Jesus Baptism: a radical reflection
In the Church we have just looked at Jesus baptism. The story is quite simple, occupying only a handful of verses in each of the gospels where it occurs. It isn’t as world-changing as the birth, death or resurrection stories, and to many it seems quite natural; Jesus undergoes a ritual with which we are very familiar in British society. But it strikes me that something quite radical is going on – something that speaks of a new approach to changing the world.
The picture is recreated in many a child’s book of bible stories, and in quite a number of church windows. But there is something utterly absurd happening here, and Matthew tells us that John the Baptist himself saw fit to point it out.
Jesus left his home in Galillee and went to the River Jordan, where he sought out this figure known as John. This is his cousin, and its likely this was not the first time they had met each other. Even if they were unfamiliar with each other, Jesus would have know what to look for, as did everyone else: we learn earlier in Matthew’s account that John wore camel hair clothing and ate grasshoppers and honey.
John is earlier reported as saying “a man will come who is more powerful than me, and I am not worthy to carry his sandals” and his initial reaction upon hearing Jesus request is one of horror. He flatly refuses to baptise Jesus because he sees Jesus as too good to deserve baptism, a ritual washing for purification; a way of removing one’s imperfections. The question is very much like one I’ve wrestled with a lot.
Lets put this a different way: do you need a statistical overview of a problem affecting a large section of the population in order to help them, or do you need to go and live with them? This argument has been fought in various forms and under different slogans for a long time. From childhood we are taught to “trust the experts”, and if we’re talking about solving the poverty, then the experts tend to lead vastly different lives to those they’re helping – they don’t tend to be paid poverty wages for starters. Socialists and Trade Unionists have often rebutted this with the phrase “a workers wage for a worker’s representative”.
Right at the start of everything Jesus is going to say and do, he seems very clear about his need to join with humanity fully. If humans are to repent and be baptised, so must he. Not only will he go to weddings with them, share banquets and enjoy their friendship, Jesus seems very concerned to share in the necessary response to human frailties, despite this appearing a superfluous action.
By choosing baptism, Jesus appears to be joining with humanity in pursuit of a better vision. Even though “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… … the Word became flesh and dwelt among us… …John was not the Word but he pointed to him” (John 1), Jesus recognises the importance of being with us, not simply exerting a plan from on high, despite the apparent ability to do so. Neither is his dieing on the cross a simple spectacle of someone who arrives on a chariot from heaven and returns in the minimum time, job done. Instead, Jesus spends several years building up relationships, indeed decades. His connection to those he seeks to save is not just academic, but physical, relational and above all, a challenge.
Its a challenge because God obviously had in mind the necessity to act at the level of those he sought to save, rejecting his position of all-knowing “expert” in a control room somewhere and entering the scene from the bottom. Are we willing to do the same – joining with people where they’re at, rather than looking down at them? Are we prepared to not only seek to help people, but to move in next door and share their perspective on life? Its a big ask.