Baptisms… and threshing floors. What can they have to do with each other?
Do you remember the Gospel story about the time Jesus drove all of the money-changers and merchants out of the temple? (Luke 19:45-48) This was near the end of his earthly sojourn and Jesus was pushing his disciples pretty hard, getting them ready to take responsibility for spreading the Good News after he was gone. And the disciples weren’t being too “swift on the uptake,” so it’s possible that Jesus might have been feeling a little testy when the chief priests and elders approached him in the temple, where he was teaching and healing one day, and asked him by whose authority he was doing all of these things. I can almost hear Jesus sigh when he countered their question with another… hoping, truly hoping, I believe, that they would get it: “Was the baptism of John from heaven or from men?” asked Jesus. And the chief priests and elders, who couldn’t get past struggling to find a politically correct answer to Jesus’ question, found themselves unable to respond (Luke 20:1-8). So, which was it do you think?
John, himself, was forthright in saying that the baptism he was performing was inferior to the one that the coming Messiah would provide. John’s baptism was a variation on a purification ritual for Jewish proselytes—that is, gentiles who wanted to convert to Judaism. That sort of washing was meant to start converts off with a clean slate before they placed themselves under the authority of the Hebrew Law (all 613 mitzvot) for the rest of their lives. But what was notable about John’s baptism was that it was not only for converts… but for practicing Jews as well: everybody got a bath. So, it was not only a ritual cleansing for newbies, but also preparation and a refinement of the faithful for something else… something special. What might that look like?
On the day of his resurrection, Jesus would meet with the disciples in an upper room, breathe on them and say, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:19-23). Later, he would commission them to go forth “and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:16-20). And on the day of Pentecost tongues “as of fire” would appear upon each of Jesus’ followers as they began to proclaim God’s word to all of the people of Jerusalem… in their own languages! (Acts 2:1-12) That’s what it would look like. What a day that must have been. But that brings us back around to the question posed by Jesus about John’s baptism: was it truly from God or was it just a religious thing?
I wonder if it’s not a little bit of both. God created us in the image of divinity in order to be in relationship with us forever. But we messed everything up. And ever since the time of Adam and Eve in the Garden, God has been trying to restore us to unity with him… to bring us home. God made successive covenants with Noah and Abraham and Moses and David: if only the people would be faithful, they would be blessed more than they could ask for or imagine. God always offers us a path to salvation… a chance to be made clean. And yet, we resist the “threshing” that must take place to separate us from our impurities… in order that we can be reunited with God. But despite our stubbornness, I think that most of us are hungry for God whether we know it or not… whether we choose to admit it to ourselves or not. There’s something about living on this lovely (but rather diminutive) blue and green planet… in the middle of the vast expanse of interstellar space… that reminds us of our own smallness and points us towards a truth that we can only see, in the words of the Apostle Paul, “through a glass, darkly,” but that we hope one day to see face-to-face (1 Cor 13:11-12 KJV).
And so, we create rituals that remind us of God’s unfailing love for us… rituals that help us stay faithful to God’s movement and purpose in our lives… because we want to be found worthy of adoption as God’s own people. Perhaps Jesus’ question to the temple leadership that day was rhetorical… to help them understand that the answer needn’t be simply either/or. What if it was both/and? What if the bigness and awesomeness of God could permeate human ritual and make it holy? It seems to me that the chief priests and elders missed an opportunity that day. And in our bickering over church polity in this day and age, how many opportunities do we miss to perceive the mind of God, albeit through a glass, darkly… and to spread the Good News, and be the Body of Christ to a world in great need of hope?
And here’s a final conundrum. Even if John’s baptism, though arguably of men, was sanctified by God for the purpose of spiritual cleansing and as a sign of adoption, why was it necessary for Jesus to get dunked? After all, Jesus was not only without sin… he was God incarnate! In Matthew’s version of today’s gospel story, when Jesus came to be baptized, John protested saying, “‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ But Jesus answered him: ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.’ Then [John] consented.” (Matt 3:13-17). Given the fact that it was Matthew’s gospel, Jesus’ use of the term “righteousness” might have been intended to echo Jeremiah’s prophecy concerning the coming Messiah when God said, “In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land” (33:15). Or righteousness might simply be interpreted as doing the will of God. But we must also understand that the Hebrew concept of righteousness was traditionally less-concerned with law and legalism as it was with relationships between people. So, perhaps Jesus’ was saying that he needed to take on all of our brokenness and poverty of spirit because, in the words of Gregory of Nazianzus, “[T]hat which He has not assumed He has not healed.” God wants to be in relationship with us, and will stop at nothing to bring us home.
What does your own baptism in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit mean to you? How does it make you feel to know that God loves you unconditionally and will follow you through whatever wilderness you find yourself in, down the darkest paths you can imagine… to bring you home? No matter where you’ve been. No matter what you’ve done. You are cherished. You are adopted. But remember this: while God loves you just the way you are… he’s not going to leave you that way. So, give in to the threshing. And don’t mind the heat or the smoke… it’s just some of our chaff being burned away. We’re all redeemed. Now the question becomes, what are we going to do about it?