Theologians are a little weird sometimes. And the saddest part is that they don’t realize how weird they are and they need someone to smack them, lovingly, upside the head and remind them that theirs is not the only sufficient vantage point in the world from which one might glimpse Christ in the scriptures.
The problem is that as theologians, they see things theologically, most if not all things and when they talk about them they try very hard to be as theologically honest and true and orthodox as they can because theology is a science that tries very hard to express what is true about God so theologians try hard not to tell any lies.
I know, I know, in this world of negotiable meaning and everyone’s opinion being equally valued and equally valid it is hard for the rest of you to accept but it really means something to those of us in the theological world to speak from what we see as the very best point of view because we know that what we say influences what people believe.
We take what people believe very seriously, salvation depends upon belief. It depends upon the surrender to the truth, the grace given in Jesus Christ and if what we are saying is nice, and easy to understand and pleases you, but isn’t Jesus Christ, then we begin to experience a pretty big existential crisis.
We start to forget that everybody doesn’t see the world from the same place we do, doesn’t see the intricacies of systematic theology the way we’ve been trained to see things and so we have a sad tendency to over think, to underappreciate what it feels like to have faith, to miss the point.
I say this because in doing the reading in preparation for this morning I ran across a bit of commentary from Luther Seminary, my alma mater, from a professor there for whom I have a great deal of affection and respect.
He wrote in this little snippet of commentary in this morning’s Gospel that we would, of course, begin with Jesus’ baptism and then move on to our own, understanding ours through understanding His.
Theologically, that makes sense, our baptisms are given validity, they are an echo of what took place in the Jordan that day long ago. Because Jesus was Baptized, our own baptisms carry with them the imprint of that baptism and we are touched by the forgiving power of God in the act, brought into the fold, made one with Christ.
Yada, yada, yada.
But outside of the seminary or the pulpit, outside of a pretty narrow slice of humanity that is to say, nobody understands baptism that way, o if they do, that was not the road they took to their understanding. We are not God and try though we might, it is well-nigh impossible to begin out thinking with God.
We begin with our own experience.
When we baptize here I make sure that the kids come in from Sunday School in time to witness and to participate. Lilli held the black folder in which was the baptismal service for me since she was about seven or eight and only stopped when she got so tall that people couldn’t see the action because she was in the way.
But children watch and hear the words and see the smiles on the face of the parents and the people gathered and they might not get a firm theological grounding in what has happened but they do get that this child is now one of us, that everyone assembled has promised to pray for them, to help and support them, to love them because they have joined us here, at this point in space right here.
They probably see it that way most of us see it, as a bath. It is a symbolic washing away of sins, right? We dip the kid in water we have sanctified for the purpose and the kid is washed clean.
The children, and most of us do not see what the theologian sees. How do you explain to the parents the part of baptism that sounds like ritual drowning? In Romans, Paul say “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” Where exactly do you think that uniting with Him in a death like His happens?
It happens here, but that is a weird story to tell the parents and so many of my colleagues over the years have left that bit out in favor of the washing story which is so much nicer.
We apprehend the baptism from the perspective of what we know, how we see the world and I would hope that includes most if not all of us taking a shower in the morning before church. We understand clean and unclean in our own terms and when they come up in the Bible it is dollars to doughnuts that we are using our own definitions to interpret the Holy Scriptures and while this makes decent theologians all over the world sigh with resignation; that is the way it is.
Like the people of Corinth we are not ones to split hairs, to wonder about the nature of the gift, simply to accept it and let me tell you right here and right now your salvation does not depend upon your understanding your baptism, or the sacrament of the Lord’s Table “correctly” or at least in an orthodox manner. If you can get to the part where Jesus says you oughta, and you do it because Jesus says so, I’m okay with that.
Whose baptism did you receive then? I received the Baptism of Al Solmonson, which means, by the way that I was well catechized before my baptism, Al is old school; but as my pastor at the time, I was receiving the baptism into the church, into the Body of Christ, into the life He promised us and yes, that life came through His death and so if it looked a little like drowning, that was fine with me, because the promise was life.
We understand things through our experience of them, then we have the chance to inhabit them, learn how they are a part of us.
