St Andrew’s Church of Indooroopilly
Sunday 12 January 2020
The Baptism of Jesus
The strange righteousness of God ©Suzanne Grimmett
I once was in a church gathering where a man stood up and expressed a wish that we could just get back to teaching and following the 10 commandments, believing that through this simple approach the church would be in much better shape. He also added that perhaps if we all came better dressed, with a tie and collared shirt, that would also betoken higher standards of behaviour and greater respect.
This may have been good advice and certainly was well intentioned, but the problem is that while it may be honouring of Moses, it is in no way consistent with the message of Jesus. Jesus is always the figure who challenges us to rebirth over rules.
This is, I think the great disruption of the event of the baptism of our Lord which we celebrate today. During the years of the formation of our scriptural canon, and indeed even within the Gospel accounts we have, there can be discerned an extreme discomfort with this event of Jesus’ baptism by John. The reasoning goes, if Jesus was baptised by John, doesn’t that make John the greater? And since John’s baptism is for the forgiveness of sins, why would the one who is without sin submit himself to this?
There are a number of non-canonical gospels, which include the Gospel of Thomas and a series of infancy narratives of Jesus’ childhood life which are worth reading if only to gain an insight into the way different groups brought their own agendas to
the story of Jesus in the first centuries after his earthly life. The Gospel of the Hebrews, which did not enter our canon, describes the story of Jesus’ baptism in a way that makes clear how problematic some in those early years found the story. Written in the first decades of the second century, this text gives Jesus’ mother and brothers the inspiration when they prompt Jesus saying,
John the Baptiser baptises for the forgiveness of sins. Let’s go and get baptised by him.
But Jesus said to them, “How have I sinned? So why should I go and get baptised by him? Only if I don’t know what I’m talking about.”
In today’s account in Matthew’s Gospel we have a rather awkward sounding exchange where John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ And Jesus answers him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness.’
What does it mean, “to fulfil all righteousness?”
I think we are naturally wired to resist the way God’s righteousness doesn’t look like our own. I think it is hard for human beings to accept that the one who comes as king would turn all ideas of kingship on their head and take, instead of a triumphalist journey, a downward path that leads to humiliation and death.
This story of Jesus’ baptism is where this downward path begins. In choosing to undergo John’s baptism of repentance, Jesus is self-identifying with all of sinful humanity. Jesus goes as far as submitting to the same rite of repentance and renewal to which we too are called, showing that the way to freedom and life is found in solidarity with one another in humility, confession and grace. This is the move of God, and the world, including the writers of religious texts, have had trouble accepting it ever since.
One thing is clear- if Jesus the anointed one can come and undergo a rite of repentance and stand in solidarity with all broken and messy humanity, how much more are we called to do the same? Arrogance has no place in Christian discipleship. Neither does claiming our heritage- “we were always good people, of good family”…nor pointing to our righteous good works- “look at the respectable way I live my life’… nor even parading our religious pedigree “I have always gone to church, served at the altar, entered holy orders…” This is where my friend asking for a refocussing on the 10 commandments got it wrong. Conventional religion always returns to purity laws and getting it right by the rules or by the exterior way we present our lives. Christianity calls instead for a thorough-going reorientation of our inner being and a commitment to a downward path of humility and utter child-like dependence on the grace of God. This is possible because Jesus did not just come that he could do something for us, but something with us and in us. And this “with us”, begins as he surrenders to the waters of baptism.
There are examples all through scripture of humanity’s struggle to understand this downward journey that has nothing to do with self-righteousness and everything to do with this strange righteousness of God that always appears in humility and vulnerability. To submit to baptism for Jesus meant turning his face away from all that might give him status and purity in the eyes of the world and wedding himself to the human family. The great mystery is that Jesus resists the holiness movements and all the rules and purity codes and in effect, “de-legalises” God; being even willing to be destroyed by the legal and religious powers of the day, for the sake of transforming the world through the power of love.
Of course some of Jesus’ followers find it terribly difficult to make this move. We see in the life of St Peter his failures again and again to understand what is meant by ‘the righteousness of God’. It is Peter in John’s Gospel who cannot deal with the humility of Jesus who would wash his feet, saying “you shall never wash my feet.” It is Peter in Matthew’s Gospel who, when Jesus predicts his death declares, “Lord, this shall never happen to you!” To this Jesus delivers the sharpest of rebukes saying, “Get behind me, Satan..you do not have your mind on divine things but human things.” And then it is Peter to whom the Spirit gives a dream of unclean animals and told to “Get up, kill and eat”. Even in this vision Peter is resistant, clinging to the purity laws that are central to his religious practice and refusing to touch what is to him unclean. The meaning of this vision becomes clear to him though, when he responds to an invitation to go to the house of Cornelius, a Gentile and Roman centurion and share with this man and his gathered family and friends, the good news of Jesus. Peter has to let die all his old attachments to religious identity to embrace what he recognises as the move of God that Christ is not just for the Jews. It is at this point as he speaks to this gathering that he delivers the speech recorded in today’s reading from Acts which begins, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality….”
In those few words there is demonstrated a shift of monumental proportions in Peter’s understanding of the righteousness of God. In opening up the salvation of God to include the Gentiles, Peter had to let go of his familiar religious identity markers and attachment to purity codes and embrace the solidarity of God with all of creation. He had to relinquish his allegiance to the way things appear from the outside and commit to the power of the Spirit to initiate and sustain new birth from within the human heart. He was being taught yet again that the way of Jesus involves dying to old ways and being humble enough to receive new life given by the Spirit. We may not have any concerns over circumcision or eating the correct foods, but there are other ways that we would cling to self-righteousness rather than God righteousness, to external appearances rather than inner repentance and renewal.
We resist the righteousness of God any time that we would exclude someone from full inclusion in the body of Christ and the ministry of the church based on external markers or identities. Where we would draw a line would be different for each of us, but it often comes down to beliefs around sexuality and gender, our political ideologies or even the way we practice our faith or interpret scripture. The point is, that we are not given the luxury of being holier than anyone. If Jesus can come to us and be baptised for repentance, joining the throng of other sinful humanity gathered on the banks of the Jordan, then we are called to the same solidarity with all the human family, and there is no line that should divide us one from another.
The story of Jesus’ baptism culminates in the dramatic opening of the heavens, a symbol of the rupturing of all that separated God and humanity. And it is in this moment that the purpose of this strange baptism is revealed; a voice from heaven is heard saying, “This is my Son, the beloved.” Perhaps the wonder of baptism, is that what was true in Jesus’ baptism is also true of our own. Because Jesus underwent baptism in solidarity with us, to say we are baptised into Christ is not a mere play on words. Jesus is named as the beloved of God, and through Christ who is for us, with us and in us we also are named the beloved, in whom God is well pleased. To hear these words spoken over us may give us the courage not only to accept our own struggles, but to stand in humble unity with the frailty of all the human family.