Matt 3:1-18; Romans 6:1-14
A sermon delivered at Port Charlotte United Methodist Church (Sunday of the Baptism of Our Lord)
“In those days, John the Baptizer – John the Immerser – showed up, proclaiming in the Judean wilderness, saying: ‘Repent – change your hearts and lives – because the kingdom of heaven has drawn near’” (Matt 3:1-2).
What was John up to, dunking people in the Jordan River? Just as John himself appears to have one foot in the Old Testament, showing up in Elijah’s camel-hair garment, and one foot in the New Testament, calling for readiness for a new visitation of God, so his immersion was something distinct both from the ritual baths of the Old Covenant and the baptism of the New Covenant, with which we would identify.
Immersing oneself into water as a means of purifying oneself was routine in first-century Judea. One finds in archaeological site after site one or more smallish pools, each with a staircase leading down into the water that filled the pool to about chest level. Such a pool is called a mikveh in Hebrew, and these were used regularly for ritual immersion – a kind of artificial replacement for the “living water” of a river that was harder to access in most parts of Judea. They are often to be found in the houses of priestly families, who tended to be quite careful to observe the instructions in the Law of Moses concerning dissipating everyday pollutions, or adjacent to synagogues throughout Israel. One would walk down into the mikveh and, once at the bottom of the basin, kneel so as to immerse oneself completely, and then ascend back up from the basin. A number of these pools even had a short dividing wall built into the staircase, such that one could be sure to descend “unclean” on one side of the steps and ascend “clean” on the other half of the steps.
A person could contract “uncleanness” through many sources – touching a carcass, touching anything touched by a woman during her period, experiencing a seminal emission, contact with someone who had any one of a variety of skin conditions or discharges, and the like. We shouldn’t think of these concerns as “health issues,” however, either on the part of the Lawgiver or the Jews who were attentive to these matters, though our own anxiety about who touched the bathroom door handle before us, and whether he or she washed before doing so, and whether we should use a paper towel to open the door for ourselves and/or reach for our Purell shortly after does reflect a similar mental dynamic. Rather, I would immerse myself so as to restore myself to a state of ritual cleanness or purity, such that I would not contribute to multiplying pollution in the holy land that the holy God had chosen for his dwelling.
It was particularly important to perform such an immersion prior to entering the Temple precincts. The removal of all such defilement was essential before encountering the holy God, into whose presence one simply does not carry pollution – lest one risk God’s holiness breaking out to consume the polluted one or the holy God withdrawing from the Temple. Thus one finds mikvehs (technically the plural is mikvaoth, but I’m trying not to be too pretentious) in abundance in the priests’ buildings and in the open spaces all around the Temple in Jerusalem. The city was also equipped with massive pools, each of which probably functioned as a public mikveh serving the thousands upon thousands of residents and pilgrims that came to the Temple each day – not to mention the tens of thousands upon tens of thousands that flooded the city during the annual festivals like Passover and the Feast of Booths. The Pool of Siloam, famous for its role in the story of Jesus’ healing of the man who had been born blind in John 9, only one edge of which has been uncovered, is one such pool. Another is the Pool of Bethesda, the site of another healing miracle of Jesus recorded in John 5, and also only very partially uncovered.
All this to say – the idea of being immersed in a body of water in connection with removing pollution for the sake of preparing oneself to encounter God would have been quite familiar to everyone who went out to the Jordan River to be immersed by John. But John’s baptism – the immersion that John performed upon people – was also distinctive in some important respects.
Most obviously, John is immersing people for an encounter with God, but far from Jerusalem, its Temple, and its establishment. “Prepare to meet God,” but not there. If John had preached and immersed in one of those large pools surrounding the Temple Mount, I doubt he would have had his head handed to him by the authorities. God is indeed going to show up in a powerful and epoch-making way, but not there. “Prepare a spiritual highway for God to use as God comes to visit us,” out here in the margins of Judea, out here by the river.
