Why would God be baptized? Fair question. It’s John the Baptist’s question in Matthew. Jesus responds that it will “fulfill all righteousness.” Matthew depicts John’s baptism as one specifically of repentance, or changing one’s mindset. Baptism—having crazy John immerse you in the muddy Jordan River—is not bathing as we would think of it. It’s a symbolic drowning. We’ve tidied up baptism over the last few centuries so you wouldn’t necessarily know it, but Martin Luther says in his Small Catechism that in baptism God drowns the “old Adam,” the sinner. So, I am with John the Baptist: Why would God undergo a symbolic drowning into changing mindsets? And I’ll add a question: why would God as us to do it, also?
We’ll start with John’s question: why would God be symbolically drowning God’s mindset? Does God’s mind change? We traditionally think of God as unchanging. That concept has more to do with Greek philosophy than with the God of the Bible. The God of the Bible tells Samuel God regrets having made Saul king over Israel. The God of the Bible concedes to Abraham that a few righteous ones outweigh countless unrighteous. The God of the Bible plans to burn Israel until Moses points out it would be a PR disaster. “Oh, yeah. That’s a good catch, Moses.” The God of the Bible tells Ezekiel to disregard centuries of instructions about how God punishes children for the sins of their parents, and says, “No. From now on I only punish you for your own stuff.” The God of the Bible is more open to change than the God of Greek philosophy (and a lot of contemporary religious thought) will allow.
Interestingly, Greek (and other) philosophy thinks of people as constantly changing and unreliable. That is not the biblical view. If you check Ezekiel again, God tells Ezekiel, “I’ve got a message for my people: ‘You people have been horrible from the day I met you! You never change!’” Martin Luther made a similar observation. Luther says human beings at the end of the Bible are the same way they were at the beginning of the Bible. In the Bible humans don’t change. Human beings are reliable. They’re reliably bad. There is something incredibly unsurprising, something depressingly predictable, in Peter’s speech in today’s Acts reading: “Jesus went around doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil. They put him to death by hanging him from a tree.” Sounds like people.
We sometimes call baptism a journey. We start our baptismal journey at the font and we conclude it at the grave (which has no power because Christ is risen). Why would God ask us to go on this journey? Look what people did to God! And it’s not just God. Look at the prophets! Nobody liked these people. Or the disciples: one of the Twelve dies of old age; the rest are martyrs. The Bible is full of stories of horrible things done, usually, in God’s name. They kill Christ in God’s name, the prophets in God’s name, the disciples in God’s name. Horrible things done by good old reliable people in God’s name.
The God who does horrible things to you is not the God who gets baptized. The God who does horrible things to people in God’s name is not God at all; it’s people. God did not crucify Jesus; people did. God did not stone the prophets; people did. People wanted something, and did horrible things to get it or keep it, then said those horrible things were God’s idea. Why would God undergo symbolic drowning into changing mindsets? Perhaps part of the answer is that in being baptized God gives us a sign that God does not do horrible things. God undergoes erasure. God drowns. God is crucified. God does not force God’s self upon people. God would rather be destroyed than destroy you.
People who do horrible things in God’s name are not being God’s people. I think that is at least part of the answer to my question: Why would God ask us to undergo the same baptism as Jesus? Because in baptism God calls us to let God erase our opposition to God. God says, Stop attaching my name to your things. We have a lot of things we want to do and we don’t want to hear about them. We want to get cheap clothes made by slave labor, cheap shoes made by kids in sweatshops, cheap food processed by overworked underpaid undocumented laborers, and we don’t want to hear about it. We want to burn however much fuel we like and throw away whatever we want and enjoy our security, and we don’t want to know how it’s going. I just kind of want the stories of pain and death and destruction to stop. I don’t want to hear about it. I just want to be left alone. Especially…in Church.
On Thursday ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton issued two statements about an hour apart. One asked us to pray for our fellow Christians in the United Methodist Church, as that denomination continues to struggle with questions of full inclusion of the LGBT. One asked us to pray for peace in the dealings between the United States and Iran. The comments in response…. I’ve said before, if any among you doubts the existence of Sin, read the comments on any website. Seriously. It could be an article asking if buttons are better than zippers. It will degenerate into something awful. Well, the responses to Bishop Eaton were reliably human. They were calls for her to stop talking about “social issues” and instead to “read the Bible.” And the thing is that’s really easy to say if you’re not in the military or a military family, worrying about possible deployment to a combat zone. Or if you’re not an Iranian worrying that your street is about to become a combat zone. Of if you’re not a gay Methodist being told you’re sinning by being gay. That’s privilege. I don’t have this problem; therefore, Jesus does not care about it. That’s been the position of Churches in the US: using God to justify ignoring our neighbors, our friends, our own. In the Baptism of our Lord, God calls us to erase that.
God does not do horrible things; God does not want us to do horrible things in God’s name. God does new things. God wants to do new things through us. For that to happen we’ve got to let God erase our opposition. Sometimes in our context that opposition has manifested as ignoring things. Our baptism into Christ Jesus will not allow us to ignore things.
The Church has a history of hurt. I’m not talking just about Trinity Lutheran Church of Valparaiso. I’m talking about the Church since Jesus told his mother and the beloved disciple by the cross to take care of each other. The Church has hurt people. Some folks are here—in this congregation—because they experienced pain in another congregation and found a refuge here. Some folks experienced pain here and have left for another congregation, or left the church entirely. Some folks experienced pain here and are still here. Some folks are here after having spent some time away because of pain. Some of that hurt was beyond the Church’s control. There was nothing anyone could’ve done. Some of it was a direct consequence of intentional choices the Church made. Decisions were taken that did not need to be taken and someone got hurt. Those decisions might’ve been really good, overall. Best choice we could’ve made. Yeah, but it really dinged this guy. The Baptism of our Lord won’t allow us to ignore that. We’re supposed to be in the healing business, here; you gotta name what needs healing if you’re gonna do that.
Christ’s Church everywhere—including here—needs healing. Community needs healing. You do not need to look hard to find recent stories of rocks and cans thrown at gay couples in town, of Muslim women shoved on the sidewalk, of plus-size women fat shamed at local businesses (that one made international news), or of anyone not fitting the prevailing image of who belongs here being lumped into the group of “those people” who don’t belong here. The Baptism of our Lord won’t allow us to ignore that, either. The problem is not merely that some congregations preach that this sort of attitude is okay, even godly. It’s also that our congregation cannot faithfully hide from it all. That hiding would be opposition to God. And that hiding would be the same old same old. Reliably human. Unchanging (and not in any good way).
God is far more open to changing things than we like to admit. God is trying to do something new, something better. And God is calling us to let God erase our opposition to God. God wants to do new things through us. God wants a community that does not have the reliably bad unchanging story, variations on the theme “he healed, so they crucified.” And so God calls us: Come down to the waters where God the Son himself was erased, and let God do this new thing through you.