Sunday, January 8, 2023

Sermon: “Assumptions that Divide; Baptisms that Bind”, Matthew 3 (January 8, 2023 - Baptism of the Lord Sunday)


Baptism is one of the most recognizable Christian rituals, possibly because it’s also one of the oldest. The form and function of many of our other traditions – hymn singing, corporate prayer, marriages, funerals, the liturgical year, and so on – are all relatively new; they’ve developed into their current form only after centuries of theological discernment and identity building. Baptism, on the other hand, has been practiced since the days of the Bible, with its form remaining more or less unchanged from what was handed down to us in Matthew’s gospel: we baptize with water (as demonstrated at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in Matthew 3) and in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (as established towards the end, in Matthew 28). There remain, of course, plenty of disputes throughout modern Christendom about the specific prayers included, the age required to be baptized, and whether to sprinkle, dunk, or immerse, but the basic elements have remained largely unchanged for over 2000 years.

This doesn’t mean, however, that Baptism as we know it today was a brand-new idea invented by the Christian community. It has a long theological history that stretches far back beyond the events recounted in Matthew. Remember that Jesus and his earliest followers, including John, never set out to start a new religion; they were faithful Jews. What is now a distinctly Christian tradition actually developed from ancient Jewish purity rituals. According to Torah, faithful Jews are required to ceremonially bathe in water whenever they become “ritually unclean”. Ritual impurity can occur as a result of anything from menstruation and childbirth to skin disease and death, or even physical contact with another person experiencing any of these (more or less normal) markers of our humanity. Jewish purity rituals aren’t a way of marking certain physical states as “evil”; they’re a way of delineating what’s divine and what’s mortal. By “washing away” the remnants of that which is unconnected from the divine, the faithful are able to return to a state of alignment with God.

The ritual that John practiced isn’t all that different. The Greek word “baptidzo” isn’t a theological term; it simply means “to submerge in water”, and John was performing this same action for the same reason that Jews had been for centuries before him: to cleanse themselves of that which separated them from God. The only difference lies in John’s teaching that not only are the external “impurities” washed away in this ritual, but the internal ones – our sins – are as well.

Now, since John’s baptism evolved out of a pre-existing tradition, his version naturally has some assumptions built into it. First and foremost, since John’s baptism is still a form of ritual purification, he assumes that it’s exclusively for those who need to be cleansed; i.e., sinners. John also assumes that, for the baptism to “work,” a certain procedure must be followed. He seems to believe that there’s a sort of religious hierarchy involved in baptism; he’s “qualified” to baptize others because of his spiritual maturity. Those wanting to be baptized have to confess their sins, and then prove their repentance – “Produce fruit that shows you’ve changed your hearts and lives.” If he doesn’t consider a person sufficiently repentant, he rejects them. John presents himself as a sort of gatekeeper of baptism, making sure that everything is done “decently and in order,” as we Presbyterians are fond of saying. All this is perfectly in line with the longstanding assumption that ritual cleansing is supposed to keep that which is human separate from that which is divine.

When Jesus asks John to baptize him, John (understandably) objects – it goes against ALL of his assumptions! The lesser baptizing the greater, one who’s without sin? It makes no sense! But Jesus is able to overcome John’s objections with a single Greek sentence, which the CEB translates as, “Allow me to be baptized now, because this is necessary to fulfill all righteousness.” And hearing these enigmatic words, John suddenly changes his mind and agrees to baptize Jesus.

Before we try to figure out why this response is so effective, let’s consider our own assumptions about baptism. Because even after countless readings of this passage and first-hand experience of the ritual, we all still harbor assumptions today, both as individuals and as a collective institution. Some of our assumptions are similar to John’s: that baptism is strictly for getting rid of sin. That it’s a formulaic procedure that must be followed correctly in order to be effective. That only a “qualified” person should be authorized to baptize. But we also bring some assumptions of our own to the font: that proper education and preparation must precede baptism. That your baptism is a personal moment between you and God. That our baptism makes us spiritually superior to others. Just to name a few off the top of my head.

But Jesus overcomes our assumptions, too, with his words to John: “Allow me to be baptized now, because this is necessary to fulfill all righteousness.”

To make sense out of this statement, we have to dig into the Greek a little bit. As happens every once in a while, I don’t really like how the CEB translates this verse. It almost sounds like Jesus is saying, “I need to be baptized right now because it’s God’s plan.” When we encounter the word “fulfilled” in scripture, we know that we’re probably about to hear a prophecy, so that seems to be a reasonable interpretation of Jesus’ response. But no prophecy is referenced, and there’s no known prophecy that corresponds with Jesus’ baptism. Assumptions are rarely overcome with the argument, “Just trust me; it’s supposed to be this way,” so there must be something important missing from this translation.

Based on my understanding of the Greek, a better translation would be something like this: “Permit it to be done in THIS way now, because THIS is the proper way for us to be FULLY aligned with God.” Notice the words “in this way” and “for us”, which are in the original Greek but completely left out of the CEB’s translation. Remember that Jesus is directly responding to John’s assumption that Jesus doesn’t need to be baptized, and certainly not by the “unworthy” John. Jesus is saying, “Don’t let your assumptions get in the way; this is EXACTLY how it should be done now, because this is the way for BOTH OF US to adhere most closely with God’s will.”

In one sentence, Jesus flips every single one of John’s assumptions upside-down. In JESUS’ baptism, the one WITHOUT sin is engaging in the purity ritual. In JESUS’ baptism, the lesser is offering sanctification to the greater. In JESUS’ baptism, the baptizer is changed as much as the one being baptized. And not only is this unorthodoxy acceptable, it’s ESSENTIAL for a full relationship with God. By turning old assumptions on their head, Jesus is dismantling the religious hierarchy that had previously dictated how and when one could encounter the divine; by calling it “righteous”, Jesus is telling us that it's what God wants.

This new baptism no longer serves an indicator of spiritual status but has become, through Christ, an equalizing means of interconnectedness. Jesus has informed us that righteousness can’t come from within ourselves, that our own words and actions aren’t sufficient to be “at one” with the Lord – even for Jesus himself. Full righteousness can only be found when we stop trying to separate ourselves from our humanity and from one another. It requires relationship and collaboration. In the moment that Jesus undermines our assumptions about baptism, the ancient practice that was originally used to draw a line between humanity and divinity is given a new meaning: it becomes an act of unification. It’s transformed from a ritual to a holy binding sacrament.

After all, you know what they say about when you assume, don’t you? …It keeps “U” and “Me” separate. (Not what you thought I was going to say, was it?) But when we let go of our assumptions, we discover that God’s deepest desire isn’t individual holiness, but a world united in ministry and love. After all, you can’t spell “Jesus” without “US.” And embracing our divine connectedness is the first step towards full reconciliation with our creator, sustainer, and redeemer.

Every time someone is baptized, our family becomes just a little bit more complete. Every time someone is baptized, God’s kindom draws a little bit nearer. Every time someone is baptized, we all grow a little bit closer to full righteousness. Every time someone is baptized, we’re celebrating OUR baptism, too – because every baptism is a reminder that we can only achieve fullness in Christ TOGETHER. May we each honor our baptism by always seeking the same unity with God and one another that Jesus sought on the banks of the Jordan. Amen.

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