What Jesus Saw

January 12, 2020
Reverend Matt Skinner

Isaiah 43:1-7; Matthew 3:13-17

A couple I know, along with their three children, were once members of an Episcopal congregation that was known for its liturgical high-mindedness. It was this couple’s practice regularly to bring their children, when the kids were very young, forward to receive communion at the church—not for a blessing designed for young people before they complete classes for their First Communion, but to receive the bread and wine along with the rest of the congregation. After a service one day, someone approached the mother and asked, with a large hint of disapproval in their voice, “Do you think your children understand what’s going on when they receive communion?” Without missing a beat the mother replied, “Oh, I’m certain they don’t. Why? Do you think you do?”

We might say the same about baptism. What’s going on?

Our church celebrates two different sacraments—baptism and communion. Both are familiar and open to all yet are shrouded in mystery. Both sacraments have a way of dividing Christians into camps: who gets to give, who gets to receive, why, when, where, and what happens. About 1600 years ago, Saint Augustine characterized “sacraments” in this way: they are visible signs of invisible grace. That definition has held up pretty well over the centuries. Sacraments are ritualized ways of encountering divine grace, and who understands completely what is going on when grace is involved? Who dares to define or put limits on how grace can work?

Those of us in the room who are Presbyterian belong to a tradition that has refrained from over-defining the sacraments. That is, we resist declaring exactly what is happening. But we declare that something is happening. Baptism and communion are declarations that God is among us—claiming us, redeeming us, sustaining us, equipping us, and sending us into the world.

Sacraments orient us into our faith as embodied beings. And they open us up. In the water of baptism, as in the bread and wine of communion, we discover that God’s transformative grace confronts us and nourishes us, not merely through some infusion of new knowledge but through re-encountering ourselves as embodied creatures, and through re-encountering our real connections to the material world of creation, to one another, and of course to God.[1]

But why did Jesus need that? Why did he present himself for baptism?

With the biblical story from the third chapter of Matthew, we’ve moved forward about thirty years since Jesus’ birth. And in our own lives it’s been just a week since the end of our twelve-day long Christmas celebration. Time flies in the church calendar. Jesus is now an adult, and his public ministry is about to start.

One of the things we can conclude with relative certainty about the events of Jesus’ life is this: he was baptized. We know from other ancient writings that John the Baptizer was popular. All the Gospels describe Jesus’ association with John. And the three Gospels that do narrate Jesus’ baptism all do it differently, which probably meant that the ancient church couldn’t avoid the reality of Jesus’ baptism and yet they weren’t quite sure about what exactly was going on, either. They knew that it happened, but they weren’t sure why it happened. And so they differed on how to present it.

The version of the story that we just heard, from Matthew’s Gospel, communicates anxiousness about Jesus’ baptism. John says, more or less, “Wait a minute. This can’t be right.” Jesus responds, more or less, “Just do your job. Don’t ask questions. Trust me.” In light of the Gospel’s overarching desire to make sure we know that Jesus is a unique human being, the short dialogue between Jesus and John expresses concern that baptism might make Jesus appear ordinary, inferior, or fallible. Matthew’s Gospel includes the short dialogue so you know that no mistake was made, even if John worried that this could be a bad idea.

But John’s initial objection still deserves attention: If Jesus is indeed Divine, what on earth is he doing, submitting himself to a religious ritual, especially one performed by an ordinary human being like John?

If you’re uncomfortable, like the author of Matthew’s Gospel was, with the idea of God opening up God’s own self to baptism, and thus to human experience, to human life, and to human relationship, then you’re going to find yourself uncomfortable not only with the story of Jesus’ baptism but also with most of the Christian faith. God cannot become human (truly human) without becoming vulnerable—without loving, without hurting, without longing, without participating in community, without fearing, without grieving … and without dying. At the moment in the Jordan River in which Jesus’ special identity and mission become manifest to everyone there—when the voice from heaven says, “This One is My Beloved Son”—it also becomes manifest that the God in the river is one of us: strong and fragile, self-reliant and dependent on others. God, like us, lives with a body that can know and can experience and can radiate grace. So also with us: participating with the Divine is not purely about urging our minds to think or believe in a certain way. It’s about our living life in the refreshing and dangerous waters of creation. It’s about feasting and hungering. Obedience and autonomy. Being whole yet breakable.

