|"The Baptism of Jesus" by He Qi|
I remember the first time my campus pastor shocked me. We were sitting around the lounge of the Lutheran Student Center one Sunday morning after worship, eating the last of the donut holes, drinking the last of the coffee, leafing through the Sunday paper and watching football. Somehow the conversation in our little circle of chairs got to baptism, and after a while somebody asked Pastor Larry, "Have you ever refused to do a baptism?" That was when he shocked us, because his answer was, "Yes."
He went on to explain. He was in his first call, an associate pastor at a congregation in the Twin Cities, where you can't throw a rock without hitting a Lutheran church. A young father who had never been a member of the church called and asked to speak to one of the pastors. When Larry answered the phone, the father said, "We need to get our kid done. My mother's been harping on me for months to get the kid baptized, and I want her to stop. When can we do it?" Further conversation made it clear the parents had no intentions toward joining the church, regularly attending worship or raising their child in the faith. After consulting with his senior pastor, Larry called the young father back and told him that, under those circumstances, the church couldn't baptize their child. As you might imagine, the news wasn't received well or politely.
When one of us asked Larry how he, in good conscience, could have done such a thing, he did a little bit of teaching. "If we boil baptism down to just something you do because it needs to get done, we miss the point entirely. Getting baptized isn't like getting the polio vaccine or your measles shot. It's the start of something bigger, and this family wasn't interested in learning about that bigger connection."
That story has stuck with me for almost twenty years now, almost word for word. Being baptized is an event that changes your life forever: learning what it means to be baptized is just as life-altering. Simply put, Baptism is not the point of Baptism. And perhaps the best illustration of that point is this: today, as we celebrate the Baptism of our Lord, we read a passage of scripture in which the baptism of Jesus never actually appears.
To be sure, the Baptism of our Lord is a crucial part of the story of Jesus. It is one of the few events that gets mentioned in all four gospels. But the story the gospel of Luke tells is vastly different than the other gospels. As we already noted, Luke skips right over the baptism itself - all he says is, "after Jesus had been baptized." The moment itself has very little significance here. John the Baptizer is not the baptizer in Luke's gospel: John has already been imprisoned by Herod. While we generally think of Baptism as the advent of the Spirit in our lives, in Luke's gospel the Spirit descends in response to Jesus' prayer, not his baptism. This sacrament of primary importance in the Christian church, which we celebrate with our best clothes, prettiest flowers and plenty of good food and cake, gets very short shrift in the gospel according to Luke. In the gospel of Mark the heavens are torn asunder when Jesus is baptized. In the gospel of Matthew, John the Baptist displays humility and Jesus graciously bows to the fulfillment of scripture. But Luke chooses to downplay the moment of the baptism itself and lift up something else: the presence of the Holy Spirit with Jesus and the identification of Jesus as God’s beloved Son.
Of course, you could ask the question, “Why baptize Jesus at all?” If Jesus is indeed the Christ, the Messiah, the eternal Son of God, being baptized changes nothing for Jesus. And while John does preach a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, we also believe Jesus was without sin, so that’s out also. And I think it’s safe to say that, as the Messiah, Jesus’ salvation is never in question. So, why baptize Jesus? What does Jesus’ baptism DO?
I have two framed certificates here in the pulpit with me. The first is my degree from Luther Seminary, the second is my ordination certificate from the Northwestern Minnesota Synod. Both are dated 2003. I’d like to use them to represent two separate understandings about baptism. The first, my Master of Divinity degree, is a certificate of accomplishment. When they confer this sort of degree on any graduate of any school, they say something to this effect: “Joe Schmoe, having completed all requisite coursework for the completion of the degree Bachelor of Arts in Advanced Widgetry blah blah blah…” You take the courses, learn what you’re supposed to learn, regurgitate that knowledge through tests and assignments, and upon completion of the course you receive a degree. But once you’ve got the degree, you’re done. This thing could hang on the wall of my office for the rest of my life and all it would point to is that once upon a time I took courses and completed them. On the other hand, my certificate of ordination says something about the future, not the past. On August 9, 2003, I was publicly set apart for ministry of Word and Sacrament in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. This certificate shows that there’s been a task laid upon me. When I hang this certificate on the wall in my office, it says that God’s got a job for me here. Now, the question: which one sums up our understanding of Baptism most closely? Do we baptize because of what the baptized have already done, or do we baptize to set the baptized apart for work in God’s world?
This is why Jesus gets baptized: not because he needs baptism to be saved, or to be baptized because that’s what you do, but because Baptism is a setting apart for service in God’s world. Jesus gets baptized as a public affirmation of the ministry he is about to commence: it is as much an anointing as a washing, a sign that the future is now open for Jesus to take up his mantle as the Messiah and carry out the will of God through his ministry with us. What’s more, baptism means the same thing for you and for me. Your baptismal certificate is not an admittance card for heaven some bright morning when this life is over: your baptismal certificate is a charter, your marching orders, a public witness to the task God has set for you in the world in this life.
In the Small Catechism, Martin Luther taught that in Baptism “God forgives sin, delivers from death and the devil, and gives everlasting salvation to all who believe what God has promised.” Now. Here. In this life. For this world. The “everlasting salvation” God gives to all who believe starts here, today. This is why we baptize infants and children - we believe that in Baptism God sets us apart for specific ministry in the world, just like Jesus, and being joined to Jesus’ baptism means we are joined to Jesus’ death and resurrection as well. Baptism is not the point of Baptism. Life is the point of Baptism. Ministry is the point of Baptism. GOD is the point of Baptism, and in your baptism, just like Jesus, God has made a public statement about you: “you are God’s beloved child, with whom God is well pleased.” Time to get to work, folks. Your life and your ministry await. Amen.