The Baptism of Jesus

Baptism seems very familiar to us today, but in Jesus' day it was an oddity. Baptism was for gentiles who wanted to convert. So when John called the people to repent and be baptized, he was saying they were so sinful they were no better than Gentiles.Gentile is another one of those words that seem familiar to us today. In Jesus' day, for many people it was an offensive word like some I learned as a child, like kike and dago and mick. So John is telling the people they are scum.

And Jesus submits to this. He is numbered with the transgressors in order to fulfill all righteousness. He has to do this in order to do the work he became incarnate for. He has to become that thoroughly humans. He has become a human and he must become sin who knew no sin, in order that we humans might have access to the righteousness of God. So that we might be acquitted of those things of which we are justly guilty, he must be judged guilty when he is totally innocent. So he must undergo Baptism like us.

Then he hears the word of the father declaring him the son, the beloved son, in whom the father is well pleased. And this is no ordinary son, but the royal son. The title of son of God in Israel belonged to the king. So this Jesus now baptized is the one who is to rule the earth. The universal king now submits himself to baptism. It is only through this submitting himself that Jesus can take on his true kingship. Here at his baptism Jesus first proclaims that royal role. The style of his rule as the innocent one whose suffering is to make all the guilty innocent, is declared when he takes on our guilt-ridden condition.

This is not the world we know works, is it? Our ideal is dominance, competition, success, and not submission. We decide what is right and wrong. But perhaps we shut people out and shun them not only for what is wrong but out of prejudices we are blind to, using words we learned like kike or mick, or, well you know the words, thinking and acting on those kinds of distinctions, or a lot of others that are more subtle. We often shut people out who do not think and act like us. We have created a whole third world out of our brothers and sisters in Christ by thinking that way. We do this for our own sake, to operate a culture and way of life, individual and corporate, that could not run any other way than on distinctions of good and bad, better and worse, one up and one down, of more civilized or less. In other words, we operate a world we can dominate.

Jesus' way is different. It is the way of submission, of taking the lowest place at the dinner party of life, of being identified with the least and the scummiest, sinners, tax collectors, prostitutes and gentiles. This submission is not for his own sake, but for the sake of everyone, so that everyone might come to the father who sent Jesus. It is not for the sake of Jesus' own plan for his life, but for the father's plan. Jesus is not a savior as a profession or career. He doesn't take his own pleasure in his work. The father is well pleased with the son, and the son simply shares in that pleasure. Perhaps we can do the same, share in Jesus' pleasure in our work instead of merely pleasing ourselves. This is the way of submission that Jesus opened up to us in his baptism.

It is also the way of submission to which we opened ourselves in our own baptism, as we continue to do in all the sacraments. In baptism we submitted to the verdict of our guilt and are cleansed. In the Eucharist we allow ourselves to be fed the food of our real life, acknowledging that our real life and our real food come from God alone. We do all this not just for ourselves but for others. We come to reconciliation not just for ourselves, though we do, of course, but for others, not just because we have sinned against them, but to restore the fabric of the common life, of a society which is rent by our sinning. It is this submission to our common humanity by which we join Jesus at his submission to baptism.

We might well consider that the sacraments are themselves a culture or society alternative to worldly and secular society and culture. They make a wonderful counterculture. Think of baptism. Everyone is eligible and all are invited in the strongest terms. There are no admission or aptitude tests. Think of reconciliation. Free forgiveness for all, forgiveness for anything on demand. That certainly rends the fabric of secular sociality. Or think of the Eucharist. Free food and drink. There is such a thing as a free lunch. That is economic vandalism. Furthermore it is radically leveling. We stand together in a circle, we all eat together, and we wait for all to eat before we go back to our places. Even our gestures in the liturgy speak of a new society. We greet, we touch, we bow, we bless. We submit ourselves to God and God's world, a world we entered in Baptism.

All this redeemed sociality begins today as Jesus submits to baptism.The king of peace and love begins his reign today by being numbered with the transgressors. We may follow Jesus into this kingdom by submitting to it. How shall we do that? We who hunger and thirst for righteousness can submit to being fed the food and drink of life. Here, and now. At this altar.