Do you ever notice a bruise on your body that you don’t remember getting?
As a clumsy person, this kind of injury happens to me on a fairly regular basis. As a child, my parents would constantly ask me “What happened there?” or “How did you get that one?” and, for the most part, my answer was a disinterested “I don’t know…”
This week, I noticed a bruise near my shin which could have been incurred in any number of different ways. I likely slammed into something on the long, arduous and apparently perilous commute to and from campus. Perhaps because my mind has been on overdrive since the beginning of school, or perhaps for the sole reason that I tend to overthink everything, I did not disregard this mysterious bruise like I normally would.
At age 22, I feel fairly indestructible. I don’t mean that I ignore my physical and mental limitations. I just mean that at this point in my life, it seems as though I am more intelligent, stronger, more independent than I ever have been. I feel able to accomplish more than I ever thought I would be able to do. All of that is likely true, but that tiny contusion on my leg served to shatter the glass walls of my ‘invincible’ illusion.
I am finite. I am limited. I am fragile. I am only flesh and blood. I can apparently damage that flesh and blood without even realizing it. Every second of every day, I am moving closer to the moment when breath will leave my lungs for the last time. That moment could be sixty years from now, or tomorrow, or in fifteen minutes.
Have you ever wondered if Jesus got bruises he didn’t remember getting? I certainly do. Can you imagine Mary, eyes roving over her first born son, asking “What happened there?” Do you wonder if Jesus responded with the same disinterest that I always did? I imagine carpentry is a surefire way to sustain a number of injuries, both known and ignored.
Like many famous heretics in the days of the early church, we often get caught up with one or the other of the natures of Jesus. As a man, Jesus did suffer. He did get bruises. He did get sick. He did inspire worry in his parents. Ultimately, as a human being, the crucifixion was an excruciating way for him to die. However, when we concentrate only on those aspects of Jesus, we lose sight of the significance of the cross. We forget the earth-shattering concept that God incarnate chose to be subjected to that kind of death on our behalf.
On the flip side, Jesus performed miracles. He summoned long-dead prophets and glowed like the sun. He walked away from murderous crowds and condemned fig trees with simple words. He taught with perfect authority and complete knowledge of God. Ultimately, as God, Jesus defeated death and rose again to new life. However, when we concentrate only on those aspects of Jesus, we lose sight of the fact that he felt and experienced all that we do. We forget the immense comfort that can be derived from the humanity of Jesus.
For Christians who give the nature of Christ any significant amount of thought, it is imperative that we strike a balance. We have to find a way to recognize the power and authority of Christ’s divinity but also to appreciate the fellowship of Christ’s humanity. I propose that the way we can find continuous equilibrium in this constant struggle is to focus on baptism.
These days, it seems like every church tradition develops its own take on the sacrament of baptism. There is debate about what age is appropriate, what words must be said, even how much water should be used. In some traditions, if any part of the person being baptized is unsubmerged, the baptism is considered invalid and must be performed again. By that definition, my baptism is invalid, seeing as I was sprinkled as an infant.
As it is, I’d rather not get into a debate about how we can live out Christ’s final instruction to “go and make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19). Regardless of your personal view on baptism, I invite you to take a step back with me. There are a few aspects upon which I am certain we can all agree.
First, baptism is not the telos. Baptism is not the final decision, but the beginning of a journey. In the waters of baptism (regardless of the amount!), a person is renewed and cleansed, named and claimed, descended upon by the Holy Spirit of God. If we look carefully, we find the second, far less quoted half of that command: “…and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:20, emphasis mine). Baptism is not the end but the beginning, the new birth.
Second, baptism is a powerful symbol for the grace of God. I’m afraid these days it has been watered down (pun intended) into a matter of mere practicality. Jesus says it, so we do it, and that settles it. However, if and when we stop to think about the layers of meaning and power of this sacrament, this means of God’s grace, we will discover a renewing of faith – indeed, a perpetual baptism – that extends and sustains long past the initial moment of literal baptism.
Finally, baptism connects us directly with Jesus Christ. The synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) all record the story of his baptism, so clearly it is an important moment in his life. Theologians have argued for centuries about the purpose for Christ’s baptism. If he was sinless, why did Jesus need to be cleansed of sin? If he was a member of the Holy Trinity from the beginning of time, why did Jesus need to receive the Holy Spirit? If nothing else, these are valid, thoughtful questions.
If we look carefully, though, we can find the purpose behind the baptism of Christ. The Gospel writers tell us that something happens during Christ’s baptism that differs from every other baptism ever enacted. All three authors are in agreement: as the waters of baptism pour over Jesus’ head, the skies open, a dove [the Holy Spirit of God] descends, and a voice resounds: “This is my beloved Son, with him I am well pleased.”
God used the moment of Christ’s baptism to express his beloved status. Before he had traveled preaching the coming of God’s kingdom, before he had reached out healing hands to lepers and even to the dead, before he had laid down his own life as the ultimate ransom, Jesus was God’s beloved.
Friends, the same can be said for us too. While the skies remained shut and God refrained from making any proclamations, God used the moments of our baptism to express our beloved status because Christ won that for us at the cross. Before we pray our first prayer, before we confess our sins, before we actually try to make disciples, before we support the church with our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service and our witness, we are God’s beloved. Christ ensured that for all those who claim it with his death.
While theologians struggle with this question of Christ’s baptism, I find the answer to be simple but overwhelmingly powerful. Why did Jesus choose to be baptized if he didn’t need to be?
Jesus did not have sin, yet he chose to be baptized anyway. In the same way, Jesus did not have sin, yet he chose to die anyway. His baptism at the beginning of his ministry, unnecessary though it may have been, pointed directly to his death at the end of his ministry.
Yes, Jesus stood in solidarity with us. He shrugged at the manifestation of mysterious bruises. He hated being sick. He loved his parents. He enjoyed the company of his friends. He was submerged in the waters of baptism. But then, Jesus went above and beyond solidarity to sacrifice. Instead of spiriting away when he was finished with his ministry on earth, Jesus took on death of the worst kind and then raised to new life in order that death might not be the final word for us. Isn’t that reason enough?
In my faith tradition, the same words of the liturgy are spoken at every baptism that happens in the church. As you read these well-worn words, remember your baptism and be thankful. Then, remember Christ’s baptism and rest in the secure knowledge that you are God’s beloved, with whom God is well pleased.
Brothers and sisters in Christ:
Through the Sacrament of Baptism
we are initiated into Christ’s holy Church.
We are incorporated into God’s mighty acts of salvation
and given new birth through water and the Spirit.
All this is God’s gift, offered to us without price.
[Lord,] pour out your Holy Spirit,
to bless this gift of water and those who receive it,
to wash away their sin
and clothe them in righteousness
throughout their lives,
that, dying and being raised with Christ,
they may share in his final victory.
Child of God, you are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.
–United Methodist Baptismal Covenant
Grace and peace,