Painting by an unknown Indian artist.
Yesterday much of the church celebrated the baptism of Jesus by John in the river Jordan. Here's the reading used in the independent (LGBTQI+ affirming) Catholic church we attended:
Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”
Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented.
As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”
(Matthew 3:13-17 NIV)
John's obedience launches Jesus' ministry, when the power of the Spirit is unleashed and miracles are lavishly performed. It's a moment of tremendous importance.
While I've read the passage and heard it discussed many times, something new occurred to me on Sunday: Jesus tells us it is proper for humanity to participate in this momentous action. Some translations use the term "fitting," but the meaning is the same; Jesus says human co-operation was needed for God's will to be fulfilled.
John responds appropriately to the scandal of the thought, saying "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?" He is the voice of all of us who are honest about ourselves. We are flawed. We do things out of selfishness or pride, hoarding our gifts and judging others as sinful. None of us is worthy of a task even as humble as carrying Jesus' sandals, let alone conducting an act as powerful as baptizing the Christ.
John the Baptist was special, of course: he was a miraculous conception in a woman who was past typical child-bearing years. And he had a special gift of recognizing the presence of the divine; leaping in the womb when Jesus was merely nascent within Mary, proclaiming the lamb of God had come when Jesus arrived in Jordan, then telling everyone the spirit fell upon and remained on Jesus.
John recognized the divinity of Jesus. And despite his unworthiness, he agreed to God's outrageous request, and baptized Jesus. His co-operation with the divine brought about an increase of the kingdom, the unleashing of the Spirit, and the launching of Christ's ministry.
Toward the end of Jesus' three years setting fire to the earth, another character does something similar; a sinful woman who disrupts the dinner party of affluent men. Jesus reclined at that wealthy table when Mary of Bethany came in. Like John the Baptist, she recognized the divinity of Jesus but also his humanity, bathing his feet, baptizing him with her tears, and anointing him as King. She acted out of love and launched him into the final days of his human ministry, preparing for the great unleashing of the Spirit which took place after he ascended.
These momentous actions center around two things: recognition of who and where Jesus is, and agreeing to an action of loving service despite the appearance of ridiculousness.
Consider another story which has similarities but a different outcome. After Jesus imitates Mary's action of love during his last supper with the apostles, he is crucified and dies. The women who saw that Jesus had been hastily buried because of the sabbath went home and gathered spices and anointing oils, planning to bathe his battered and bloodied corpse when the Law permitted them to do so. By the time they returned, the tomb was empty. Their earnest desire for obedience to the rules for righteousness stopped them from doing what their hearts knew was right. They wanted to baptize Jesus into the next phase of the Spirit's unleashing, but stopped short. How must they have mourned when they found his beloved body gone? How must they have wished they'd just done it, despite their fear of the Romans, of the religious elite, and perhaps even of a law-driven God? What might the tales of their old age been like if they'd pushed through all that; tales of the day they prepared Jesus' body for glorification?
These stories of the people who had intimate physical interactions with Jesus aren't simply about what happened back then. The opportunities are still unfolding. Jesus walks among us, but hidden, just as he was in Mary's womb and when he was disguised as a powerless criminal, naked and disfigured on the cross. Jesus is the person who is cold, hungry, thirsty, imprisoned, and shamed by the religious authorities. He is the refugee from across the globe or at our southern border, the sex-trafficked gay teenager who was kicked out of their family home, and perhaps hardest to recognize of all, he is even the political figure who is so caught up in the brokenness of their own emotional formation that they can only spew lies and hatred.
There are a million reasons why we don't perform acts of humble, loving service to people who make us uncomfortable. But when we do these things for someone society shuns, we participate with John in the baptizing of Christ, in order that righteousness might be fulfilled. And we unleash the power of the Spirit into a world which desperately needs it.
Jesus tells us it is proper for the Kindom's power to unfold this way; with you and I taking part in the manifestation of Christ's divinity.
Let's be brave, and do it.
The water awaits.