“Baptism!” This was a sigh or a gasp breathed by my terminally ill friend as he reported on his experience of a shower, the first he’d been privileged to take after having been bathed by others during weeks of chemotherapy.
He knew better than to equate his earth-bound pleasure evoked by water with the promises of real baptism.
This “Baptism!” was for comparative purposes only. He knew that what we just called the experience of “real” baptism is entirely and always a movement of grace, with all its benefits: forgiveness, life, salvation.
He’d learned about them from catechisms and lived in the light of them. But the splashing of water on his parched skin that day did set in motion a sequence of ideas that led back to baptism.
So we got to talking about baptism: his, that of all believers, ours and the very different one Jesus gave us to enjoy.
Three questions: Was there anything in my friend’s celebration that has anything to do with the baptism of Jesus?
Second, do we start and stop with the question his baptizer, John the Baptist, asked of Jesus: Why are you coming to me for this?
And what does this have to do with the living of our lives?
Looking for answers
I went home after the hospital visit and, prompted by curiosity about the difference between Jesus’ baptism and ours, was set to doing research and pondering.
In a book on baptism I found some talk about the big difference between the two washings. Ours, wrote British scholar R.E.O. White, is all about “getting right with God.”
In the baptism of Jesus, which Christians celebrate in this season, White noted enrichments: “the endowment of divine power, spiritual authority, inward assurance, and an accepted dedication to future work and high destiny.” Jesus’ baptism was about his response to his divine Father’s “endowment” and all that it meant.
The key word to characterize it would be “obedience.” That response and obedience did not mean grudging and reluctant trudging along in a humdrum life ever after. No, the story of Jesus’ baptism can be noted as the moment when his purpose in the world came to be revealed to the world. Another Scripture says even that “for the joy that was set before him, he endured the cross.” Nothing grudging there!
Did Jesus need the baptism of John in order to recognize his calling, his mission?
Do we need belief in the story of his baptism to be identified with him?
Does our awareness of our own endowment of purpose, our own call in life relate to this identification?
The answers are “yes” and “yes” and “yes.”
Jesus had to have been the one who told this story, which found its way into the Gospels, and in it he said his baptism had to happen. We need the story for refreshment of the reality that we are identified with him. And the annual recall of Jesus’ baptism and the visitation of the Holy Spirit impel us to accept dedication “to future work and high destiny.”
Whether or not the element of water, which in the story of my showering friend was an adequate base for comparison, the act of retelling the story of Jesus in the water of the Jordan can inspire the gasp again. “Baptism!” And we are called to rededication.
Martin Marty is a pastor in the ELCA and a long-time professor of Christian history at the University of Chicago.
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