Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist

One test that biblical scholars use to determine the historicity of gospel passages is whether the passage would have embarrassed early Christians. If so, scholars tend to accept the incident as historical. They presume early Christians, like most people, preferred to remember what flatters rather than embarrasses.

Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist might have embarrassed early Christians for two reasons. First, John’s baptism, in part, symbolized a person being cleansed or forgiven of her/his sins. Yet many early Christians, advocating what would become the orthodox Christian view, believed that Jesus was without sin. This view, contested in some of the gnostic gospels, is explicit in both the epistle to the Hebrews[1] and parts of our liturgy. If without sin, why would Jesus choose to be baptized by John? Second, John was a political rabble rouser subsequently beheaded by Herod. Yet as Christianity progressed toward becoming the Roman Empire’s established religion, Christian leaders increasingly sought to portray Christianity as supporting the political order.

Nevertheless, early Christians regarded John’s baptism Jesus as sufficiently important to include it in the gospels.[2] So, why is Jesus’ Baptism important?

First, Holy Baptism is not only about forgiveness but also, and perhaps more significantly, about initiating or incorporating new members into the Church, the Body of Christ. The 1950s discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls and archaeological evidence about the Qumran community that owned those scrolls provide vital but previously missing historical context for understanding Christian baptism and its theology. First century Jews “revered water for its liminal qualities, believing it had the power to transport a person or object from one state to another: from unclean to clean, from profane to holy.”[3] They baptized individuals to symbolize not only forgiveness from sin but also to incorporate the baptized into their community. Contemporary Jews still use ritual baths for those same purposes.

The Book of Common Prayer’s liturgy for Holy Baptism describes baptism as a symbolic cleansing from sin – the water is an outward and visible sign of an inner and spiritual grace – and as God adopting the baptized person into God’s household.[4] Adult candidates for baptism may find the symbolism of forgiveness and cleansing most powerful. In the early centuries, individuals occasionally postponed their baptism until death approached, wrongly fearful that God’s forgiveness was most liberal or assured in Holy Baptism. One little known reason that Episcopalians, like most Christian traditions, rarely immerse people in Holy Baptism is that battlefields were often arid places. Dying soldiers sometimes wished to receive the sacrament; Christian theologians responded by deciding that water’s symbolism rather than the quantity of water conveys God’s grace. For other adults and the parents of children, diminishing belief in both hell and original sin condemning the unbaptized to hell mean that the theme of adoption into God’s family is frequently Holy Baptism’s most important aspect.

Multiple centrifugal forces, including the internet and political polarization, today erode community, isolating individuals and increasing loneliness. Christian community is perhaps more important than ever before. One current debate in the Episcopal Church is whether an unbaptized person may receive Holy Communion. On the one hand, we want to be an open and inclusive church. On the other hand, we gather at the altar as the people, the family, of God in Christ's name. Holy Baptism is the source and declaration of our Christian identity, a child of God who intentionally tries to walk the Jesus path. Parenthetically, if you wish to be baptized, your clergy will happily assist you.

Second, we practice baptism in obedience to Jesus’ teachings and example. In this, we emulate his example of obeying John the Baptist’s prophetic call. Be warned: following Jesus is dangerous. John the Baptist was beheaded. Jesus was crucified. Following Jesus challenges us to love our neighbor as much as we love ourselves, to return good for evil, to prioritize God over worldly idols.

German Lutheran pastor H. P. Ehrenberg was instrumental in establishing the "Confessing Church," the group that refused to capitulate to Hitler’s takeover of Germany’s established Lutheran Church.[5] Every Thursday evening, people from Ehrenberg’s church met to immerse themselves in the tradition and in the classic creeds and Reformation confessions of faith. He called those meetings a "rehearsal" for whatever might be coming: "We came to realize that instruction itself already contains the seeds of fellowship, of true community. In our case it was as important as the final rehearsal of the orchestra: a sort of 'performance before the performance.'"

Ehrenberg in his autobiography describes something that took place at a summer camp for teenage girls. A "united service" for Catholics and Protestants was held in a room dominated by a large picture of Hitler hung on a wall. A young Lutheran girl, recently confirmed, could take it no more. She tore down the picture and smashed it against the wall, shouting, "Thou shalt have no other gods but me."

The remarkable thing was not that she smashed Hitler's picture, nor even that she had the courage to confess the First Commandment, but her preparation beforehand to do both.

Jesus’ baptism reminds us to prepare ourselves – to rehearse our identity as a Christian member of God’s family and to practice walking in Jesus’ footsteps. We prepare, we rehearse, by attending worship, receiving Holy Communion, participating in an education or formation program, actively supporting an outreach ministry, loving an unlovable co-worker or neighbor, or otherwise re-enacting some aspect of the gospel story. Then when the time of testing comes, we like the girl who smashed Hitler’s picture, will discover the love, grace, and strength to say no to temptation, to put the well-being of another ahead of selfish aims, to walk with humility and honesty instead of arrogant dishonesty, and to follow God’s leading.

May we become such a people, a living community of Christ's saints. Amen.

Sermon preached on the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord

Parish of St Clement, Honolulu, HI, January 13, 2019

[1] Hebrews 4:16.
[2] Luke 3:21 and parallels.
[3] Reza Aslan, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (New York: Random House, 2013), Kindle Loc. 1485-90.
[4] Book of Common Prayer, pp. 299ff.
[5] H. P. Ehrenberg, Autobiography of a German Pastor (London, 1943), pp. 48, 50, 64.


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