Sermon Seeds: Be Baptized
Sunday, January 8, 2023
First Sunday after Epiphany | Year A
(Liturgical Color: White)
Isaiah 42:1-9 • Psalm 29 • Acts 10:34-43 • Matthew 3:13-17
Thrill and Rejoice! (Click here for the series overview.)
By Cheryl A. Lindsay
Relationships change. John and Jesus had a particular relationship before this encounter that was established before either of their births. They were sons of cousins, Elizabeth and Mary, which made them cousins. And, if a case that the prophetic mantle is an inherited one, it is apparent they received their gift from their mothers. It’s hard to imagine that they were raised far from one another given that Elizabeth was Mary’s first confidante as she learned her role in the redemption story.
We might read this interaction as reverent and respectful as well as familiar and candid. This moment records one anointed cousin saying to another, “I know who you are and who I am in relationship to you.” The cousin with the greater stature responds in love, purpose, and humility. Even before Jesus descends into the water, the kindom of God is demonstrated.
There is a power in belonging. We find belonging in relationships, especially community. This is not belonging in the sense of ownership or possession. This is not a relational framework of power-over, it is power-with and community formation. Belonging in the most fruitful and faithful sense supports accountability, transparency, and vulnerability because it is rooted in compassion, trust, and care. The community forms its own culture and ways of being with one another and in the world.
John the Baptist’s ministry has often been described as one of repentance, and there is certainly truth to that characterization. John believed that the kindom of God was arriving imminently and wanted no one to be left out of the opportunity to belong to the kindom. That was the purpose of his message of repentance. He did not extol change for change’s sake; he encouraged those he encountered to turn from the destructive, alienating ways of the world and turn toward the realm of the Holy One.
Ultimately, the ministry of John the Baptism was centered in participating in and demonstrating the kindom of God.
Although John is declaring a hopeful message in this passage, on another level he is acting completely inappropriately. He doesn’t understand the rules of religious etiquette—and dress code violations are the least of his problems. In John’s day, spiritually important events occurred at the temple, that magnificent white stone structure that dominated the scene in Jerusalem. The temple formed the core of religious life. If you wanted to get closer to God, if you wanted to join the “in” group of good religious people, if you wanted to look sophisticated or spiritual or righteous, you went to the temple. And as a good Jew, you didn’t need to be baptized—that ritual was reserved for second-class, outsider Gentile converts.
John the Baptism was charged with preparing the way, and he did that by forming a community committed to kindom life and actualization. They embraced baptism as the visible sign and rite of passage into the community. At the same time, their practices and ways of being disrupted religious and cultural expectations.
Many communities have formal rites of passages and other requirements in order to enter and begin the process of belonging. Those requirements may include meeting financial obligations, achieving academic benchmarks, and completing an orientation process. At best, those requirements serve as a demonstration of the entrant’s commitment and affinity to the community. Sometimes, they may be used as gatekeepers that restrict inclusion.
In the ever evolving world of diversity, equity and inclusion have been added as primary values and prerequisites for a just environment. It is any wonder that many find even those three words inadequate and have added belonging to the mix.
At the heart of the diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) movement is the premise that all individuals have the right to be treated fairly and to participate fully in the workplace. While many organizations believe in the value of DEI and make amazing efforts to implement programs and policies to support it, the reality is that many organizations fail to see the results of those efforts. In fact, a recent Harvard Business Review article says 40% of workers today feel isolated at work, despite the fact that, in the U.S. alone, “businesses spend nearly $8 billion each year on diversity and inclusion (D&I) training,” according to research from Mckinsey & Company.
So, why do so many organizations prioritize DEI but fail to move the needle? It’s simple — you can increase diversity in the workforce, treat people fairly and even include them, but if they still don’t truly feel as though they belong, your efforts miss the mark. That’s why studies show that belonging is one of the most powerful predictors of DEI efficacy in the workforce. When employees feel that they truly belong at work, they feel more connected and committed. How people feel, and whether they feel as though they belong, is truly the key to DEI and connection.
Belonging cements the connection found in community. Belonging enabled John’s disciples to leave behind the cultural norms and religious expectations and follow the new direction he offered. Belonging would be the invitation that Jesus would offer his closest companions: follow me, be with me. Belonging compelled Jesus to enter the world as Emmanuel and to enter the River Jordan to be baptized.
Jesus was born into the religious community. He was raised within it and trained as a rabbi. If there was anyone, based on the customs of the day, who did not need to be baptized, it was Jesus. He did not need to be converted, nor was he. After all, it was Jesus who would assure his listeners that he did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it.
In embracing baptism, Jesus uses a very public act to launch his ministry. “Interestingly, only Matthew’s Gospel makes the divine affirmation of Jesus a public declaration.” (Anna Case-Winters) The Voice declares the sovereignty of God for all who hear that day–not in the temple, but in the water. The pronouncement is not sent as a birth announcement to rulers of nations but to everyday folkx who made a choice to follow the way and found themselves in the presence of The Way.
