full of stories of men and women who recognize — or not — God’s call and then act — or not — upon it.
    I believe that God has called every one of us — man, woman, and child — to a life full of meaning, fulfillment, and grace. Each life has its own unique bent; some, like myself, are called to ordained ministry, others are sent into the corporate work place, while others are called to the teaching, healthcare, or law enforcement professions, just to give a few examples.
    Yes, your life has its own special divine calling. You are the only one who can follow it. You are the one chosen by God to fulfill God's own particular mission.
     It's a high calling. But you are equipped for it. And so am I.

Experiencing All of Holy Week

There’s a saying among pastors that you can’t get from Palm Sunday to Easter without going through Good Friday.

Believe me, there is a tendency among many American churches to jump from the parade-like quality of Palm Sunday straight to the glory of Easter morning, without ever delving into the messiness and horror of what actually happened that last week of Jesus’ life. We tend to be very uncomfortable with the blood and suffering; not only does Holy Week veer mightily close to our own pain, but it forces us to look upon a Jesus who was betrayed, battered, beaten, and executed.

No thanks, we tend to say. We’d rather imagine a resurrected, bright and shiny Jesus. We like winners!

But I don’t think the story of Jesus Christ has any power at all unless it is true that he experienced so much suffering. The entire point of the resurrection is that evil does not have the last word in our world, despite the enormous amount of evil that exists in the world.

A Jesus who did not face his own personal terror would have nothing hopeful to offer the people of the world who are terrorized by the threat of nuclear weapons. A Jesus who was not whipped and beaten would have nothing meaningful to say to a Congolese woman who was raped by rebel militiamen. A Jesus who did not die on a cross would mean absolutely nothing to a Syrian refugee whose father and three children had been killed by sarin gas.

This is not to say that Jesus’ suffering was unique; his pain was not any greater than any other. Instead, it was representative. It marks him as human, like the rest of us. He was one of us, a member of our race, a participant in our plight.

And what God did through Jesus was to herald a coming age in which humanity would be saved from the plight and plague of evil and wickedness. In God’s reign, tragedy will be transformed into beauty. Jesus’ death and resurrection are a kind of parable of what God is doing in the world — even today.

Frankly, the only way to encounter the fullness of Easter is to become immersed in all the events of Holy Week, to get in touch with Jesus’ suffering, as difficult as it might be.

That’s the reason we gather on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday for worship. We hear the rest of the story, the part that happens in-between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday.

Another way to experience that part of the story is to walk the Stations of the Cross, which are now open and available in the sanctuary at Kessler Park UMC. The Stations of the Cross are an ancient spiritual practice of the Christian church, meant to imitate the journeys of early Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land, who retraced Jesus’ final steps on the way to Calvary.

There are fourteen stations, scattered throughout the sanctuary; each one represents a different moment in Jesus’ suffering and death. A booklet guides you to each station and offers a Scripture reading, reflection, question, and prayer. You are welcome to linger at each station as long as you like, and meditate on what it all means to you.

I walked the path this morning, and found myself marveling, once again, that Jesus had the courage and love to say of his persecutors, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.”

These words would mean nothing at all if Jesus said them on the back of the donkey while entering Jerusalem; likewise, if he’d said them on his deathbed at a ripe old age, they would ring hollow and trite. Instead, the fact that he said it while he was hanging on the cross gives the phrase a force that challenges all the world’s evil.

At that moment, Jesus truly overcame the horror of humanity’s inhumanity. Jesus refused to be sucked into the cycle of vengeful violence and hate, and chose to forgive.

Confronted with such a love, our only response can be, “Lord, have mercy on us.”

The Stations of the Cross will be open for visitors on Thursday and Friday from 8:30 am to 9 pm, and on Saturday from 10 am to 1 pm.