As with so many of the stories about Jesus in the Gospels, today’s selection from Matthew about his baptism by John can be read as being straightforward enough. But if you take a closer look, certain aspects don’t quite add up. The first clue to this might be John’s reluctance to baptize Jesus. Why indeed did Jesus go to this wild prophet and his mission of baptizing people in the muddy waters of the Jordan river? Whatever meaning this baptism had for anyone at the time was certainly somewhat different from the way Christians think of baptism today. And John was far from any representative of an official religious institution. Rather, he was an outlier: an independent and radical prophet committed to calling people away from sin and toward the Kingdom of God. Having Jesus show up would be like having your boss show up at work and request a service from you with the understanding that he or she knew the playbook as well as anybody. In this moment, John and Jesus recognized one another for who they were: Jesus knew John as a holy man who had, indeed, prepared his way; John knew Jesus as the one who was the fulfillment of God’s promises to the world. Yet how does this moment “fulfill God’s justice?” The ritual of baptism at the time was linked to the custom of various purification acts which were part of Jewish tradition. John also seemed to use it as a means of marking a transition of those who submitted to the rite from the world of the flesh to the life of the spirit and the reign of God. But neither of these meanings would seem applicable to Jesus. Still, Jesus sees importance in joining in this ritual, along with the many others who found John’s message compelling.
Situated in the season of Epiphany, we usually understand the Baptism of Jesus as yet another moment of the “manifestation” of the mystery of God in our midst. But here’s an interesting detail: Unlike other accounts of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan when the onlookers are witnesses to a theophany—a manifestation of God with some kind of awesome power—here the opening of the heavens, the descent of the Spirit and the voice from on high are private events, experienced by Jesus along. Thus, it is not so much a public premier as a private moment of affirmation of Jesus’ own identity. Indeed, this would make Jesus very special. Yet apart from the obvious ways in which Jesus takes up a very specific mission, there are also elements here which immerse him into humanity. Perhaps that’s why he engages in a common ritual which became customary for the church as a whole. In this moment, we can see Jesus claim an identity which doesn’t simply single him out from the herd, but actually dramatically affirms his participation within the human community.
Christians tend to make a big deal of the specialness and uniqueness of Jesus. No disrespect! Jesus is clearly important—the center of the “Jesus movement” as it has come to be known in many quarters, including within the Episcopal Church. But while many are quite comfortable proclaiming Jesus as the only one that matters in the whole enterprise of Faith, others have sometimes felt uncomfortable with the over-emphasis on the particularity of Jesus as the one path to salvation. Those who appreciate the authenticity of many of the non-Christian religions which have emerged both before and after the advent of Christianity might struggle with how we might preserve the specialness of Jesus without devaluing ways in which God has become manifest in other forms and traditions of belief. Furthermore, the very particularities of the incarnation and the existence of Jesus as a “man born of a woman” who is both God and human might create some problems for those who don’t as readily grasp relationship with Jesus as a human among humans as easy or even possible. For example, emphasis on the gender of Jesus has frankly been a problem, particularly as it has been used to reinforce misogyny and hierarchy in the Church, determining who can adequately “represent” Christ in the priesthood. Or, we know that in spite of the logical presumption that Jesus would have been a darker skinned Semite, most representations in western culture have, for generations, rendered him as lily-white. And—to push the envelope a bit further–why do we assume that Jesus was heterosexual, given that we have no evidence whatsoever of his sexual desires. In addition to all this, it’s important to acknowledge that many who know themselves as “Christians” don’t have a particularly strong spirituality centered around the person of Jesus. Some may readily embrace having “a friend in Jesus” while others will find this image less accessible, for a variety of reasons.
I raise these issues not only to be provocative, but to push our thinking beyond the focus on the historical Jesus deeper into the mystery of the incarnation and the meaning of “the Christ” at the core of our faith. For me, the miracle of the incarnation was not merely that God was born as a particular baby, but that God fully took in our humanity—our flesh and our fleshly existence, even up to the point of dying an unjustified death. The descent into the River Jordan represents a descent into all the troubles of human existence, while at the same time signaling a divine call which is not unique to Jesus but is made to all of us—to all of humanity. In fact, Jesus is special, because in becoming incarnate, God was giving everything that God has to give to the world. Nothing is held back. God’s vulnerability of love meshes with our vulnerability; God’s power becomes our power.
In the Acts of the Apostle, Peter says that I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to God. In the early Church, the idea that God’s divine intention might extend beyond Israel to the Gentiles was a radical and controversial idea. Today, the notion that God might manifest God’s self in many different idioms and traditions had been a growing edge of Christian self-awareness.
Think again about today’s passage from Isaiah, which is recognized as both a commissioning of a particular prophet but also a description of a divine intention for the world, one which embraces righteousness manifested in the opening of eyes and the release of all who are captive. It is another example of how God gathers us from the margins of existence in order to bring all into a transformed life of holiness. Jesus clearly identified with this mission and was identified with it in our tradition. Jesus was also willing to give everything he could give, just as God has given everything so that we might know where we belong and who we are.
Christianity isn’t special just because we have Jesus, but is special because of what we have come to know as having been revealed by Jesus. Proclaiming Jesus as Lord means very little unless it also means taking up the challenge to live more like Jesus in terms of embracing the power of the Christ in the world. Some contemporary theologians and spiritual writers, such as Richard Rohr, have made the distinction between orthodoxy (meaning right belief) and orthopraxis (meaning right action). Faith of any kind without right action can be hollow, or at lease incomplete. But the mystery, diversity and complexity of God as well as the whole creation means we can never fully grasp the one right way to believe and the one right way to act in a way that excludes others. That’s why we need a diversity of beliefs as well as a myriad of ways of acting, provided we are oriented toward the greatest good that we can discern. We might be less anxious about the details of what one believes yet more ready to call one another out when we sense a failure to live and act as children of God. Christianity, in my mind, is a privileged faith perspective as well as a challenging way to exist, but living as Christ in the world is, above all, an opportunity for generosity and expansive concern for the world.
We can imagine Jesus walking out of and away from the river on the day of that Baptism, perhaps a bit stunned by what he experienced, yet confirmed in a deep and passionate desire to bring everyone he touched into that deeper relationship with the holy mystery, where no one is excluded, and all may be healed. He then went on to call an odd assortment of followers, who would also be inspired to share that vision and mission. All would resolve to live on the edge of life which could be both precarious and transcendent, so that more and more might know that creation was at one with the awesome mystery of love we call God.