I love baptism. No matter the reason people come to the water, it is a choice and the Holy One meets them.
I will also confess I am weary of all the ways we try to add layers of gatekeeping to baptism and the entrenched debates over infant baptism. It’s not that these aren’t important theological questions to explore. It’s that in engaging in them, we often fail to make the main thing the main thing. In Jesus’ response to John’s hesitancy, Jesus conveys that baptism has meaning and substance beyond John’s–and perhaps our own–understanding. Perhaps, it’s because I believe that baptism is as invitational as the table. It’s not a talisman to avoid the gates of hell. It’s a public demonstration of belonging to a community where Holy Love reigns. It’s a sign of joining as a member of the body of Christ. It’s a commitment to live the baptized life.
Matthew’s distinctive interpretation is shaped by the challenges of the church in his own time and yet resonates remarkably with challenges we face today. This Gospel was written in a time when there was conflict and division in the community of faith; when some were insiders and others were outsiders; when political and religious leaders were co opted, mistrusted, and discredited; when the great majority of the common people were without power; when cultures clashed.
Jesus’ embrace of being baptized demonstrated to the burgeoning renewal movement of their day that the counter to those struggles were belonging, relationship and connection within the reign and realm of God. Jesus enters the waters we entered and are invited to continually enter. Those waters not only cleanse; they refresh and renew. They expand beyond borders, they part to allow movement, and they even rage in the storm.
The church Case-Winters describes could be identified as that of our time as much as in Matthew’s day. In the midst of cultural clashes, political turmoil, and religious discrediting, we benefit from public declaration of good news that is expansive, inclusive, diverse, and equitable. We can rejoice in our primary ritual of welcome and acceptance into the beloved community. We can declare to the life-long member, the person off the street, and even Jesus, you belong. Be baptized.
Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent:
The 33rd General Synod adopted a Resolution to Recognize the United Nations International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024). As part of its implementation, Sermon and Weekly Seeds offers Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent related to the season or overall theme for additional consideration in sermon preparation and for individual and congregational study.
What evidence is there that Jesus’ identification with the oppressed is the distinctive historical kernel in the gospels? How do we know that black theology is not forcing an alien contemporary black situation on the biblical sources? These questions are important, and cannot be waved aside by black theologians. Unless we can clearly articulate an image of Jesus that is consistent with the essence of the biblical message and at the same time relate it to the struggle for black liberation, black theology loses its reason for being. It is thus incumbent upon us to demonstrate the relationship between the historical Jesus and the oppressed, showing that the equation of the contemporary Christ with black power arises out of a serious encounter with the biblical revelation….
The baptism (affirmed by most scholars as historical) also reveals Jesus’ identification with the oppressed. According to the synoptic Gospels, John’s baptism was for repentant sinners, an act which he believed provided an escape from God’s messianic judgment. For Jesus to submit to John’s baptism not only connects his ministry with John’s but, more importantly, separates him from John. By being baptized, Jesus defines his existence as one with sinners and thus conveys the meaning of the coming kingdom. The kingdom is for the poor, not the rich; and it comes as an expression of God’s love, not judgment. In baptism Jesus embraces the condition of sinners, affirming their existence as his own. He is one of them! After the baptism, the saying “Thou art my beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11) expresses God’s approval of that very definition of Jesus’ person and work.
The temptation is a continuation of the theme already expressed in the baptism. As with the birth narratives, it is difficult to recover the event as it happened, but it would be difficult to deny that the narrative is intimately related to Jesus’ self-portrayal of the character of his existence. The tempter’s concern is to divert Jesus from the reality of his mission with the poor. Jesus’ refusal to turn the stone into bread, or to worship the tempter, or to throw himself from the pinnacle of the temple (Luke 4:3–12) may be interpreted as his refusal to identify himself with any of the available modes of oppressive or self-glorifying power. His being in the world is as one of the humiliated, suffering poor.
— James Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation
For further reflection
“In the ritual of baptism, our ancestors acted out the bizarre truth of the Christian identity: We are people who stand totally exposed before evil and death and declare them powerless against love. There’s nothing normal about that.” — Rachel Held Evans
“O let all who thirst
Let them come to the water
And let all who have nothing
Let them come to the Lord” — Matt Maher
“So I followed that preacher man down to the river
And now I’m changed
And now I’m stronger
There must’ve been something in the water” — Carrie Underwood
Case-Winters, Anna. Matthew: A Theological Commentary on the Bible (Belief: a Theological Commentary on the Bible. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015.
Fernandes, Nicole. Belonging: The Intersection Of DEI And Engagement. Accessed 12.29.2022: https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbeshumanresourcescouncil/2021/12/22/belonging-the-intersection-of-dei-and-engagement/?sh=734b3cb213e9
Woodkey, Matt. The Gospel of Matthew: God with Us. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2011.
Suggested Congregational Response to the Reflection
A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.
Isaiah 42:1-9 • Psalm 29 • Acts 10:34-43 • Matthew 3:13-17
Find the full text here: https://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/texts.php?id=13