The strange righteousness of God


St Andrew’s Church of Indooroopilly 

Sunday 12 January 2020 

The Baptism of Jesus 

Isaiah 42.1-9 

Psalm 29 

Acts 10.34-43 

Matthew 3.13-17 

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, 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.