Sometimes it feels as if all the lectionary gives us is sound-bites from the gospels. Because of that, it’s easy to see them as a collection of pixels instead of as a coherent picture of the ministry, death, and resurrection of the one we identify as the governing authority (“lord”) in our lives and in our life together. And sometimes we interpret Jesus so as to align with our preconceptions, rather than allowing his story to challenge them, break them open, and bring something new to light. I wonder if that’s why, for example, we ask why Jesus had to be baptized if he was without sin. That is, I wonder if, having decided that baptism is all about washing sin away, we are confused by Jesus’ own baptism by John. I wonder if we might be willing to grant some authority to scripture and allow its account of Jesus’ life and ministry to change our minds about baptism.
At the beginning of the events that bracket Jesus’ baptism are two identical proclamations: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” John is the first to speak these words (Mt. 3.2), and Jesus is the second (Mt. 4.17). What separates the two proclamations is the baptism of Jesus, his forty days in the wilderness, and the temptations that come at the end of that fast.
That order of events suggests that Jesus’ baptism is a kind of pivot or fulcrum, and that we are invited to understand baptism in a new way, not just as a ritual washing to cleanse from sin, but also as initiation into a community whose purpose is to proclaim and enact the kingdom of God. (Matthew’s habit of referring to the kingdom as “of heaven” (rather than “of God”) may be related, some scholars believe, to his primarily Jewish audience, from who the name “God” is not to be uttered.
Intriguingly, John plays “straight man” to this transformation of the meaning of baptism. Within the structure of the narrative, John appears to share the common awareness of Jesus as “without sin”. As a result, he believes that Jesus has things backwards, that the sinless one should baptize the sinner, and not vice-versa. But Jesus, for whom baptism is a public embrace of the renewed and renewing community who proclaim and enact the kingdom, insists that “it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”
All righteousness. I wonder, then, if we can understand the righteousness communicated in baptism both in John’s and in Jesus’ way. According to John, we come to baptism as people on whom the grime of illusion, selfishness and greed accumulates, and God bathes us. And according to Jesus we come as people called to participate in God’s mission, to speak boldly of a kingdom not ruled by fear – the kingdom “of heaven”, the kingdom “of God”, and to enact that kingdom in our life together, sharing in God’s life in and for the world. The church, then, is more than a washed community; we are also a community that offers God a church ready to proclaim and enact God’s reign of love and justice. And we proclaim and enact that kingdom as having “come near”, as something that can shape and inform the life of the world now in this time and here in this place.
In the forty days between his baptism and his own first words of public ministry – “the kingdom of heaven has come near”, Jesus endures hunger and testing. Matthew’s gospel tells us that this hunger and testing is directed by “the Spirit”. I wonder if we might see this time in the life of God’s church as a time like that, a time directed by the Spirit, a time of hunger and testing out of which God’s church will emerge renewed and confident to proclaim and enact God’s kingdom.