When Jesus comes to the river for baptism, that’s only a problem if we assume that baptism is a ritual in which a more morally enlightened person baptizes someone else who has less virtue or who’s lower on some spiritual pyramid. But that’s not baptism.

Baptism is not a transition from less certainty to more. It’s not a step toward achieving perfection. John wasn’t baptizing people to maintain a pecking order. Elsewhere in the third chapter of Matthew it says John baptized people “for repentance.” The notion of repenting gets a bad reputation because of pushy street-corner preachers and loud televangelists. Repentance isn’t primarily about moral house-cleaning. John’s intention wasn’t to spark an ethical revolution in which everyone would feel sorry about their shortcomings and resolve to try harder or to do better this year. “Repentance” is about coming to a new, changed perspective. Repentance is to adopt a new mind, a new way of perceiving the world and our place in it. It’s transformation. It’s an expanded understanding.

Repentance is about making way for the new. Why wouldn’t God—incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth—or anyone else be interested in that?

When Jesus saw the Holy Spirit descend to him as he came out of the waters, what did he see? Matthew gives us only a brief simile—it was like the descent of a dove. The literal sights and sounds are apparently not the point, though. What he saw is that it was now time. Time for new. The ritual is a statement… and it provides the occasion for a commissioning. God is here, and so God’s new work is off and running. It’s time. Time for the healings, the reconciliations, the renewals, the teachings, the new ways forward. With the Holy Spirit animating Jesus’ teachings and deeds from this point forward, the world gets to see what God’s justice looks like—not in words and abstractions but up close in flesh and blood. The world gets to see God’s intentions for the human family. Things are finally gonna change.

Let’s return to the sermon’s opening story and to the question about whether it’s possible to understand what’s going on in the sacraments and the need for us to embrace mystery.

In our baptism we commit our whole selves—our whole bodies—to the strange dynamics of grace. Following Jesus out of the shallows and into the deeper, more risky waters, we reaffirm that our bodies are not obstacles to our spirituality, but they are the places and the ways we learn about God. In our bodies we encounter God. In our bodies we learn what it is to suffer, to love, to hope, to long, to have courage, to welcome, and to be welcomed. Baptism is a beginning, then, on an unfolding journey—not away from mystery but into its chaotic and refreshing depths.

After all, water is death.

We recently[2] marked the 15-year anniversary of the tsunami that killed almost a quarter million people in lands bordering the Indian Ocean

Ten people die each day from unintentional drowning in the United States.[3]

Around 1.2 billion people, or almost one-fifth of the world’s population, live in areas of physical water scarcity.

When the water is polluted, the realities are terrible.

Together, unclean water and poor sanitation are the world’s second greatest killer of children.

In Flint, Michigan, the percentage of the city’s students who qualify for special education services has nearly doubled, to 28 percent, from the 15 percent it was the year the lead crisis began.[4]

Baptism, too, is death.

In Christian baptism, we become baptized into Christ’s death. In the symbolism of baptism, the waters of the font are a cold grave, putting us to death so we emerge as those who will share in Christ’s resurrection.

Water is life.

Ask the people of Westminster who traveled to Cuba in December to install clean water systems.

Even now, we await the spring rains, which will come to water the earth, awakening fertile farmlands and here in the city washing away winter’s ice, salt, and grime.

Baptism, too, is life.

In Christian baptism, we declare that God forgives, cleanses, and purifies us.

In the first reading today, from Isaiah 43, we encounter the only place in the entire Bible where the plain statement “I love you” appears when spoken by God. What does that intimacy have to do with Baptism? Well, the waters of baptism situate us into a story of divine love, as Laurence Hull Stookey describes it.[5]

That story of divine love also tells a story of belonging and divine protection. Baptism unites us and connects us, together, to the story of God’s people throughout time. The ritual allows us to splash in the river that nourishes the Garden of Eden. Baptism takes us by the hand as we experience deliverance from oppression and indignity by passing through the Red Sea. Together we cross the Jordan River, leaving the wilderness behind for a new home. Baptism provides a source for our tears when we doubt God’s faithfulness while suffering in exile by the rivers of Babylon. And we remember the promise God spoke through Isaiah to people returning home from exile in the scriptural promise: “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you”—meaning no collective or personal trauma is too great for God’s love to comfort.

