We don’t ever arrive at a final destination in our work of becoming disciples. We don’t get to check being a disciple off our to-do list and move on to the next thing. We are always becoming, always stretching toward who Christ has called us to be. Theologian Søren Kierkegaard once said, “Christ claimed to be the way and the truth and the life (Jn. 14:6). For this reason, he could never be satisfied with adherents who accepted his teaching – especially with those who in their lives ignored it or let things take their usual course. His whole life on earth, from beginning to end, was destined solely to have followers and to make admirers impossible. Christ came into the world with the purpose of saving, not instructing it…he came to be the pattern, to leave footprints for the person who would join him, who would become a follower…A follower is or strives to be what he admires. An admirer, however, keeps himself personally detached. He fails to see that what is admired involves a claim upon him, and thus he fails to be or strive to be what he admires.”[i] When we set about our work of becoming disciples, we do more than accept a certain set of beliefs; we do more than talk about this weird guy named Jesus. We follow after Jesus, walking in his footsteps, striving to become more like him. We seek to see ourselves and all of God’s children in the way that Christ sees us.
It is the incarnation that allows Christ to become the pattern for our lives. Christ in the flesh lived and walked and taught and was even killed while showing others what it meant to be true citizens of the kingdom of God. On this Baptism of our Lord Sunday, Jesus teaches us more about how to become disciples, as we follow him in baptism. As the gospel of Matthew tells the story, Jesus comes from Galilee to John at the Jordan so that he could be baptized by him. John has been preaching a baptism of repentance, saying, “Repent! For the kingdom of heaven has come near!” Matthew acknowledges the confusing nature of these events. Why would Jesus who is without sin need to be baptized by John, particularly if John’s baptism is one of repentance from sin? Matthew says John argues with Jesus, questioning why Jesus has come to him, insisting that he should be baptized by Jesus. But Jesus responds, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” When Jesus enters into John’s baptism, it is yet another sign of the incarnation, of the God who has come in the flesh, entering into solidarity with us. He becomes like us so that we can learn to become like him. He becomes like us so that we can know that God can work through us. He becomes like us so that we can be transformed into the beloved children of God we were created to be.
What exactly is Jesus talking about when he says that this baptism will fulfill all righteousness? Righteousness is not some fixed or static quality that one possesses; it is a way of living that aligns with God’s desires for the world. For example, Psalm 72 describes a righteous king as one who delivers the needy when they call, and defends the cause of the poor, one who has pity on the weak and redeems the needy from oppression and violence. To fulfill all righteousness means to establish God’s reign of justice. By submitting to baptism, Jesus enters into the commitment to bring about the kingdom of God and what it values. He is showing that his ministry will be about submitting to God’s ways and God’s kingdom and committing to living out the desires of God’s heart. He is committing to a certain way of living and being in the world; he is committing to working to make the world holy and just. He is committing to enlist in a certain way of life. The Jewish people were familiar with regular ritual washing, but this baptism of repentance that was brought on by John is more like the practice of baptizing a new convert into the faith. This is the kind of baptism that the Jewish people would have only thought was necessary for Gentile converts to the faith. So, when John declares that everyone needs to be baptized and converted, John is calling for a different kind of baptism, a baptism that everyone needed no matter what their nationality was. By submitting to this baptism and then later proclaiming a baptism of both water and Spirit, Jesus showed that the baptismal waters should shape our identity more than any other identity we claim.
When Jesus is baptized by John something miraculous happens just as he comes up from the water. The heavens are opened, the Spirit of God descends on him like a dove and settles on him, and a voice from heaven declares to all who are present, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” When we enter into the baptismal waters, we are invited to join Jesus in fulfilling all righteousness, to choose a certain way of life. We are invited to follow the Beloved and to claim our identity as God’s beloved, too. We are invited to die to ourselves and to rid ourselves of our selfish desires, and to commit to the ways of God’s kingdom. We are invited to renounce evil and sin and to define ourselves by a life of discipleship. We are invited to love and serve the Lord, to work alongside our brothers and sisters in Christ to make what God desires a reality. We are invited to receive instruction and guidance about what kind of life Jesus calls us to lead from our mentors in the faith. We are invited to live into the identity of God’s beloved. We are invited to allow the title of God’s child to take hold of our lives more than any other identity we hold.
Think about all the things we tell ourselves about who we are. We often tell ourselves that we aren’t good enough or smart enough or thin enough or funny enough or likeable enough or connected enough or rich enough. Sometimes we even participate in making others feel that they aren’t enough either. Sometimes we shame other people in ways we aren’t even fully aware of. We live in a world that gives us all kinds of distorted messages like – you are your intellect; you are what you buy; you are what I’ve already labeled you to be; you are good if you follow the rules of society; you are good if you contribute to the economy; you are good if you are a perfect student; you are beautiful if you look like a movie star; you are loved if you make everyone happy; you are important if you have a respectable job; your worth is defined by your bank account.
