January 10, 2016
Baptism of the Lord Sunday

Several years ago a friend wrote on my blog that she was going to be baptized. I told her it was dangerous business. Look what happened to Jesus. I am serious. I told her that once you are baptized, truth, justice, compassion, peace (Jesus kind of stuff) will make demands on you and gnaw at your conscience until you are dead.

This is point eight of the eight points of progressive Christianity:

Recognize that being followers of Jesus is costly, and entails selfless love, conscientious resistance to evil, and renunciation of privilege.

That to me is a pretty good definition of baptism. You may have been baptized as a baby or as a teenager or even an adult. You can even join a community, and never think a thing about it.

That is until one day you are reminded that baptism has something to do with how you will live your life. It is just a sprinkle of water on the head. There is no compulsion.

But, you know.

When there is injustice in the world and you want to turn and look the other way, you know that you have been baptized.

When you are given the choice between deception and truth, you can choose the deception, but you will know.

Baptism is a reminder that being followers of Jesus is costly, and entails selfless love, conscientious resistance to evil, and renunciation of privilege.

There is a liturgical tradition that I haven’t had much luck in implementing. I think the flower industry is too powerful. This tradition relates to funerals. It involves placing a white pall over the casket and nothing else. No flowers, pictures, ribbons, or bows. The white pall is a symbol that one’s baptism is complete in death.

I realize that I won’t have much say in the matter. But if any of you are around when I am dead, and my remains are placed in some box, just drape it if you would with a white sheet. It will signify that I have finished making trouble, and that my baptism is complete.

Today is Baptism of the Lord Sunday. The baptism of Jesus is recounted in the four gospels. Historical Jesus scholars say that amidst all the legends about Jesus in the gospels he likely was really baptized by John the Baptist.

The reason is because it was embarrassing. As the tradition develops about Jesus and he becomes more and more divine like and sin-free the story that he was baptized for forgiveness of sins became troublesome. Why would Jesus the sinless, perfect, son of God, need to be baptized?

Another problem is that if John baptized Jesus, then John was the leader and Jesus the follower. Historical Jesus scholars also suggest that Jesus was originally a follower of John the Baptist, then broke away and started his own movement.

The gospel writers covered over that tradition by attempting to explain away this baptism.

Scholars call this the Criterion of Embarrassment. It doesn’t make sense that Jesus would be baptized by John. That would make Jesus a follower of John and a person who needs a baptism for forgiveness of sin. It doesn’t fit the developing theology about Jesus.

Therefore, it likely was an historical event that was known and had to be spun, so to speak.

A plausible historical reconstruction is that Jesus, a human being like every one else, heard John’s preaching, wanted a baptism for forgiveness of sins and became a follower of John the Baptist. Later Jesus broke away from John and started his own movement.

When we finally get to the gospel accounts of Jesus, each goes to great lengths to explain away this embarrassing situation by having John the Baptist be a precursor, a subordinate, to Jesus.

We should take a moment and recall what happened to John the Baptist. He lost his head. He called out empire and its minions in regards to justice. John’s movement was about justice.

Jesus learned from John. He was infused with John’s passion. He took John’s baptism seriously and in his own movement, he felt the weight of that passion. I don’t think John’s baptism was just a baptism for forgiveness of sin, some kind of pious I am so miserable act. It was an act of passion and commitment.

Later, the gospel of Mark recounts this interesting scene:

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, ‘Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.’ And he said to them, ‘What is it you want me to do for you?’ And they said to him, ‘Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.’ But Jesus said to them, ‘You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?’

Here baptism means more than being baptized by water or baptized for forgiveness. Mark, and I think this reflects the historical Jesus introduces something new about the meaning of baptism. Jesus uses this conversation to explain baptism.

When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, ‘You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’

Baptism has a danger associated with it. For Jesus, according to Mark, baptism is associated with giving one’s life. It is being different than the nations – the Gentiles. In the Jesus community, power is different. In the world as it is power is power over. You know how Caesar runs the world. In my world, says Jesus, things are different. Power is power shared.

