” . . . the events of the New Testament are an intervention into the core structure of violent humanity in order to change it into something loving, peaceful, and life giving.” –Anthony Bartlett
I would like to consider the above proposition through the lens of Matthew 3:13-17, the account of Jesus’ baptism. It is the momentous time when Jesus’ own life journey takes a radical turn. Particular to Matthew’s telling is that when Jesus comes to the Jordan intending to join everyone else in the baptismal waters, John argues strenuously with him. “But John would have prevented Jesus, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you’ (v. 14 ).” Picture Jesus entering the waters and declaring his intention to be immersed with the rest of God’s children, and John responding, “No way! That’s not right! What in heaven’s name are you thinking?”
We will do well to cast a compassionate gaze upon the Baptist. After all, his life has long been pointed toward this very moment. Austerity of body and spirit have been dedicated daily in the calling of God’s people to preparation for the Messiah’s coming– including John himself. Everyone needs to get washed of their sin and begin to manifest signs of new life, he insists: “Bear fruit worthy of repentance!” The prophet’s words have carried a dark sense of urgency: An ax is prepared to cut down unfruitful trees that will be cast into the fire; the savior will gather his wheat into the granary, separating it from the chaff, which also will burn in an unquenchable fire.
Then the story itself takes a radical turn, as Jesus reveals himself right in the midst of all of the “unclean.” The Baptist staggers. What will John’s life work mean if this is Jesus’ M.O.? “I have spent all my time trying to get everyone to clean up, and here you are ready to join them in the mud?” Well, yes.
Let’s be honest: Who among the professed followers of Jesus–in any age– has not argued strenuously with him, insisting on heirarchy, sharp distinctions, appropriate judgment of the “other”, “righteous” ordering of our world? John’s fit of pique is a good place for us to join with him, even as we may have already identified with those perceiving their need of cleansing. Anthony Robinson has affirmed Jesus’ ministry this way: “The truth will set us free, but it will make us mad first.” All of us will be revealed in the waters of mercy together, with Jesus, regardless of previous impressions and plans.
What is so compelling about the example of John is that he has indeed been committed to the realm of God, dedicated to what he has understood as right,willing to risk embodying a cherished text, staked his life on “preparing the way” for “the One who is to come.” And so he has. But John’s understanding of salvation remains infected with original violence. According to John, there will be no salvation without the threat of punishment, the demand for proper production and proof of worthiness, the necessity to amputate those who fail. And we have long lived as if these things are true.
Jesus’ descent into the river is a manifestation of his immersion in the lives of all God’s children, without reservation, and of God’s unfractured Presence. The unconditional “yes” of God’s love, manifested not only here but so vividly through the entire life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, remains confounding even to the church that bears Christ’s name. The problem continues to be grace: so unqualified, so unmeasured; and to our eyes, so un-discerning! The church experiences itself at sea, as we all do, when we are no longer able to claim our identity as being over against others. Let us stand with John, hearing Jesus’ invitation, “Let it be this way,” and if we are able, let our feelings of profound discomfort be testimony to God’s love for us. God’s love is what is most discerning.
On the Sunday that our congregation considered this text we gave thanks for Jesus “immersing himself in the waters of our lives.” We prayed: “Shake all of our hearts and break up the stony places within us; drench us in the baptism of compassion, tenderness, and justice.” We, of course, were praying for that which is already happening; the quake that is breaking up the hard places and opening to a stream of new life rising from within.
Church history is replete with “Noes,” and maybe even more “Yes-but-Noes:” you will be acceptable if you do certain things, think certain ways. Contrast that with the Apostle Paul’s future testimony, born of his own here-and-now experience of the Delivering Presence: “For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom we proclaimed among you . . . was not ‘Yes and No;’ but in him it is always ‘Yes’ (2 Corinthians 1:19).”
Jesus draws close to John, breathing the language of forgiveness: Let it be so (Greek: aphes), here and now. Make room. Forgive. Let it be . . .this way. Break the cycle of what has “had to be” previously. Let this presence permeate your image-ination. Let it be for the love of God!
Jesus knows John’s receptive language well, adding: For it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness. Righteousness and proper order are critical to John’s incarnate faith. Here, the poetry of fulfillment is imaged in a vessel not only filled to completion but overflowing into a movement drenching that which is far beyond itself. The terminology for “righteousness” shares its translation with “justice;” how communal well-being is intended in God’s eyes and in the divine will. What is the justice manifested in God’s overflowing, world-drenching love? And can it even be possible that such love will be found erupting from within John’s own limited experience of righteousness?
I started writing this post back in January, and offer it now in the season of Pentecost, much later in the story. I wonder what other expressions of “inside out” salvation have been, and are being, revealed “on the way?”