The lies that we tell ourselves about who we are and who others are sound nothing like God’s descriptions of who we are. Ann Voskamp, writer of One Thousand Gifts, describes the self-hatred that she awoke with every morning in this way: “For years, I have pulled the covers up over my head, dreading to begin another day I’d be bound just to wreck. Years, I lie listening to the taunt of names ringing off my interior walls, ones from the past that never drifted far and away: Loser. Mess. Failure. They are signs nailed overhead, nailed through me, naming me.”[ii] What names are on the signs nailed over your head? We might call ourselves addict, sinner, failure, worthless, faker, screwup. But when we pass through the waters of baptism, God calls us beloved. We might want to be called rich, powerful, pretty, important, religious, esteemed, accomplished, right,[iii] but when we pass through the waters of baptism, God calls us beloved child.
Rachel Held Evans said, “The great struggle of the Christian life is to take God’s name for us, to believe we are beloved and to believe that is enough. In baptism, the Christian stands naked and unashamed before…all these impulses and temptations, sins and failures, empty sales pitches and screwy labels – and says, ‘I am a beloved child of God and I renounce anything or anyone who says otherwise’.”[iv] One of the greatest tasks we have when we remember and reaffirm our baptisms is to let go of all those distorted images we have of ourselves to rest in our identity as beloved, redeemed, precious children of God. As we follow Jesus through the waters of baptism, we gain a different story about who we are. God tells us – you are beloved; you are forgiven; you are called; you are cared for; you are salt; you are light; you have passed through the waters of death and risen to new life; you belong. You belong and so do all of God’s children so you are invited to come alongside Jesus to fulfill all righteousness by immersing yourself in the kingdom of God, in the kingdom of justice, in the kingdom that delivers the needy when they call and defends the cause of the poor, in the kingdom that sees all of the children of the world as beloved.
When we pattern our lives after Christ, we are called to claim our identity as God’s beloved, but we are also called to claim that all others are beloved children of God, too. As Evans says, “The good news is that you are a beloved child of God; the bad news is you don’t get to choose your siblings.”[v] When we walk in the waters of baptism, we take on actions and habits that will transform us into people who can claim the belovedness of all. That’s often a messy proclamation in a world that is bent on drawing lines and boundaries out of fear. It’s a counter-cultural message in a world bent on defining enemies and demonizing others.
Mark Twain wrote a short story in 1905 called ‘The War Prayer.” The story is believed to be a response to both the Spanish-American War and the subsequent Philippine-American War. Twain died in 1910 without ever having published the story. His family and friends pressured him not to publish it because they were afraid the story would be considered sacrilegious. It wasn’t published until 1923 because Twain himself said that only dead men can tell the truth in this world. [vi] In the story, Twain tells of a country that is going to war and how patriotic citizens gather at a church service to pray over the soldiers who are going to war. They pray for all the normal things that people pray for in war – for God to grant them victory and to protect their troops. Suddenly a character whom Twain calls an “aged stranger” appears and announces that he is God’s messenger and that he is there to say the second part of the prayer, the part that they have wished for but have not spoken aloud, the part he says the pastor and everyone else “fervently prayed silently.”
The aged stranger says, “When you have prayed for victory you have prayed for many unmentioned results which follow victory — must follow it, cannot help but follow it. Upon the listening spirit of God fell also the unspoken part of the prayer. He commandeth me to put it into words. Listen!” He goes on to pray the previously unspoken prayer: “O Lord our God, help us tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells…help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with their little children to wander unfriended in the wastes of their desolated land…For our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes [and] blight their lives! Amen.” The aged stranger then pauses and says, “Ye have prayed it; if ye still desire it, speak! The messenger of the Most High waits.”[vii] Twain’s story illustrates the unspoken ways we demonize others when we resort to the violence of war. It lays bare the hypocrisy of Christians who try to justify war and call it holy. It makes it clear that war distorts the image of God in both ourselves and others.
This morning, we still live in a world bent on violence, a nation bent on war. We live in a world that distorts the image of God by commanding some to kill on our behalf and justifying the death of others for our “safety” and “freedom” and our “civilized” way of life. But on this Baptism of our Lord Sunday, we are called to remember our work of becoming disciples, to reaffirm our calling to die to ourselves and the ways of our world, to reclaim our new life and identity in Christ. This will require us to do more than admire Jesus. It will require us to do more than sit back and allow things to take their usual course. It will require us to change the way we live so that we may truly follow after Jesus. It will require us to pattern our lives after the Beloved, remembering that we are beloved, and working to make a world where all God’s children are seen and treated as beloved. Let’s go down to the river. Jesus will show us the way. Jesus will give us courage as we stand up and say: We are all beloved children of God, and we renounce anything or anyone that says otherwise. Amen.
[ii] Ann Voskamp, One Thousand Gifts, p. 26-27.
[iii] Language and wording ideas from Rachel Held Evans, Searching for Sunday, p. 19.
[iv] Rachel Held Evans, Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church, 19-20.
[v] Evans, Searching for Sunday, 15.
[vi] As told by Albert Bigelow Paine in Mark Twain: A Biography: the Personal and Literary Life of Samuel Langhorne Clemens.