Jesus says in effect, “Listen folks, if you want to hang out with me, you need to be baptized and drink the cup I drink. It isn’t about getting to heaven. It isn’t about getting privileges of membership. It isn’t about bossing others around.”

Baptism and the cup are symbols of danger. They are symbols of risk.

You want to be baptized? You may end up dead for it. I would advise against it.

Baptism is dangerous business.

It is not about assenting to creeds or to some sort of metaphysical philosophy. It is not a ticket to the afterlife or an expression of Christian superiority. None of that.

Baptism is first a sign that we are embraced and loved by Spirit, by Life, by God without conditions. I learned this from Presbyterians.

We spend our lives trying to justify our existence, to prove our worth, if we believe in God, to seek God’s favor. Presbyterians taught me this important truth:

There is nothing we can do to make God love us more.
There is nothing we can do to make God love us less.

Baptism is a sign of radical grace. The Divine Mystery that pervades the universe is within each of us. It is the humble recognition that before we know ourselves, we are known. If we forget that, we remember our baptism. That is the sign of that truth.

All religious traditions have a way of expressing that truth in some form. Baptism is the Christian way. It is not a symbol that separates us from other human beings, but connects us. It is the Christian way of saying we all belong. We all belong to each other, regardless of our religion, ethnicity, politics, status, whatever. When I remember my baptism I remember that I am a brother to every human being. Likewise, every human being is my brother or sister.

Secondly, it is a sign to live into that radical grace. As the eighth point of progressive Christianity states,

“…being followers of Jesus is costly, and entails selfless love, conscientious resistance to evil, and renunciation of privilege.”

Mary Oliver has an important poem that I have included in our communion liturgy for today. She concludes her poem with this line:

Love yourself. Then forget it. Then love the world.

I don’t know if she is Presbyterian, but that is good Reformed Theology. Baptism calls our attention away from ourselves so we don’t have to fret if we are good enough or cool enough or lovable enough. Yes. Love yourself.

The dove has landed. The dove has landed on you and the voice has pronounced the truth from the heavens:

“You are loved and lovable. You are the beloved.”

Now, get on with it. Accept it and love the world with passion and risk.

As I noted on my blog to the woman who was being baptized this Sunday that once you are baptized, truth, justice, compassion, peace (Jesus kind of stuff) will make demands on you and gnaw at your conscience until you are dead.

It was his baptism that led Martin Luther King to resist racism, poverty, and militarism with his mind, strength, and ultimately, his life.

It was baptism, that compelled Dietrich Bonhoeffer to return to his homeland in Germany and resist the Nazis, resist to his own execution.

It was baptism that compelled Rachel Corrie, a young Presbyterian woman to stand in front on an Israeli tank bulldozing Palestinian homes, and to lose her own life.

It was baptism that each day comforts the sick, feeds the hungry, offers a word and a compassionate embrace, cares for Earth, speaks up for the bullied, is grateful, laughs, weeps, seeks a deeper meaning, loves the world.

This baptism isn’t just a Christian thing. It is a Christian symbol for a human thing. It is a spirit of courage despite fear that infects people of conscience. Jew, Christian, Muslim, Humanist, whatever, catch the spirit of baptism when they allow their consciences to be raised and realize that they are being summoned to risk. To risk love.

Because of my baptism, I cannot look at the situation in Gaza and say it is not my problem. My baptism will not allow me to excuse myself from the violence by saying they are always fighting over there. I can’t get away with trite analogies or lame explanations that lay the blame on someone else. My baptism requires that I look into my own complicity. I have to ask to what extent do I as a citizen of the United States contribute to this situation of apartheid and the violence and injustice that apartheid inevitably produces? I must ask to what extent this apartheid contributes to my privilege.

While I cannot claim that my baptism gives me the answers, it compels me to ask the hard questions. My baptism calls me to seek and to speak the truth. More importantly, it calls me to hear the truth when I would rather find comfort in my illusions. Ultimately, it is a call to action. It is a call to incarnate in our own lives compassion, justice, peace, and love.