Last month, I found myself following and to some extent participating in a twitter conversation or debate about the practice and theology of baptism. A number of people from various backgrounds took part as they discussed the relative merits of adult believer’s baptism or infant baptism, and explored the meaning of the rite—does it wash away original sin? Is it primarily a sign or symbol of membership in a community? Does it transmit grace, but only if the one being baptized makes a mature confession of faith or commitment?
These questions are not at all new. Christians have discussed and debated them at least since the second century, if not the first, and throughout Christian history, there have been times when how you answered those questions could have had far-reaching, even lethal consequences.
That’s a far cry from today, when apart from clergy, professional theologians, and passionate lay people, the particulars around our practice of baptism receive little attention. For most of us in the Episcopal Church, baptism is chiefly an opportunity for something a little different taking place in church, and the possibility that the interaction between the baby and the priest will be awkward enough to bring some laughs.
There are two primary sources for our contemporary reflection on the meaning of baptism, the liturgy itself, which offers rich material for making meaning of the rite, and of course the accounts of baptism in scripture, of which the baptism of Jesus is among the most important, but by no means the only one. Today, on the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord, we heard the account of Jesus’ baptism from the Gospel of Luke, in which the gospel writer provides us with his understanding of what that event meant for the life and ministry of Jesus and for his relationship with God.
It’s worth pointing out that the synoptic gospels each include an account of John’s baptism of Jesus. It’s placed at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. In Mark’s gospel it comes at the very beginning of the gospel itself. Luke precedes the baptism with the story of Jesus’ birth and a lengthy account of John’s origins and his ministry.
Luke’s version of Jesus’ baptism has some distinctive elements. In the first place, he reports on John the Baptist’s arrest before telling the story of Jesus’ baptism. In other words, he doesn’t actually say that John baptized Jesus and a careless reader might assume that Jesus was baptized by someone else. That is probably because of the difficulty presented to early Christians by the fact of Jesus’ baptism by John. It was something of an embarrassment. John’s baptism was about repentance and forgiveness of sins, for one thing. But the other reason for embarrassment or discomfort was the relationship between the two men—if John baptized Jesus, one might conclude that John was more important than Jesus or that Jesus’ authority derived from John.
The other interesting and difficult element in this story is the account of John’s arrest by Herod Antipas, who was Herod the Great’s son. Herod arrested him because of John’s public criticisms of Herod’s immorality. In fact, the lectionary editors omitted this incident from today’s gospel reading, likely thinking that it was irrelevant. But, I think it sheds important light on the baptism and I will come back to that in a minute.
But first, I would like to draw your attention to the way Luke tells the story and what his particular emphases might say about our own baptisms in relationship to Jesus’ baptism. The first thing I find interesting is that Luke connects Jesus’ baptism with the baptisms of other people. Jesus’ baptism is not a solitary or private event. It begins with a crowd and with expectation: “As the people were filled with expectation…” And then later Luke, stresses, these same people, “when all the people had been baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized…”
Jesus’ baptism was not a private or individual event. It occurred in the presence of a crowd, and it was an act of solidarity with the crowd. It is a moment when we see Jesus’ humanity, his presence among us, his sharing with us in our lives, and inviting us to share with him in his. Paul writes of baptism in Romans:
all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.
That’s why I think it’s important to keep Luke’s contextualization of Jesus’ baptism in mind. It took place under the looming shadow of Roman and Herodian evil and power, and Jesus’ baptism was the first step on a journey that would lead to the cross. So Paul’s interpretation of baptism as sharing in Christ’s death is not some abstract theological proposition, it is a very real and immediate reminder of the consequences of Jesus’ baptism, and the possible consequences of our own.
Other details of this scene deserve mention. After his baptism, Jesus prayed, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in the form of a dove. Luke’s description suggests that this might have happened out of sight of the crowd. Throughout Luke’s gospel, he will have Jesus go off alone to pray at significant moments. While he doesn’t state the same here, it’s worth considering whether Luke imagines this taking place away from the crowds, as Jesus has gone off to pray and reflect on his baptism. In any case, Luke, following Mark, has the voice address Jesus, not the crowd: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
These powerful words, this affirmation of Jesus’ identity comes as no surprise to us. We don’t know how Jesus experienced it but it must have been a transformative event. Jesus was about to begin his public ministry, an beginning that would take place after John’s arrest, and with full knowledge that what he would do and say would bring him into conflict with the power of Rome and of Herod.
But the voice speaks not only to Jesus; it also addresses us. Like Jesus, we are encouraged to reflect on our baptism, on its meaning for our lives. We do that each time we perform baptisms here as we reaffirm our own baptismal vows. We are encouraged to reclaim our identity and calling as followers of Jesus. But we are also encouraged to remember our baptisms in another way. When I baptize Cecilia, I will take a bit of oil on my thumb, mark her forehead with the sign of the cross, and say, “Cecilia, you are sealed with the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.”
In baptism, we become part of Christ’s body but it is also the beginning of our being re-created in Christ’s image, in the image and likeness of God. It is a life-long process, one at which we often fail and fall short, but nonetheless, we are marked as Christ’s own forever. And God’s voice speaks to us as it spoke to Jesus, “You are my child, my beloved.”
We are beloved children of God, and baptism is an opportunity for us to remember who we are, that we are God’s beloved children, marked as Christ’s own forever. As we welcome Cecilia into the body of Christ, may we also reclaim that identity as God’s beloved children, marked as Christ’s own forever, and may our knowledge and memory of that identity strengthen us for the journey that lies ahead.