4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7He proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’
9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.'” – Mark 1:4-11 NRSV
Bob Dylan came to Pittsburgh a few years ago. A friend of mine, John – a fascinating guy who is a retired school teacher, and now does maintenance and grounds keeping for Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, where I got my M.Div – went to that concert. His description of the concert has stayed with me (not only because of my own regret that I wasn’t able to go). Bob Dylan – the living legend, the great poet – came out on stage, and everyone expected all of the old songs, the songs that they knew. Though when he began playing, the songs were both familiar, and brand new. He played his classic songs, but in a new way, a way that the audience had never heard them played before, rewrote the songs in a way that enabled the songs to say new things. Before we dive into the baptism of Jesus and what it means, it’s important to take a moment to look at another passage, from later on, in the book of Acts.
Acts 19:1-7: "While Apollos was in Corinth, Paul passed through the interior regions and came to Ephesus, where he found some disciples. 2He said to them, 'Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?' They replied, 'No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.' 3Then he said, 'Into what then were you baptized?” They answered, “Into John’s baptism.' 4Paul said, 'John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, in Jesus.' 5On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 6When Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied— 7altogether there were about twelve of them.
Something changed. In this brief story, Paul meets two believers, who had been taught and been baptized by John the Baptist. Paul tells them of the Holy Spirit, and then, upon finding that they were baptized by John, does something a little bit startling: Paul baptizes them a second time. It is startling, because to re-baptize someone is to say that the first one was invalid. This means that in the Apostolic age, baptism became something different than it was before. That leads to the natural question: “What changed?” John’s whole ministry was about pointing to Christ. John was essentially the first person to proclaim the gospel. So it wasn’t that baptism became gospel centered; it always had been gospel centered. What changed? The author – the great poet – came out on stage and played the song in a new way, a way that enabled it to say more than it had before.
John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance, a symbolic demonstration of one’s own repentance through an act of ritual washing. When Jesus was baptized, it took on a different character. Jesus had no sin to repent of, there was no repentance for him to symbolically demonstrate. When Jesus was baptized it was an act of solidarity. In this act of solidarity, baptism itself took on a new character, when Jesus was baptized by John, something else happened, something similar to what Paul would later say happens in baptism: God the Father named Jesus and claimed Jesus as His own: “And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’” (Mark 1:11 NRSV) The primary actor in Jesus’ baptism was The Father, who named Jesus and claimed Jesus as His own.
Christ, even though he was sinless, was baptized in solidarity with sinful humanity. Christ met us in our weakness, showed us both what we are called to, and what that which we are called to does for us. Baptism is a sacrament: an outward sign of an inward grace and a means of receiving the same. Baptism is not something we do, but something which is done for us. We do not baptize ourselves, we are baptized. The primary actor in baptism is God. Just as in Jesus’ baptism, the primary actor in baptism is not the person being baptized, nor the person officiating the baptism, but God. The one presiding over the sacrament is just the instrument which God uses, and the person being baptized is the recipient of Gods gracious act.
In baptism, by grace alone, received through faith alone, God names us and claims us as His own. In Galatians 3:25-27 Paul says this: “But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, 26for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. 27 As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” Grace is – by definition – a gift. If you think of grace on the analogy of a present, the sacraments – baptism and communion – alongside other means of grace (like reading and studying scripture) are like the box and wrapping paper in which the gift is found, and which mark off the occasion of the gift (whether it be for Christmas, or a birthday, or some other occasion). Faith is how we tear open the wrapping paper and receive the gift inside. Now, what is the gift?
In Galatians 3:27-29, Paul says “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. 29And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.” There is a lot to this, and I highly recommend By Water and The Spirit: A United Methodist Understanding of Baptism, which is the official explanatory treatise on baptism of The United Methodist Church, or anything at all on baptism by the Lutheran pastor Rev Jordan Cooper, if you want to dive deeper into this. Before we close I want to zoom in on one aspect of baptism which is prefigured in the baptism of Jesus, revealed in Galatians applied to daily life in Galatians 3.
In Baptism we are named and claimed by God. We are signed and sealed by the grace of God, as God’s own. Baptism is, among other things, a sacrament of identity. You are who God says you are, and God says that you are His child whom he loves, and has claimed as His own. This means that whatever demeaning things anyone may say about you, whatever demeaning things you are tempted to say about yourself: this is who you are: you are a child of God called by name and loved infinitely by God.
"You belong to Christ in whom you have been baptized alleluia alleluia alleluia"1
This is who we are, ultimately and most essentially. There is no Jew no Greek, no slave no free, no male nor female, but all are one in Christ. Paul did not renounce his national or ethnic identity nor deny his own masculinity; he didn’t mean that those things are not part of who we are, but that they are not the center of who we are. Such things are part of who we are, but they are not the essence of who we are. The Church is a place of unity amongst difference because what you unites us is more central to our identity than those differences. In Christ there is no rich nor poor, no urban no rural, no red no blue, for all are one in Christ Jesus.
There is no one stop solution to the divisions in our world. Anyone who tries to say “All we need to do is this one simple thing and all our problems will go away” is probably selling snake oil. Yet, living this out is a very big step in the long road to making things better. Because, when we reorient our identity around Christ, without sacrificing the other, less important aspects of who we are, and do the same for others, then here we do not relate to those different than us as enemy, but as sister and brother. If we remember who we are, who they are, whose we are, and whose they are, then we will not, we cannot, cut off and cast those who the world wants us disassociate with, because as different as we may be in other ways, what unites us, who unites us, is bigger and more important than those things could ever dream of being.
You belong to Christ, in whom you have been baptized. In baptism you have put on Christ. You have been called by name; you have been named and claimed by God. You are who God says you are, not who the world says you are. You are a beloved child of God, called by name, and so are all your sisters and brothers, however different they may be from you. The family of God is the family of God. I’ve heard the words “civil war” thrown around in the past couple of days. And yes, it was on internet comment sections, where nuance goes to die, but these are big words, this is a big concept, and it has a lot more nasty consequences than I suspect the people who are throwing around these words realize. It’s families killing each other, that’s what civil war is. Remember who you are. Remember whose you are. May we remember where our ultimate identity lies, and where our ultimate hope lies. Our hope lies in Christ, and these other aspects of our identity – where we are from, what we do for a living, what our political affiliation is – are parts of who we are, but they are not the center of who we are. The center of who we are, transcends all of these things, transcends these divisions and brings us together.
Never forget who you are. Never forget whose you are. May we remember who we are, how ever different we may be from one another, what ever it may be that seeks to rip us apart. Above all, may we remember whose we are. May we live every day out of that reality. May we offer ourselves every day as holy and living sacrifices to the God of all creation who has called us by name and claimed us as his own and unites us together with one another, amongst all our differences. He who has called us by name and claimed us as His own, who unites us together, will make a way where there seems to be no way. Whatever lies ahead, He will see us through.
- I normally include citations for any quotes, but I sang this from memory, and cannot find author. If you know who wrote this arrangement, please shoot at email to firstname.lastname@example.org, so we can add a citation. – Pastor Josh