Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
Baptism is that act which brings a Christian into the full communion with the Church. When we are washed in the waters, whether that be by a full dip into a river or by effusion of water over our heads, we join with Christ in the reality of a new Kingdom. The waters leave us dead to the world, alive in Christ. We are killed, after-all Baptism means “drowning,” as much as it does “dipping”. But we are also reborn. The waters of the font becoming the waters of a new womb, a birth into a life removed from our previous sins.
As a sign of God’s grace, no one is barred from receiving baptism. Any adult who earnestly pursues a repentant life is ready to be washed. Any infant who is born is immediately prepared for baptism, God’s grace cannot be denied to someone because of age. From the cradle to the grave, all can be washed. A final declaration of the death of our former selves and the start of a new life. In our washing there is a simultaneous proclamation of God’s work and our acceptance there-of. God moving like the waters around us, God taking away sin as water washes away dirt.
The church has practiced baptism uninterrupted for two thousand years. Occasionally sects emerge to try and minimize the practice. Other groups, many which are popular today, will try and explain to people how, “You know, you say you were baptized, but that’s not true.” This latter camp insists that full immersion is required, or that infant baptism is not really baptism, or that baptism outside of a single denomination is false. These all place the wrong sort of emphasis, they all make human beings the primary actors in baptism. The only thing needed for a baptism is a person, a minister, some water, and the words, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” all other acts and words are secondary.
As with anything in human life we do not go into this alone. The sacrament of baptism is a participation in God’s grace which we see modeled for us in the life of Christ. Jesus does not tell us to be baptized from on high without showing us the significance of it. The Baptism of Jesus is the beginning of Jesus’ ministry on Earth. It is the example of our own pursuit of baptism. It is also one of the most debated facts of Jesus’ life.
Why would Jesus, the Incarnate God, the Divine Logos, the Sinless sacrifice, need to be washed in a baptism of repentance? Baptism is for sinful humans, not the sinless Messiah. What is Jesus up to by being baptized by John in the Jordan? The various answers given by this have led to controversies and heresies galore. Whenever we look to the life of Christ, we see a way made for us to walk. Whether or not we all agree what the way is not always clear. To quote a mentor of mine, “Wherever two or three are gathered, there will be four or five opinions.”
The washing of Jesus in the Jordan, like most things in our understandings of God, must be defined by what it is not before we can understand what it is. We know that it cannot be that Jesus needed to repent of Sin, after all we believe that Jesus, “who knew no sin, became sin, that we might become the righteousness of God.” This cannot be, as some say, the first time that Jesus experiences the Holy Spirit either, because we believe that Jesus was, “conceived of the Holy Spirit,” and more importantly Jesus being God could not cut himself off from himself. Finally, we know that Jesus is not saying that John is the authority in this situation, not only because of John’s own words, but because we baptize today in the name of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit – not in the name of John the Baptizer.
In these three ways Jesus’ baptism does not reflect our baptism. Unlike Jesus our baptism is a sign of sin being washed away, it is a sign of our reception of God’s spirit, and it is fully given in the name of the Trinity. Jesus was not baptized so that Christ could be made Holy, but that we through imitation of Christ’s baptism could become Holy. As with so many things, our ability to enjoy the presence of God, the work of God, all comes from Jesus first taking the journey for us, paving a way through the wilderness of our sin.
Jesus the sinless son of God was washed in the Jordan. An act which, some of the early church said, was enough to make all water Holy. Jesus established baptism as the first step of entering into the church, only pursuing his ministry after his own baptism. The waters that pour over Jesus’ head, the immersion that he experiences, is not just a precedent but it is the very form of baptism. In Jesus’ baptism all people can be baptized, in Jesus’ proclamation of God’s work we all proclaim God’s work.
When we are baptized we die to our life and are reborn. We are not reborn as an individual, but into community. We cease to be motivated by our own wants and our own appetites and care only for what Christ would have us participate in. Our baptism is a one time event, a single moment in which a new life begins. However, like so much in our life as Christians – that single moment is a fulcrum on which our life can turn round itself. The washing we once received, the promises we make in dying to ourselves. When we feel lost or lose track of the way ahead of us. We can look to Christ as our example, and there is no better place to start than the beginning. With some water, with some words, with the Spirit declaring us, “Children of God.” – Amen