This past Wednesday was the Feast of Epiphany, the day when Christians celebrate the long journey of the Wise Ones who, according to our foundational myth, arrived at the birthplace of Jesus, who is described in the Scriptures as the embodiment of DIVINE WISDOM. There was a time when Epiphany and Easter were the two most important festivals of the Christian year. But over the years, Epiphany’s celebration of WISDOM has been eclipsed by the celebration of Christmas. Oh, how we need some of that WISDOM to infuse our celebrations today. On Wednesday, I moved the Wise Guys closer to the baby Jesus in our nativity display and began what I thought would a quiet Epiphany. My peace, along with the peace of millions was disturbed by the sound of my phone exploding with dozens of alerts heralding the violence which was taking place at the Capitol in Washington. Like many of you, I’m sure, I spent most of the day and well into the night, glued to the unbelievable images being broadcast around the world, of enraged servants of a petty, little, would be king who had encouraged and excited these folks to perpetrate violence in the vain hope of claiming power. Today, we 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. Now what possible wisdom, can this story of a baptism which happened in the Jordan River nearly 2000 years ago offer to after the kind of week that we have all endured? Not much. Not much that is, if we choose to remember this story the way the church all too often remembers this story. For I am convinced that there is great WISDOM in the story of Jesus’ baptism and that this WISDOM has the power to heal the viscous divisions which threaten to keep us repeating tribal violence over and over again. Tragically, 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 together in peace. We have forgotten so very many of the contours and nuances of this story which, if remembered drag us out of our preoccupation with our own selfish needs toward a lifestyle of resistance to dangerous tribal inclinations. Where once the story of Jesus’ Baptism inspired his followers to deny allegiances to the powers that be, in order to take upon themselves a new way of being in the world, generations of amnesia have left us marching in lockstep to the drumbeat of violence even as we claim allegiance to the One who wanted nothing more than to bring peace on Earth.
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 “sacramentum” which means “to vow” or to “swear an oath” or “to pledge allegiance.”
Things have changed quite a bit. 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 church, 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 is injunction from Jesus to “do this”. In our tradition, we have only two rites which meet these criteria, one is baptism and the other is communion. Baptism we have the ordinary stuff, the water 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 we have Communion. The bread and wine are the ordinary stuff; the visible means and Jesus’ words “do this in remembrance of me” are the injunction. 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 it is 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 Rome and resistance to the powers of the Temple who collaborated with their Roman over-lords. Every person living under the Pax Romana 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 a very clear choice: 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 were 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. Down by the riverside, John conducted very public sacrementums. John’s fame as a notorious resistor spread far and wide. 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 better yet, the “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 together with relationship to the ONE who is BEYOND the BEYOND and BEYOND that Also. 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 which 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, they 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, they fit Constantine’s needs. Over the course of a few decades Christianity went from an outlawed religion to the new religion of the Roman Empire. They say that power corrupts and indeed power did corrupt Christianity. Under Constantine, Christians went from pledging allegiance to Jesus’ Way of Being, and living as non-violent pacifists, to becoming members of the official religion of Rome and Christians were now free to join the Empire’s 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.
Martin Luther is reported to have taught that when we wash our face, we should remember our baptism. The story is told of Luther pouring water into a basin, then he would cup his hands together and splash the refreshing water to his face three times, in the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
I don’t share Luther’s belief that the water cleanses us of our sin. I’ve long since parted company with Luther’s theories about atonement. I don’t believe in a super-natural being who sent Jesus to die as a sacrifice for sin. I no longer believe that baptism is a ritual drowning in which we die to our old life of sin and are reborn to a new life in CHRIST. I do believe in the power of Baptism to remind of us of who we are and whose we are. Every child I have ever baptized came to the font as a beloved child of our CREATOR. Whether they were infants or adults they were in and of themselves ONE with the MYSTERY we call, “God.” The waters of baptism serve as affirmation of the reality that there is nothing in heaven our on earth which can separate us from the LOVE which is DIVINITY. So, like Luther, I too choose to remember my baptism when I wash my face. I don’t use Luther’s words. I go back long before Luther to St. Augustine who described the Trinity as LOVER, BELOVED, and LOVE ITSELF.
They say that blessings often come to us in disguises. Perhaps this long COVID lockdown which has kept us from gathering together to celebrate the sacraments, is a blessing in disguise. Perhaps the fact that we cannot gather together to celebrate the sacrament of baptism will allow us to see beyond what has become sedated or domesticated, to the power of the sacramentum of baptism of our ancestors.
The next time you wash your face, remember your baptism. 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 is. Do you belong to empire? Do you pledge allegiance to wealth and power? Do you march in lockstep 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 as the touch 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 to 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?
View the full Worship Service for the celebration of the Baptism of Jesus below