John was also clearly not concerned merely with ritual purity. He called people to come to this immersion ready to change their hearts and their lives – how the Common English Bible has consistently translated the word the NRSV renders “repent.” Your security before God isn’t in claims about the past – “Don’t presume to say ‘We have Abraham as our father’” (Matt 3:9) and think that everything’s therefore alright between you and God. Show in your lives that your repentance is real, that you’ve left the loveless, unrighteous, mean-spirited ways behind you.
And, as far as we can tell, unlike the routine and repeated immersions performed throughout Judea and Galilee, John immersed people once in preparation for encountering God, in preparation for God’s epoch-making intervention. This was a decisive cleansing looking forward to a decisive act of God showing up.
And so Jesus shows up at the Jordan to be baptized by his cousin John.
We remember this event each year on the Sunday after Epiphany, continuing the season of epiphanies, for two reasons. First, Jesus’ showing up is the manifestation for which John was waiting and for which he had been preparing the people in his call to a change of heart and life and his washing away of their pollutions. John recognizes this as he expresses his discomfort with being the one to immerse Jesus, preferring that Jesus should immerse – and thus cleanse and prepare – him. Second, God shows up as well to give Jesus an unparalleled endorsement: “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”
The Son of God who identified with us by sharing our flesh and blood thought it proper, now living in our flesh and blood, also to identify with John’s immersion and with those who came responding to John’s call, even as Jesus took up John’s proclamation: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is drawing near!” (Matt 4:17). Indeed (Jesus would declare), God is visiting God’s people and God’s world in an epoch-changing way; indeed, the time for a change of heart and life is now; indeed, a decisive change is happening in history that calls for a decisive change in people’s lives.
But the baptism that John offered, and the baptism that Jesus underwent, is not the baptism to which you and I were called, into which you and I were immersed. John called people to change their hearts and lives and to purify themselves in baptism prior to and in preparation for God’s epoch-making intervention; the Christian church, beginning with the apostles calling those first thousands at the feast of Pentecost, calls people to an immersion on the far side of, and in response to, God’s epoch-making intervention – the death and resurrection of his Son, Jesus. The first episode in Acts 19 gives an early testimony to this difference, as Paul encounters believers who had only been baptized by John – whom he now baptizes in the name of Jesus and into the transforming power of his death and resurrection, with the result that the Holy Spirit descends upon those disciples in a powerful way.
In our reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans, we hear a very early sermonette on the meaning of baptism as the rite of entrance into the Christian church or, better, the rite of initiation into the “baptismal life.” In these paragraphs, Paul seeks to answer a basic question: is God’s grace toward us in Christ merely supposed to inoculate us against the consequences of our sins, or is it supposed to utterly transform our lives?
Some people in Paul’s world have misunderstood his message and caricatured his preaching as a result. Earlier in Romans, Paul writes: “If my unrighteousness serves to establish God’s righteousness, what should we say? Why not do wicked things so that good things can come of it? This is what some people slanderously claim that we are preaching” (Rom 3:5, 8). I often wonder how Paul himself would react to what many have made of Paul’s gospel of a cheap grace that demands no change of life, no giving back to Jesus a life for a life. Paul himself, after all, gives voice to a very different vision:
“What are we to say, then? Shall we persist in sinning in order that grace may become even more abundant? Heck, no! We who have died to sin – how will we go on living in it? Or don’t you realize that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? So we were buried with Christ through baptism into his death in order that, just as Christ rose from the dead through the Father’s glory, so we also might walk in a new kind of life?” (Romans 6:1-4, DST)
You might hear this and think, “well, to be honest, I’ve had very little trouble continuing to sin. If I’m actually dead to sin, I’m surprised at how active our relationship – sin’s and mine – has remained over the years.” But our baptism and the availability of the Holy Spirit has changed that relationship significantly. The relationship is awkward now. We might occasionally hang out together, sin and I, but the spark has gone out of our friendship. Or it’s like that shirt that, as soon as we put it on, we’re sorry that we took it off the hanger, because it just doesn’t fit right or look right or feel comfortable any more.
