08 January 2017

Driven Back to the Beginning

Matthew 3:13-17

Baptism of the Lord

Our journey begins with baptism. Our calling, our vocation, our ministry, our life begin at the font of blessing.  We are born out of these waters.  We begin at the font, in the waters of our baptism, again and again.

Baptism, from the Greek baptizo, meaning to “to dip” or to “plunge” into water.  It doesn’t necessarily mean, “to wash,” although it’s implied.  And, to the chagrin of many Presbyterians, it doesn’t mean to pour or sprinkle a little water over the head of a baby.  Baptizomai means to dip or to plunge under, as to be overwhelmed, overcome with water, swamped, fully immersed.  To plunge down or into the water implies a surging up and out of the water.  Going down into the depths is followed by a coming out of the depths.  Dying and rising.  And it’s the rising, rising up out of the water after having gone down, in, and through the depths, surging up to the surface, which signifies the beginning of something new.

Water is elemental.  Around 350 million years ago we swam our way out from primordial waters and crawled upon dry ground.  Scripture tells us that water is associated with birth and new birth and renewal, beginnings and new beginnings—from the waters of Genesis to the waters of the flood; Israel’s exodus from Egypt through walls of water, from slavery to liberation; Jesus gestating in the water of Mary’s womb.

And it should not be overlooked that it’s at the River Jordan—in the river itself—that Jesus received his calling, discovered his vocation, and realized the purpose of his life.  This is significant, because it gives us a better sense of what baptism meant for Jesus and the early church. 

We often think of baptism as the first step in becoming a Christian or the ritual of admittance into the church.  Both of these associations are true, today, but they don’t make any sense when applied to Jesus, who wasn’t baptized in order to become a Christian or because he was about to join a church. 

Jesus plunged into the depths, into the chaos of the waters, into the turbulent tides of the river, and emerged, free from its control, released from that which overwhelmed him.  And then he came up out of the water.  He rose up out of the water into a new life, conscious of a new identity borne in the depths, when he was underwater, grasping for air.  He stepped out of the water with a new sense of God’s purpose for his life, empowered by the Spirit.  “You are my beloved, in whom I take great delight” (Mt. 3:17).

We know from the very beginning of the Christian experience that to be baptized meant to be baptized into Christ (not necessarily into the church).  The Apostle Paul tells us we are baptized into Christ, into his death (Romans 6:3), which implies baptism into Christ’s resurrection life. Paul says, “…we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4).  This means that the pattern of Christ’s life, this pattern of dying and rising, dying and rising, is now determinative or normative for the Christian. 

Dying to sin, rising to new life. 
Dying to hate, judgment, and fear; rising to trust, acceptance, love. 
Dying to our own agendas and selfish desires;
   rising to God’s will and purpose for our lives. 

To be baptized in Christ means that we are “dipped” or “dropped” or 'plunged” in mystery. We are plunged into the mystery of Good Friday and Easter, plunged into the mystery of God dying and rising; it’s the same mystery we proclaim in Communion, in breaking bread and sharing wine.[1]  We become part of this mystery and this mystery takes on life in us.

This means that someone who has been baptized “into Christ,” along with an entire community of Christ’s people who have been similarly plunged into Christ’s life, will share or participate in Christ’s life and will, therefore, mirror and reflect his life, will echo it.  Dying and rising.  Putting off the old, sinful self; putting on a new self in Christ, becoming new people. (See Colossians 3:1-17.)

A new humanity is being formed around Jesus by virtue of our baptism.   Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury and one of the leading theological minds of our age, talks about this dimension of baptism with such simplicity and beauty. “The new humanity,” he says, “that is created around Jesus is not a humanity that is always going to be successful and in control of things, but a humanity that can reach out its hand from the depths of chaos, to be touched by the hand of God.”  So, how can one tell if one’s been baptized?  If you ask, “‘Where might you expect to find the baptized?’ one answer is, ‘In the neighborhood of chaos’.  It means you might expect to find Christian people near to those places where humanity is most at risk, where humanity is most disordered, disfigured and needy.  Christians will be found in the neighborhood of Jesus—but Jesus is found in the neighborhood of human confusion and suffering, defensely alongside those in need.  If being baptized is being led to where Jesus is, then being baptized is being led toward the chaos and the neediness of a humanity that has forgotten its destiny.”[2] 

