Oh, the arguments people in seminary can have about Jesus’ baptism!
Why was Jesus baptized? Because it is “proper for righteousness,” according to the answer he gives John. So as far as we can tell, something about Jesus’ baptism fulfills something God desires. We don’t know just what that is, but we know there’s some purpose to it, so we’re baptized as well.
And why are we baptized? As a sign we’re washed clean of our sins and made right with God, of course. So, waitaminute…Jesus needed to be washed clean of his sins? But Jesus has no sin, so he couldn’t possibly need cleansing. Then why was he baptized again?
You can see where someone with an ornery streak might enjoy bringing up this idea.
But baptism is a serious matter, and Jesus’ baptism has something to teach us. I don’t believe we’ll ever fully understand it in this life, but then I don’t fully understand the complete impact of my own baptism either.
Let’s look at a couple of things we understand baptism to be for us and see if they are somehow reflected or dealt with when Jesus is baptized as well.
For one, we do talk about being cleansed of our sin. But we understand the cleansing isn’t just something over and done with as soon as we dry off. My cousin Kim’s daughter was baptized a few years ago and when she came home she announced she didn’t have sin anymore. Kim noted this condition was not permanent.
And it isn’t, is it? Doesn’t matter whether how old we were, how sincere we were or how much we believed ourselves cleansed from sin. We have all sinned since our baptism – so were we cleansed or weren’t we?
We were in fact cleansed of the damage sin has done to us – of Sin with a capital “s,” if you like. But our human limitations remain and they lead us to the many sins we still commit. John Wesley reminds us baptism symbolizes God’s grace at work it us. He suggests it gives us the opportunity to act out of love and obedience to God instead of our own sinful desire.
Before God’s grace worked in us, we couldn’t even choose that. But like Ron White said of his right to remain silent following his drunk-in-public arrest, having it doesn’t guarantee we can use it. So we still mess up and we sin, even if we aren’t lost to sin the way we once were.
There’s a key thought about baptism – it signals some kind of change in us. God’s grace is at work in us to make us something different from what we used to be. Some churches focus on this idea when they say that only adults or people old enough to make their own commitment to Jesus can be baptized.
I disagree with them. Both views understand God to be at work in baptism, but for me that means no limitations. Baptize a three-minute-old baby or a hundred-year-old woman and the same God is at work, and the person being baptized needs God’s grace just as much. Of course we need to be old enough to understand certain things in order to ground our life in God rather than the world, but all we do then is accept what God has already done for us so it matters to our lives.
Fortunately, the change doesn’t stop once it happens. It cleanses us and it keeps cleansing us throughout our lives. Paul reminds us of that when he tells us that where sin is present, grace is present all the more. The grace our baptism symbolizes stays at work in us throughout our lives.
And we’re back to wondering why Jesus was baptized, aren’t we? We certainly believe God’s grace operated through him throughout his life, but what kind of change did it make in him? As the Word of God, he has always existed and is unchanging. As the human being Jesus, he was the Son of God from the moment of his conception by the Holy Spirit.
I think this is where our language loses the ability to fully express what God did in Jesus’ baptism. I think when God responds by affirming Jesus and the Holy Spirit appears, we see a perfect and complete vision of how God responds to us when we accept his way of life as ours. But we only see as much as our human limitations let us.
In the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the scientists try to communicate with the alien ship via music – a giant synthesizer plays the notes and lights flash along with them. They repeat the series several times, until finally the alien ship responds by playing the last two notes itself, blowing out windows and almost knocking people over.
When we baptize, we play notes that God has given us, trying in our own limited way to communicate the grace we’ve been given. One day, God will respond – and it will probably blow us away, too.