We might not know exactly what Jesus saw at his baptism, when the heavens opened to him, but we can affirm that he inserts himself into that long-running story of divine love. He commits himself to us—to all the world.

When it comes to baptism—why Jesus was baptized, and what it all means for us, it may seem that we have wandered too far, wandered to thresholds leading into questions and topics no one can definitively answer. But thresholds are the places where faith always leads us.

Our job in those places—standing at the edge of deep questions—isn’t to define and defend certain answers. It’s to steer ourselves back into whatever led us to have asked the questions in the first place. Who is this God? What is our place in the world? What does a repentant point of view do for us, anyway?

Baptism expresses a new outlook, and a new way of experiencing the world. And also a new commitment.

The good thing about the mysteries of faith is they can drive us outside of ourselves—to explore, to expand our circles, and to grow. Authentic faith always seeks understanding.[6] Faith can never be about simply believing and then ceasing all exploration. Believing without questioning and without seeking leads to narcissism and sectarianism. It closes minds, closes doors, and closes communities.

The goal isn’t to replace faith with understanding, but to seek understanding so that it might direct faith and deepen faith, opening us up to deeper love of God and our neighbors.

Westminster’s many educational offerings aim to do precisely that. (You should have known I’d be making a plug!) None of those offerings demands that you show up with special knowledge or make a long-term commitment to a program. Opportunities abound, based on books, music, discussions, the arts, small groups, and lectures. There are social justice forums, Bible studies, service opportunities, and concrete projects and partnerships that will allow you to see faith in action in the city and beyond. These are the things that help us live into our transformed minds. In those kinds of activities, activities that involve our whole selves, we grow—not merely in knowledge but in practical wisdom. We build embodied habits. We cultivate courage. We train ourselves to think differently. To live differently. Following Jesus, we too perceive better God’s intentions for the human family.

I don’t know about you, but I experienced this past week as an unnerving week, as I and many others anxiously checked and re-checked the news while fearing the outbreak of a yet another new war. It was another week of wondering whom to trust—a reminder of the chaotic character of our world. But the sacraments are just right for that kind of a world. Don’t let the church’s silver communion ware or the nice self-contained baptismal font fool you. The sacraments belong to nature, and so they are a little untamable. They meet us in the chaos, sometimes contributing to it with their unruly abundance. They are made of the stuff that reminds us of God’s care in a wild, yet beautiful world. In their abundance, the sacraments make messes. There should be wet spots on the carpet. Breadcrumbs in the pews. Maybe a wine or grape juice stain on the outfit you like to wear on the first Sunday of the month. These earthy elements are gifts from God, manifesting the divine grace that sustains us.

The classic spiritual we’re about to sing promises that in baptism “God’s a-gonna trouble the waters.” You who have waded into troubled waters emerged from your baptism transformed. (You who have not been baptized but are interested are invited to talk with Pastor Meghan after the service.) Baptism is not a simple bath in a calm and warm tub. It declares our movement through death into life. It’s to wade into risk and vulnerability, into hope and renewal. It’s to be reborn. Troubled waters, after all, are the places where God is present. And so baptism enlists us in the cause to be part of God’s new creation, a creation flowing out of God’s commitment to be among us and to trouble a world that cannot be left on its own to remain still and predictable.

Thanks be to God.

NOTES:

[1] See M. Shawn Copeland, Enfleshing Freedom: Body, Race, and Being (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2009), 125.

[2] On December 26, 2019.

[3] https://www.cdc.gov/homeandrecreationalsafety/water-safety/waterinjuries-factsheet.html

[4] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/06/us/politics/flint-michigan-schools.html

[5] Baptism: Christ’s Act in the Church (Nashville: Abingdon, 1982), 13.

[6] Anselm: theology is “faith seeking understanding”

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