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So why was Jesus baptized, anyway?
It’s clear that the early Christians who produced the four gospels had some difficulty with that question. You can tell by comparing the four different accounts. Mark’s gospel is the earliest to be written, and Mark narrates Jesus’ baptism clearly: “In those days Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan”; and then the Spirit descends upon Jesus like a dove. But a decade or so later the Gospel of Matthew retold that story, and Matthew clearly found it awkward to have Jesus seemingly submitting to John the Baptist’s authority. So he inserted a dialogue where John says, “How can I baptize you when you should be baptizing me?” and Jesus responds, essentially, “It’s OK; God wants it to happen this way.” And so Jesus is baptized, and the Spirit descends on him like a dove.
About the same time Matthew was writing, Luke was writing another revision of Mark’s gospel. And it’s Luke’s version that we heard today. Luke takes a different approach; he basically buries the lead by placing the actual baptism itself in a subordinate clause. He sort of slips it by you: “When all the people had been baptized … and when Jesus also had been baptized … heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended like a dove!” It’s a kind of softpedaling approach, acknowledging that the baptism happened but putting the focus elsewhere.
The fourth gospel is the Gospel of John—and John just omits the baptism entirely. In John’s gospel John the Baptist is baptizing people and Jesus simply walks by—and John the Baptist proclaims that he’s the Son of God.
It seems the early gospel writers found it hard to know what to do with the baptism of Jesus. Part of that awkwardness, as I said, might be the idea that if Jesus submitted to be baptized by John it might somehow suggest that John was the more important figure. But there’s a deeper reason. John the Baptist describes what he’s offering as “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Which, if you’re a believer in Jesus as the sinless Son of God, is precisely the one thing that Jesus of all people didn’t need.
So why was Jesus baptized, anyway?
A lot of times through history Christians have fallen into the habit of limiting the meaning of baptism to simply “forgiveness of sins.” In the first several centuries of the faith some people avoided being baptized throughout their whole lives, getting baptized only on their deathbeds, because they were so afraid that they might sin again after being baptized and waste their only chance at going to heaven with their sins forgiven. By the Middle Ages the pendulum had swung, and it had become the custom instead to baptize babies as soon as possible after birth, largely out of a fear that they might die before being baptized and miss out on going to heaven with the stain of original sin removed. Now those are opposite extremes, but they both stem from the same misunderstanding: seeing baptism simply as about taking away sins in a kind of tit-for-tat accounting where you can’t go to heaven unless your sin balance is zero.
The fact is, baptism is forgiveness of sins—but it’s also so much more. When Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River, he took the cleansing ritual John was performing and gave it new meaning. Just as at the Last Supper Jesus took the ordinary dinner prayers over bread and wine and gave them new meaning. The Eucharist is a meal, and so much more than a meal. And Christian baptism is a washing, and so much more than a washing. When we are baptized, not only are our sins forgiven; we take on a whole new identity, a whole new life. In Christian baptism we become one with Jesus. Our bodies become part of his body, our flesh becomes his flesh. It’s said that in baptism we put on Jesus Christ like a garment. And that means not just that we get a kind of one-time forgiveness coupon; it means we are plugged into a continual source of forgiveness and grace that remains with us throughout our lives and into eternity. And more than that. Just as the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus at his baptism, so the Holy Spirit descends on each person who’s baptized into Jesus, gentle as a dove and powerful as a flame, empowering that person to serve and minister in the name of Jesus. And more than that. Just as God spoke at the baptism of Jesus and said, “You are my Son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased”; so when each one of us is baptized, God speaks again and says, “You are my Child, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Baptism includes forgiveness of sins, to be sure. And even though it was the one thing he didn’t need, Jesus chose to undergo that baptism to be identified with us, to stand in solidarity with us who are sinners. He showed that solidarity most of all at the cross, where he took on the pain and suffering of human cruelty and evil. As Paul puts it in his second letter to the Corinthians, “he who knew no sin became sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” So Jesus was baptized not to be forgiven, but to plunge into the messiness and pain of our fallen world with us. He was willing to become one of us for our sake. And in response to that willingness, he was anointed with the Holy Spirit. And he went out from his baptism in the power of that Spirit to begin his ministry.
Today we baptize two small people into Jesus Christ, Peyton Murphy and Claus Neumann. And if baptism were just about a kind of one-time forgiveness coupon, it wouldn’t make much sense to do this, because Peyton and Claus haven’t done much to need to be forgiven for yet. And yet we would kid ourselves to say that they won’t. Just like each of us, Peyton and Claus will do many wonderful things, and they will also be sinners who at various times throughout their lives will stand in need of God’s forgiveness. And their baptism today gives them permanent continual access to that forgiving grace. But it gives them more. It clothes them with Jesus and makes them members of his Body. It fills them with the Holy Spirit and empowers them to be ministers of Christ. And it grants them adoption in Christ into the full status of children and heirs of God. God’s voice speaks over the waters today, as it did once over the Jordan. “Peyton; Claus; you are my beloved Child. With you, I am well pleased.”