Being baptized, then, means taking risks and getting dirty and being chaotic (which is abhorrent to a Presbyterian’s sense of decorum and order).  We’re called, like Jesus, to get messed up in the world for the sake of God!  Or, to put it another way, Williams says, “You don’t go down into the waters of the Jordan without stirring up a great deal of mud!”[3]

Baptism is so elemental to our life as Christ’s people.  Your baptism shapes your understanding of your life as a Christian; it helps you, enables you to actually live out and embody the life of Christ.  And this is essential for all Christians, especially those of us who were baptized as infants.  If you were baptized as an infant, you probably don’t remember your baptism.  Nevertheless, we all need reminding, we need these sacraments to remind us and show us and stir us and shape us. We need help being God’s people.  We need help fulfilling our calling, our vocations.  We need help remembering who we are as God’s children.  That’s because it’s so easy to forget who we are.  Some can’t remember the last time they sensed God’s image dwelling in them, it’s been that long.  Some have never known that they belong to God.  That’s why we must begin with baptism.

When we consider the meaning of our baptism, we are “driven right back to the beginning,” as Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) once said, the great German Lutheran pastor-theologian.[4]  Writing from a prison cell in Berlin, May, 1944, Bonhoeffer shared thoughts on the baptism of his namesake Dietrich Wilhelm Rüdiger Bethge, the son of Eberhard Bethge (1909-2000), one of Bonhoeffer’s closest and dearest friends.  (When I was in seminary, I had the privilege of hearing Bethge talk on the nature of Christian friendship and what it was like to be Bonhoeffer’s friend.  He spoke at Nassau Presbyterian Church in Princeton.  I’ll never forget that evening.) 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer
In May 1944, Bonhoeffer didn’t know that within the year he would be dead, executed by the Nazis for his role in a plot to assassinate Hitler.  Bonhoeffer’s phrase, “we are once again being driven,” refers to wartime conditions in Germany, but also throughout so-called “Christian” Europe and beyond, driving him to reconsider everything.  The cataclysm of the war threw the church into crisis, especially the German church (both Protestant and Catholic alike).  In the last years of his life, in letters and scraps of paper smuggled out of Tegel prison in Berlin (later published as Letters and Papers from Prison), we find Bonhoeffer wrestling with profound existential questions:

What does it really it mean to be a Christian?  
What does it mean for me to say, “I am Christian”?
Who is Christ for me? 
What does it mean to be his disciple? 
What is the Church?
What is its future? 
What will it look like? 

It was the occasion of a baptism which drove Bonhoeffer back to the beginning of his understanding—because that’s what baptism does!  Again and again, whether we share in or witness one or remember our own, baptism drives us back to the beginning, sending us back to the waters, plunging us down into the depths, so that we can rise up—again and again—with answers to these questions, in order to be God’s people in the world.  It all begins at the font.

That’s what baptism does: it calls us to commitment.  These waters speak to us and ask, How committed are you?  Who is Christ to you?  What does it mean to be his disciple?  Are you willing to go down into the waters, be overwhelmed by the water, in order to come up new people?  As Bonhoeffer knew, our baptism into Christ, then, forces us to consider anew—or maybe for the first time— the heart of Christian existence: “reconciliation and redemption, regeneration and the Holy Spirit, love of our enemies, cross and resurrection, life in Christ and Christian discipleship.”[5] 

The entire scope and reach, height and depth of the Christian life find their origins in the waters of our baptism.  And in these waters—and every time we plunge into them—we get to affirm (and reaffirm) who we are and whose we are. 

And, when we rise up from their depths, like Jesus, we discover (or rediscover) what we’re call to be and become, by God’s grace; we discover what is being asked of us.






Image:  Daniel Bonnell, "Baptism of Christ".

[1] This image is taken from Rowan Williams, Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer (Eerdmans, 2014), 2.
[2] Williams, 4-5.
[3] Rowan Williams, 6.
[4] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Thoughts on the Baptism of Dietrich Wilhelm Rüdiger Bethge. Written from Tegel Prison, Berlin. May, 1944. Letters and Papers from Prison  (Touchstone, 1997), 299.
Bethge, May, 1944
[5] The quote continues, “—all these are so difficult and so remote that we hardly venture any more to speak of them.”  For more on Bonhoeffer, see Charles Marsh, Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014).