Forgiving Jesus?

“But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper to fulfill all righteousness.”  The he (John) consented.” –Matthew 3:15

In the wake of Christmas, the lectionary moves quickly from the very spare accounts of Jesus’ early life to the event of his baptism and the advent of his public minstry.  On this blog, I am still catching up!  The first Sunday after Epiphany is “Baptism of Jesus Sunday” for us, with the gospel text for the day drawn from one of the accounts of Jesus’ baptism.  In that spirit, I would like to consider that which is particular to Matthew’s version (Matthew 3:1-17), and to pick up a thread I began to explore while blogging several years back.

Jesus emerges from nearly three decades of obscurity in Nazareth, travelling the physical and spiritual distance to John at the Jordan.  There he joins the throngs who have presented themselves for John’s invitation to be washed in “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”  What is unique in Matthew’s version is the way he records John’s strong objection: “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”  John “would have prevented Jesus (v.14).”  He does not believe it is proper for Jesus to be immersed in the river water muddy with the manifold sins of God’s willful, wayward children.  He does not know what to do with a Messiah who kneels before him, asking to be ministered to.  The church has grappled with the implications of this for centuries.  Why does Jesus need to be baptized?  Surely he does not need forgiveness!

I find Jesus’ response to John’s hindrance inviting.  “Let it be so now,” the NRSV translates.  In the koine Greek it is “Aphes arti,” “let” or “permit now.”  Aphes is a form of aphiemi, the most common NT verb for “forgive.”  It communicates release.  As in Jesus’ mission statement in Luke 4:18:  “He has sent me to proclaim release (aphesin,n) to the captives . . .” Perhaps we can allow the text to tickle our imaginations.

Imagine Jesus’ reply to John’s prevention effort sounding like this: “Forgive me, but this is the way that the kingdom comes.”  In a scandalous and vulnerable birth, in a life long-hidden amidst the world’s ways of doing, in a realm where the greatest is servant of all, where the master washes the feet of the disciples, where the last and least are first in God’s attention, where enemies are loved, where even “the brood of vipers” is included in God’s gracious design of deliverance, where violence will be overcome through submission to the cross.

It can be noted that the term for “prevent” is the same one used in the famous scene where Jesus corrects his disciples: “Let the children come to me, do not hinder them, for to such as these belongs the kingdom.”  Jesus says to John: ” Yield. Permit.  Receive.  Open fully to the love of God, to the fullness of my humanity, and to your own.  Prepare room.  God’s intention for all of creation is fulfilled in this kind of life.”

Surely we can understand John’s objection.  The order is wrong.  The setting improper.  A salvation that is unearned. A Messiah that seems powerless. A proclamation that sounds frighteningly universal. In a congregation like mine, most of us were baptized  as infants.  We grew up shaped substantially by the order, the rituals, the “proper” attitudes, the in-group/out-group perceptions, the assumptions of how you “get to heaven” that have characterized our tradition for generations.  It is often when we are already well into adulthood that the Jesus of the gospels mercifully  emerges in our lives, startling us and staking a new claim, one that is every bit as destabilizing as it is salvific.  We must contend with our many objections, as well as the objections of others to our newly unrestrained behavior.

I know it sounds outrageous to talk about “forgiving Jesus.”  Truth be told, there is much about the gospel that sounds outrageous when it first meets our ears.  And while my translation here is colloquial, to say the least, it is disarmingly true to the spirit of this interaction. We each are forgiven, ready or not.  The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is all gift, graciously offered in a way the church cannot administrate, only receive.  We are baptized into the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus just as surely as he joins us first,  without reservation, in the muddy waters of our daily lives.  The final portion of verse 15 is profoundly hopeful:  “Then John consents.”  In our emerging translation, “Then John forgives.”  We are gifted; and in receiving, we are set free to make gifts of ourselves.  That seems like the right order!

In this person-to-person encounter Jesus meets even the beloved John’s sacrificial violence with the gracious invitation to embody a new order.  Now it is John that will respond.  I am reminded of something many people have said to me when I have offered workshops and messages on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life and ministry: “Everywhere he went there was violence.”  They are offering it as a critique, the assumption being that if he and the movement hadn’t stirred things up there would have been no violence, and thus, order and “peace” would have been maintained.  Many times I have found myself wanting to shout: “But it wasn’t his violence!” Then, upon further reflection, I realize the truth of their statement.  Dr. King’s ministry shares much with that of Jesus; everywhere Jesus goes in the gospels he encounters violence from those with a vested interest  in the prevailing order, all the way to the cross (in Jerusalem or Memphis).  The dynamic is a healing mechanism; Jesus’ life calls forth all the violence within us that would impede the kingdom of God.  It will be brought to the surface, into the light that shines through the darkness.  It is for the healing of all God’s children, John among us; “all righteousness” will be fulfilled in this way.

Biblical forgiveness is the removal of obstacles; it is the bridging of  that which separates us; it is being set free from bondage; it is being released to live life fully with Jesus.  For us to “forgive Jesus” is not to forgive his sins.  But it is surely to give up our claims on who we insist he must be; it is to receive the truth of his life; and it is to share with Jesus and with everyone that which we have been given, unto a blessed fullness.