"Let it be so now," Jesus says, "for it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness" (Matthew 3:15)
It comes as no surprise that Jesus in Matthew's Gospel wants to "fulfill all righteousness." Matthew, of all the gospels, is very interested in righteousness, that sense of a life fitting in with the will of God. I fear, however, that in interpreting the debate between John the Baptist and Jesus about who should be baptizing whom, we read it with the ears of American individualism. We can too easily hear it as an argument about Jesus' personal need for baptism, just as we so often assume that baptism is an individual act of repentance and commitment.
But Jesus clearly sees this as more than an individual act: "it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness." John's baptism of repentance is ultimately about the whole people of Israel needing a new start, a re-entry into the Jordan waters that marked the beginning of their life in the promised land. Jesus is affirming John's public ministry in this act, and so affirming that the kingdom of God is more than a dwelling somewhere deep in our individual souls. It is a new beginning for all, one in which Jesus as God-with-us stands at our side, dripping wet.
This Sunday's second lesson from Acts chapter 10 is a classic example of what drives me crazy about the lectionary. Here is a key moment from the book of Acts -- Peter's encounter with the Gentile Cornelius, and the subsequent baptism of the whole household -- and all the lectionary designates for the day is Peter's speech -- sermon really -- excerpted from the larger narrative. I can't think of any preacher's sermon that would hold up well over centuries, with only one paragraph and no context whatsoever. Peter's, I'm sorry to say, is no exception.
The rationale, I suppose, is that we get a mention of the relationship between John the Baptist's ministry and that of Jesus. But the really remarkable thing about baptism in Acts 10 comes in the narrative, in the fact that Peter, having never entered a Gentile's house before, finds himself baptizing Cornelius and all his household.
A key word for the book of Acts is several variations on the word un/hindered. Acts ends with the news that, even under house arrest, Paul is preaching the Gospel unhindered. In Acts 10, the same word appears in verse 47, but is translated withhold. "Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?" (10: 47)Later, when Peter has to justify his actions to elders in Jerusalem, he asks "who was I that I could hinder God?" (11:17)
Baptism, we learn in Acts, is a gift of the Holy Spirit. Our job is not to be gatekeepers, but simply to get out of the Spirit's way, and be witnesses to what God is doing.
At my congregation we are wrapping up our series on the St. John's prints with, of course, John 1. I'm not the world's biggest fan of John, on the whole, but chapter one cannot be beat. The trouble is, it's very difficult to say anything ABOUT it, because talking about poetry is as hard as talking about music.
Likewise, there is much about the Incarnation that is best left to poets and musicians. As soon as we get into heavy discussions of historicity, we've lost much of the beauty of it. God's intention, as far as I'm concerned, far outweighs the mechanics of how Christ came into the world. (And while I don't want to reduce John 1 to a "point," that does seem to be one of them).
One interesting reading of John 1 (thanks, Mary Hinkle Shore) puts the phrase "he gave power to become the children of God" at the center of this chapter. God's gift, the telos of this incarnation, is to make us children of God. It's an intriguing reading, one I want to follow for December 30, because we also have 3 baptisms in our congregation that day, and it seems to me that our theology of baptism too often suffers from the same un-poetic thinking that we apply to the Bible. Instead of hearing the grace, the gift of baptism, too often people jump to the logic of it: "But what about those who are not baptized? What about babies that die before they are?" and so on. We humans have a gift, it seems, for taking a thing of beauty and grace and wringing the life out of it.
May you receive this gift of beauty, of grace and truth, with mind and heart this Christmas. And sing like crazy. The artists got it right.
this quarter featured a funny but ultimately unsatisfying piece by Moncia Crumback, who discovered
that her son’s grandparents were plotting a secret baptism. Mother and father
met at a Lutheran college and left that institution “a lot more liberal and a
lot less Lutheran.” (I understand that those two “l’s” don’t go together in
some people’s minds, but it irritates me that this sentence prompts no further
As a pastor, I have seen all too often how
grandparently zeal for “getting it done” can overhwhelm any meaningful
conversation in the family about what baptism means, or the parents' religious
intentions for their children. I applaud the Cumbacks' recognition that, given
their own lack of commitment to Christianity, they have no business baptizing a
child. We pastors really don’t want anyone to be put in the position of lying
to themselves, their family, or to God.
On the other hand, I find the author’s description of their
spiritual plans for their children less than honest. They will expose their
children to the stories of a variety of faiths, they say, and when their
children are grown “they can choose.” I have heard this approach defended many
a time, often from people who are equally clear that they would be appalled if
their child grew up to, say, drive a Hummer or join the Republican party.
Let’s be honest. To expose your child to a lot of “stories”
and “philosophies,” but no living community of faith or ritual practice, is to
instill in your child a quasi-religious philosophy, namely one of secular
skepticism. While it’s entirely possible that such children will grow to some
day commit themselves heart and soul to a traditional religious faith, they
would not be following in their parents’ footsteps as they do so – and odds are
good that such a conversion would cause family tension. Their children will
indeed choose, but their parents have made a clear bid for what they hope that
choice will be.
Religion, ultimately, is a very human endeavor, a bit like
language. I know some very committed interfaith families, but they work very
hard at teaching their children more than one language of faith – and that
includes interaction with community, holiday celebration, Scriptures, and
ritual practice like worship. It is the difference between raising a child
bilingually and saying you will expose them to a half-dozen languages and let
them pick one later on.
I appreciate the respect the church is granted when people
are honest to God. Let’s just be completely honest that non-belief is also passed
down to our children.