What we’re bumping up against here is the tension between description and prescription in Paul’s letters (as, indeed, in the work of other New Testament writers). In one breath, they declare what God has accomplished in us; in the next breath, they instruct us to live up to what God has accomplished in us, as if to make the potential God has created with us real and actual, or to let God’s gift to us and working within us have its full effect in us. We must live in to what God has done for us.
And so Paul declared: “Our former self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be eliminated – in order that we might no longer serve Sin as its slaves” (Romans 6:6, DST). “Our former self” isn’t a pretty sight. It’s greedy, jealous, angry; it thinks and speaks ill of others, especially when they get in our way or do something we don’t happen to like; it acts viciously to protect its own interests. In other words, it lives quite far away from loving our neighbor as ourselves, from looking out for the other person’s interests before our own, from reflecting Christ’s heart in our own.
Jesus’ death and resurrection are not just acts that he undertook on our behalf; they have become events in which we are invited to participate, and this is at the core of our baptism. Just as Jesus died and, having died, was no longer liable to death, since his mortal life was over, “in the same way, count yourselves also dead where sin is concerned”; just as Jesus now lives an entirely new kind of life in God’s power, the resurrected life, “in the same way, count yourselves … alive in Christ Jesus where God is concerned” (Romans 6:11, DST). We join ourselves to Christ in his death, which means, we keep putting our old self with its impulses and drives behind us as something “dead to us,” for Christ’s death on our behalf has made this very thing possible for us; we join ourselves to Christ in his resurrection, which means, we keep living from the “newness of life,” the “new kind of life,” that came into being in us by the spark of God’s Holy Spirit and that God’s Holy Spirit continues to breathe into greater and greater strength and presence within us.
“Let sin, therefore, no longer exercise authority in your mortal bodies, so as to make you obey its impulsive desires, nor continue to put your body parts at sin’s disposal as its tools for unrighteous activity, but keep putting yourselves at God’s disposal as those living on the other side of death and your body parts at God’s disposal as his tools for righteous activity.” (Romans 6:12-13, DST)
This new person, with which we clothe ourselves in baptism, is beautiful: compassionate, kind, humble, patient, forbearing. In its relationships it exhibits the beauty of forgiveness, love, and harmony. The new person is Christ living in us, and us living for Christ; to live this life is to be created anew by God, to become our “best self” in him.
Ultimately, it is our dying to the “former self” with Christ, who died for us, and our living from the “newness of life” that the Spirit provides that, according to Paul, gives us reliable assurance about one day also living the resurrected life of Christ ourselves:
“For if we have become closely identified with the likeness of his death, we will also be closely identified with the likeness of his resurrection.” (Romans 6:5, DST)
“And if we died with Christ, we trust that we will also live together with him.” (Romans 6:8. DST)
All of this Paul connects to the rite of baptism, a ritual act that mystically effects our participation in Christ’s death and brings Christ to life within us – not because of anything special in this water, but because it has pleased God to act wherever this water is applied in his name and in the name of his Anointed One.
For baptism to be fully baptism, it must not cease its work when we leave the font. It must become more and more the mold that shapes our lives, until Christ lives in us and we live for Christ. It must become more and more the compass point from which we chart each day’s course, until we follow the promptings of the Holy Spirit – that is, walk in newness of life – more naturally and readily than we follow our own desires. As Martin Luther once expressed, baptism is to become the “garment which the disciple is to put on every day, each day putting the old person to death a little more and nurturing the new person toward maturity.”
This union with Christ in his death and resurrection is a spiritual grace continually held out to us in our baptism. It is a precious gift from God, allowing us ever to leave behind whatever is destructive to human relationships, to community, and ultimately to ourselves, and to move into a life with God and with one another that releases God’s love into this world and preserves us with Christ for eternity. And so the Church perpetually reminds us: remember your baptism, and be thankful.