When It’s Not About Washing
A sermon on Matthew 3:13-17.
[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by Elijah Heitt on Unsplash.]
This past Christmas there were a number of gifts that I was excited to give, anticipating the happy reactions of the recipients to carefully selected items. But there was one such reaction that I hadn’t given any thought to.
It was in response to a stocking gift… just a last-minute impulse purchase from the grocery store: a simple bath bomb.
But the family member who received it was genuinely delighted by this $5 gift.
And, really, I shouldn’t have been surprised, because I know how much they love the gentle relaxation of a nice, hot bath. That’s why I bought the bath bomb when I saw it!
For this person, baths are not just about getting clean, they are about warmth and comfort and space to just be.
It’s a helpful reminder for me in pondering today’s gospel story… the reminder that there’s more than one meaning to a watery immersion.
When Jesus approaches the wilderness prophet with the intention of being baptized, John wants to prevent him, because his understanding of baptism is too limited.
John has been preaching a baptism of repentance.
He has been challenging people to “change their hearts and lives,” and hearing people’s confessions of sins, and calling out religious leaders to show fruits of their genuineness rather than depending on their status.
John has one framework for understanding what baptism is all about – a framework of turning away from wrong toward right – and within that framework it doesn’t make sense for Jesus to come for baptism.
John knows that he has no standing to call Jesus to repentance. He knows that if anyone in the interaction should be called upon to make a change it is HIM, not the Lord whose way he has been sent to prepare.
But Jesus knows more. He knows that his baptism can be right,” fulfilling of all righteousness,” even if it means something different than it means for all the other supplicants who come to John at the Jordan.
The narrative gives us both images and a voice to fill out that meaning:
The heavens opening: a sudden break in the division between two realms.
A dove descending: an embodiment of God’s Spirit resting on the man coming out of the water.
And a voice declaring: “The is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
The change that occurs in Jesus’s baptism is not from sin to repentance… it is from separation to union, and from anonymity to declared identity.
All of that is why Jesus’s baptism is right, even though it is very different than the baptism John has offered before.
In seminary they teach pastors-in-training NOT to preach this story as a parallel to our baptism, because Jesus’s baptism is different than the baptism that marks the start of a life of faith.
But I wonder if that caution isn’t too binary. Too caught in the either/or that John falls into when Jesus first approaches with the request to be baptized.
Yes, our baptism IS a baptism of repentance like John’s… the actions of the sacrament mimic drowning our sins so that we can be raised to new life.
But isn’t our story ALSO about receiving God’s Spirit in a new union that undoes the separation caused by sin?
Isn’t it about a declaration of our identity as beloved children of God?
I think this STORY – as a whole – does offer us a powerful understanding of just what we receive in baptism by offering two meanings that can BOTH be relevant:
Repentance AND union.
Change AND affirmation of who we really are.
This becomes even more clear when we consider the baptism story from our second reading today from Acts.
The reading gives us only the sermon and its consequences, but the story begins earlier… with God engineering a challenge to a well-established religious separation.
Cornelius, a Roman centurion who is seeking God but limited by his heritage, gets a visit from God’s angel, instructing him to invite the Apostle Peter to come and teach him.
At the same time, Peter receives a repeated vision, challenging him to question his adherence to purity laws. Through God’s Spirit, Peter rightly interprets the vision as a call to set aside religious conventions in order to share the message of Jesus with Cornelius and his extended household.
The sermon that we heard today is Peter’s response… his affirmation that the forgiveness offered through Jesus is for EVERYONE who trusts in him.
And the consequence of that sermon is a narrative embodiment of the message that baptism is NOT one, rigidly-proscribed thing…
Because this story doesn’t follow ANY of the rules.
Peter and the other “circumcised believers” aren’t even supposed to ENTER the house of a Gentile according to the pharisaic laws, but Peter goes on in and preaches a sermon about all being welcome.
And then the Holy Spirit doesn’t even let him finish before falling on EVERYONE who was there – no confession or repentance required as a prerequisite.
And so, the baptism just becomes sort of a way a marking what God has already accomplished. Peter basically says, “how can we withhold the ritual when the thing it means is already done?”
Cornelius and his household are supposed to stay separate from the Jews…
And baptism is supposed to be a deliberate step taken by those who choose to change their lives and follow the way of Jesus…
But God throws all the “supposed to’s” out the window as the Wind of the Spirit blows where it will,
because what really matters is the end of separation and the affirmation of identity as God’s beloved children.
I love both of these biblical stories of baptism because of the way that they unapologetically call out our human tendency to get fussed about all the wrong things, while still being beautiful life-giving stories because God just refuses to let our scruples get in the way.
And that reality highlights one final meaning of what baptism is for us: it is God’s gift to us.
Because, ultimately, the change that happens in our baptism is not about our repentance, or our faith, or our ritual actions … it is about God erasing the separation and calling us Beloved.
It’s about God doing that for us so that every other time in our lives when the supposed to’s try to re-establish the separation or deny our identity, we will know that our imperfections cannot take away the gift that God has given us.
And however wonderful the gifts that were under our trees, or in our stockings this year, none is as good as that gift.
Thanks be to God
 Matthew 3:2 (CEB)