On Monday, Western Christendom celebrated Epiphany as we heralded the arrival of wise folk from the East, from a place we know call Iran. By Wednesday, the world was mourning the crash of Ukrainian Airlines flight 752 over the skies of Iran. By Friday, it was clear that the crash was no accident, that 176 people were murdered by some not so wise folk from the East in retaliation for the assassination of the most celebrated of all Iranian Generals. By Saturday, the pundits, the folks who claim to be wise, continued to argue over who is to blame. Was Iran totally responsible or does the orange ruler who sits on the most powerful throne on the planet ultimately to blame for plunging the world into madness? Today, still reeling from the reality that so many of the victims of this insanity were our very own kin, returning to Canada after visiting family and friends. Today, Canadians and Iranians are united in grief; grief at the loss of life, grief at the apparent inevitability of war as systems of domination clash. Today, we gather to do what Christians do on the Sunday after Epiphany, we gather to remember our baptism through the stories told by our ancestors about the baptism of Jesus of Nazareth.
What possible wisdom, comfort, or challenges can this story of a baptism which happened in the Jordan River nearly 2000 years ago offer to us on a day like today? Not much. Not much that is if we choose to remember this story the way the church all too often remembers this story. For centuries the church has adopted a kind of collective amnesia when it comes to baptism. We have chosen to forget the power of this story to inspire resistance to the very systems which continue to prevent us from living in peace. We have forgotten so very many of the contours of this story which, if remembered drag us out of our preoccupation with our own selfish needs toward a lifestyle of resistance to what has become the status quo. Where once the story of Jesus Baptism inspired his followers to deny allegiances to the powers that be so in order to take upon themselves a new way of being in the world, generations of amnesia have left us marching in lock-step to the drumbeat of violence even as we claim allegiance to the Prince of Peace.
So, what have we 21st century would be followers of Jesus, forgotten about this story of Jesus baptism in the first century? Well, for starters we have forgotten that our first century ancestors risked everything when they chose to be baptized. Jesus contemporaries lived under the oppression of not one but two domination systems. Under the domination of what was the mightiest Empire the world had ever seen, first century people living in Palestine whether they be Jew or Gentile were required on pain of death to swear allegiance to Rome. The act of swearing allegiance was called in Latin a “sacramentum” – that’s right our word sacrament comes from the word sacrementum which means “to vow” or to “swear an oath” or “to pledge allegiance.”
My how things have changed. Today, in the church a sacrament is a rite which is celebrated as a sort of thin place where the holy, the sacred, meets the ordinary. In the Lutheran churc, a sacrament is defined as a rite which includes both the holy and the ordinary. Two things are necessary, the ordinary stuff of the earth, the visible means if you will and second the injunction from Jesus to “do this”. In our tradition, we have only two rites which rise to this, one is baptism and the other is communion. Baptism – water, the ordinary stuff and the injunction of Jesus who is reported to have said, “Go therefore and baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and Communion – bread and wine are the visible means and Jesus’ words “do this in remembrance of me.” Our tradition’s celebration of both these rites has radically changed over the centuries. Both rites have tended to focus upon the experience of individuals rather than the impact upon the community or communities in which the rites are celebrated.
These days Baptism has become little more than a nice little rite of passage, with precious little power to transform the life of its participants. But in the first century this “sacramentum” of baptism was enough to bring a death sentence down upon the heads of all those who partook of the waters of baptism. The act of baptism was an act of resistance. Resistance to the Empire of Roman and resistance to the powers of the Temple who collaborated with their Roman over-lords. Every person living under the Pax Roman was under no illusion that pledging allegiance to anyone other than Caesar was an act of sedition punishable by death. For as far as the powers that be were concerned Caesar is Lord. Caesar was not a name but a title. We would say King, but not a king like we think of kings, but rather a king who is the ultimate authority on Earth and Rome’s Ultimate Authority, Rome’s Caesar is LORD. Everyone living under Roman domination was required to “sacramentum” – to pledge allegiance, to take an oath proclaiming that Caesar is LORD. Caesar is the Ultimate Authority. Jewish inhabitants of the Roman Empire were given no choice but to pledge allegiance or to die. Thousands chose death and the Romans crucified them; actually, crucified them. The rotting corpses of the thousands of Jews and Gentiles who refused to proclaim Caesar as LORD created the kind of stink intended to terrorize the oppressed into submission. And submit most of them did.
Even the purveyors of power who walked the hallways to the sacred Temple where dominated in ways which co-opted them into a system which held the whole Pax Romana together.
But every domination system has its resisters. Take John the Baptist for example. John was the son of the temple priest Zachariah. As a temple priest Zachariah would have collaborated with the Romans. He was a respectable member of the established order. His son John abandoned the Temple, rejected the establishment and went down by the River Jordan, the very river his ancestors had crossed over from slavery into the promise of freedom, and down by the riverside, John conducted very public sacrementums. John’s fame spread far and wide as a notorious resistor. John become the Baptist. Jesus joined the resistance.
