Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Matthew 3:13-17
It was a chilly, overcast morning in 1975. The fog hugged the neighborhood in a blanket of silencing stillness. The birds were quiet and the families that occupied the colorful homes were beginning to stir. They prepared to visit the cemeteries and place flowers on the graves of their loved ones. The picnics and parties would follow as fog lifted and the day move along.
In your average looking Presbyterian Church with simple stained glass windows a baptism was taking place. The family had gathered in their clean Sunday’s best. Mother and father standing with children and godparents filled up the space. The Spirit of God expected to descend and on their heads, rest. It was Dia De Los Muertos in north LA. My fortune would never be the same.
This was the first time I was baptized. I was almost 8 months old. This began my journey towards identity and who or what I was in this world. It delivered me through Catholic elementary school, Lutheran middle school, evangelical street preacher, Presbyterian inquirer, and on to an agnostic pastor.
Baptism was a process for me to enter in to close proximity to God. It was a physical rite that cast away who I was, for who I hoped to be. I have a weakness for altar calls and baptism. I have answered countless altar calls as I sought to be washed in the cleansing blood of the Lamb. I have been baptized three times in a similar pursuit, one that resembles a roller coaster of highs and lows of finding and forgetting Jesus.
The second time I was baptized I was at the beach with the evangelical church that my girlfriend was part of. We went there for Easter service and I became overcome with joy, the Spirit, and a desire to be worthy to be the husband of this young woman I was with. I waded out in to the waters of the Pacific Ocean and said yes to Jesus, again. I soon fell out of the faith and blindly searched for the real me. The third time was in the backyard of the pastor of the charismatic Hispanic church that I was part of. We ate carne asada and I found myself in the shallow end of the pool again proclaiming that I wanted Jesus Christ to be my Lord and Savior. Within a few weeks I departed the Spirit-filled light and wandered the earth as a pseudo-Christian version of Kwai Chang Caine seeking the meaning of life.
There was a fourth time I went to get baptized. In the wake of a horrible break-up I went back to church. It was a huge mega church with 2,000-3,000 members worshipping each Sunday. There was an alter call to get saved and I answered it. They took me to the back and prayed with me to received the Lord and the pastor asked me, “son, have you been baptized before?”
I told him, “Three times but this one will stick.”
He replied, “You don’t need baptism. You need to get serious.” He then prayed with me and they took me to the side where I watched the others get dunked. I was upset. I was disappointed. I felt rejected. I walked away that day and did not set foot in church again for another two years.
It has taken me almost fifteen years to get what he was talking about. What he was saying was, “You need to get serious and love yourself. You need to love yourself like God loves you. You need to spend time with yourself. You need to get comfortable in your own skin. You need to get familiar with your own body.”
Baptism was a drug, an addiction. I was addicted to the sacramental practice of being made whole. I was not able to see beyond the sacramental act of wholeness and live as a fully integrated, fully realized and differentiated being. That part was harder for me to embrace.
Jesus was not addicted to any sacrament, nor was the Christ self-medicating the wounds of dysfunctional family relations. Jesus was proclaiming his wholeness as fully human and fully divine. He entered the River Jordan as a man and as God. He exited the river as an outwardly integrated and realized Christ. Jesus revealed the path of reconciliation through the fragmented faithful path of his day. Jesus rising out of the waters hears, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” A voice from Heaven proclaims pleasure and affirms the fully realized self of divine humanity.
Jesus got serious. Jesus spent a lot of time wandering this world looking for who he was. One just needs to read Christopher Moore’s book, Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal, to ponder what was Jesus before he got baptized and after he was born.
If Jesus was in deed fully human and fully divine then it is not that hard to imagine that Jesus also wrestled with the realities of being human. There are numerous accounts in apocryphal and deuterocanonical letters that share stories of Jesus’ “silent years.”
It is human to desire identity. It is human to hunger for belonging. It is human to journey towards understanding. Jesus knew this and Jesus got serious. When Jesus got serious about who he was and spent some time with himself he grew to love himself. When he loved himself he got comfortable with who he was, who he is. When Jesus gets comfortable with who he is, we get the invitation to reconciliation and we are shown the way to familiarity of the Body.
The body matters and baptism is a path towards familiarity with who we are and that eventual reckoning of what we are in Christ. Baptism is a beginning. It is not the end. Baptism is the first step in a journey of 10,000 miles. Baptism is the outfitters that shall equip you for life.
Right after Jesus gets baptized he is thrust in to the wilderness to be tempted by the world. In the wilderness Jesus continues to challenge the norms that we bear. Jesus’ ministry in an assault on human systems of power and wealth as he calls on us, the Children of God, to live life in that familiar way he displayed when he got baptized. Jesus’ beginning in those baptismal waters is the beginning of something that we have yet to realize, Thy Kingdom Come, Thy Will Be Done…On Earth As It Is, In Heaven…
St. Thomas Merton offers us a prayer in which the certainty most of us seek is reframed under the light of Christ’s action, “My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.” Baptism is the beginning of this road. The road to which we travel, not with certainty but with faith. A faith that allows for divinity in the face of the profane. Purpose in the mundane. A faith of clarity amongst the chaos.
You cannot love others if you do not love yourself. You cannot accept others if you do not accept yourself. You cannot honor others if you do not honor yourself. You cannot take others seriously if you do not take yourself seriously. You cannot be familiar with others if you are not familiar with yourself.
We live life in the here and now as fully embodied humanity we continue to work towards the marks of Church and seek to glorify and enjoy God. We do justice, we love kindness, and we walk humbly with our God. When doing justice, loving kindness, and humbly walking with God we embark on some rather serious business.