We understand eating and drinking and so we understand communion through our knowledge of the mundane things we do every day. We ate breakfast before we got here and so the notion of eating and drinking are not foreign, nor weird, nor, unfortunately, something we invest with a lot of meaning.
Maybe that’s the reason my old professor wanted to emphasize the Baptism of Christ as the starting point for our understanding of baptism, so we wouldn’t think of it as being too mundane.
That was the argument for not having communion every week, it might become too ordinary and people wouldn’t appreciate it as much when they did it.
I’d like to confound those expectations and I’d like you all to come with me.
The Baptism of Christ was indeed a bath. Let’s not quibble about the minutia, he strode into the water and was dunked beneath its surface, Baptist-style by John. Common to us all.
Except the John part. John called the people to the river to enact a ritual they were all already familiar with. The ritual cleansing was not a foreign concept, it was a part of their culture, John just decided to switch the script a little. John proclaimed a baptism of repentance, not repentance and forgiveness the way we understand things, just repentance, a ritual statement that you were in need of forgiveness, in need of the grace of God. It was a time of turmoil and the people were facing uncertainty in their government, in their families, in their faith and so John called them all to come before God in humility and repentance.
He called them all to begin again, starting with God.
All of them, like all of us, carried around with them the bag into which our sin falls, the shame and that irksome itch that reminds us that we are not all that we were created to be (remember the words in Genesis? God saw that it was good). John said come and lay that down at the river, come in repentance and lay yourself before God, the only one who can deliver you.
They understood the bathing, they understood the repentance, they understood their need, John gave them a way to bind them together.
Jesus came, and confounded all of their expectations. Into the water he strode, without sin to repent of, without shame or guilt he walked into the water alongside the money changer and the prostitute, casting His lot with them.
He cast His lot with you.
Whatever they were expecting that morning what they got was something altogether different. No matter what they thought they understood or how well they thought they were prepared for that morning so long ago, Jesus had other things in mind, better things.
Suddenly the river Jordan is not just any old body of water, it becomes the symbol for what Christ shared with us that morning, dipping his divine nature into the swirling, murky depths of our human need; it becomes the vehicle for that sharing, the means by which we access the grace he wanted to give to us; the grace He still wants to give to us.
Suddenly it’s not just a bath, it’s the chance for God to reach through the veil between holiness and sinfulness and let a little of the holiness slip, let it rest gently upon the foreheads of those who come to the water. The old Adam dies and the new person is born in an instant of God’s grace, suddenly it is no longer impossible that we might cross into heaven’s golden plains, suddenly it is no longer impossible that we might one day cry “glory” in the temple of the Lord.
We have made ourselves present and that has not saved us. Christ made Himself present and it is not just a bath anymore.
Do we need to begin with a sound theological understanding of the nature and efficacy of Baptism for it to be effective? Is our ignorance a hindrance to what God is working in and through us? I sure hope not because we have an abundance of ignorance when it comes to what god is doing pretty much all of the time.
But just as our understanding of it might begin with “it’s a bath,” or it is eating and drinking, just as the grace God is offering to us every day is sometimes hidden under the mundane activities of everyday life does not diminish in any way the glory of the love that lies just behind the earthly elements, just outside of our perception.
In fact, maybe the confounding of our senses, the unexpectedness of the grace is in part, the point of the whole exercise. God has given unto us the opportunity to see every bathing as a chance to experience the first baptism, to feel the grace as it covers us and runs in rivulets down our skin. We can see every meal as the sharing in Christ’s body and Blood, remembering and inhabiting the moment when he offered himself up for us, giving to us what we need to survive and to thrive and to live without fear.
Begin your understanding wherever you are. If you are way off base I’ll try and set your feet back on the path but come to the font anyway, in faith and in hope but most of all in trust, trusting the Word of God made flesh to know what God is about and to know how to reach you.
God is going to surprise you no matter what your expectations are so let the theologians worry about teaching you the “right” way to see things, we’ve got your whole lives to do it in whatever ways we can manage.
God is going to surprise us too, by the way. The sooner you get past the notion that it depends on your understanding or effort, that the whole thing rests on whether or not you have all the answers, the sooner God can sneak up on you and surprise you with God’s grace, at the font, at the rail and in all of those moments when we remember all that we have been given in Christ.
Thanks be to God.