Down into the water Jesus went in an act of resistance which in and of itself denied the authority of Caesar and the Empire of Rome and proclaimed allegiance to a new kind of Empire – the basileia ton theon – which we all too often translate as the “Kingdom of God” but which is more accurately translated as “authority of DIVINITY” or “kin-dom of LOVE” For if Jesus taught us anything Jesus taught us that God is LOVE and the authority which Jesus pledged his allegiance to was the Authority of that LOVE, an authority which is all about relationships. That’s why we say the “kin-dom”. The word “kin” means related. The kin-dom of the Ultimate Authority is the Kin-dom of LOVE. A place where it is all about the quality of relationship of one to another and relationship to the ONE who is BEYOND us.
That’s why for three centuries the followers of Jesus of Nazareth’s way of being in the world, would risk everything to go down to the river and wash themselves clean of their bondage to Empire which felt like death to them and rise up out of the waters of life as newborn citizens of the Kin-dom of LOVE. No longer bound to the ways of empire, the ways of violence and death, but free to pursue the LOVE which is the ULTIMATE AUTHORITY the LOVE that IS GOD. Baptism was for three centuries the ultimate act of resistance to the powers that be. And then, it was not. Somewhere around the year 313 there was a different Caesar sitting upon the throne of Rome a Caesar who went by the name of Constantine. The powers of Rome were on the wane and Caesar Constantine was looking for a way to unite his Empire and somehow, I wish I had time to go into it all, but suffice it to say, somehow the fledgling movement known as the Followers of the Way, or the Followers of the Christ, fit the bill. Over the course of a few decades Christianity when from an outlawed religion to the new religion of the Empire.
They say that power corrupts and indeed power did corrupt Christianity. Where once Christians pledged allegiance to Jesus’ Way of Being and lived as non-violent pacifists as the official religion of Rome, Christians felt free to join the military and the rest as they say is history.
So what can the story of Jesus’ baptism offer to us; we who stand in the ruins of the fragile peace of empire, we who daily pledge our allegiance to systems of domination which ensure the authority of the almighty dollar, we who struggle to be kin to one another, we who seek to know the ONE who is the ULTIMATE AUTHORITY? On this day when we remember the baptism of Jesus, perhaps we can also remember our own baptism and for those who have yet to be baptized perhaps together we can anticipate a new way of understanding baptism, which isn’t really new at all. Perhaps we can celebrate baptism as an act of resistance.
In a few minutes we will participate in an Affirmation of Baptism and I will dip the ordinary greenery into the ordinary water, and I will engage in some holy splashing. When the water falls upon you and trust me you are all going to get wet. When you feel the water, remember that baptism is an act of resistance. Think about the many ways in which your lives have been co-opted by the powers that be. Think about who or what is your ULTIMATE ATHORITY.
Do you belong to empire?
Do you pledge allegiance to wealth and power?
Do you march in lock step with systems that dominate through violence?
Do you limit your kin to those who serve your selfish needs?
Or can you take the dangerous step of actually feeling the waters of life touch you?
Dare you resist?
Dare you pledge your allegiance to the UNTIMATE AUTHORITY who is LOVE.
Dare you resist by proclaiming that LOVE IS the ULTIMATE AUTHORITY?
Do you have the courage to remember or anticipate your baptism as an act of resistance? An act, once taken, will require the kind of kinship which empowers LOVE to be the ULTIMATE AUTHORITY?
Do you have the courage to follow Jesus’ Way of Being in the world?
I know that that kind of resistance scares me. That kind of resistance as they say where I come from, “scares the be-Jesus out of me?” The good news is that this kind of resistance doesn’t depend on me or on you. Baptism was never meant as an individual sacrementum.
When we rise up out of the waters of life, we rise up into a community of believers whose ULTIMATE AUTHORITY is LOVE, the Kin-dom of LOVE. When our ULTIMATE AUTHORITY is LOVE then compassion is our guide as we seek justice for every oppressed or marginalized person, understanding that justice is what LOVE looks like in the world. When our ULTIMATE AUTHORITY is LOVE everyone is our kin and peace is achieved not through violence, selfishness or greed but through justice for all kin. The empire we serve is kin-dom of LOVE So, together let us sacramentum – pledge our allegiance to LOVE. Let us rise from the waters to be LOVE in the world, a world that desperately needs lovers who are willing to resist the powers that be and for the sake of kinship.
Let it be so among us.
Let us empower one another to resist.
Let us proclaim that LOVE is the ULTIMATE AUTORITY.
Let it be so!
I am indebted to R. Alan Street’s excellent book “Caesar and the Sacrament, Baptism: A Rite of Resistance – I recommend it to anyone who is interested in understanding baptism in its historical context!!!!