I realize this will come as something of a shock to many of you, but I can be an acquired taste for some people— like black coffee, dark beer, or the music of Coldplay. But, believe it or not, though I am an acquired taste, eventually (like hair on moles, like skin fungus, like the music of Coldplay) I grow on people.
One such person with whom I went from skin fungus to simpatico is my friend CJ. Years ago CJ and her son came to a bluegrass Easter sunrise service where I was preaching. She loved the music, but she thought I came across as something I can’t say in the sanctuary. Nevertheless, this bottle of dark beer— this handsome, charming, witty, brilliant bottle of dark beer— convinced her to come back to church. And she did, and she kept coming back to church. And we became friends.
Her initial assessment of me notwithstanding, CJ is a genius, a legit DoogieHowser type genius. She enrolled in Harvard as she was entering puberty. She’s got multiple degrees and juggles diverse careers. Her most recent— she does GoodWillHunting type stuff for the NSA, keeping us all safe with math I don’t understand. Last fall, at the end of the early service, she came up to me. With her arms crossed and wearing a wry smile, she said:
“You know, I used to be grateful for you. But now I’m not so sure.”
“You didn’t like the sermon?” I asked, smiling back.
“Didn’t like the sermon?! I’m not sure I like any of your sermons NOW!”
“What do you mean?”
And then she told me what I had done to her. Or, as I prefer to think about it: what God and God’s Gospel had done to her.
“I had to reup my security clearances, same thing every few years. They sifted through all my bank statements and tax returns, interviewed all my old roommates, talked to my old boyfriends. It’s hairy harrowing stuff and all of it was FINE until I had to do the polygraph at the end. A polygraph— it should be a piece of cake, right?”
“Let me guess,” I guessed, “it wasn’t a piece of cake?”
“It was at first— until you messed it up.” Only, she didn’t say messed. She said something I can’t say here in the sanctuary. And then she punched me in the shoulder.
As I rubbed the bruise, she told me.
“They started out asking me my name, address, job— piece of cake, just routine stuff. I rattled them off calmly, no problem.”
“But then they asked me— get this— the guy asked me: “Do you consider yourself a good person?”
I could already fill in the blanks, but I played dumb: “What’s the problem?”
“What’s the problem? What’s the problem?! The problem is that I said ‘yes’ and then they moved on to the other questions, yet even as I answered those questions I sat there with probes stuck to my temple and my chest and my fingers and I thought about you and your sermons and that question Do I consider myself a good person? and it hit me, like an epiphany, and I knew. I’d lied.”
I didn’t say anything. It’s best to stay quiet when you’re creeping up on holiness.
“All my answers to all the other questions were off,” she said, “because I’d lied on that one question and I knew it. I failed the polygraph because of your preaching!? What do you have to say about that?!”
“Um…see you next Sunday?”
And she punched me in my other shoulder.
The truth that revealed itself to my friend in the polygraph test is the same truth— the epiphany— disclosed to us in the baptism of Jesus by John in the Jordan River.
In Matthew’s Gospel, when Jesus dips his toes into the Jordan, John protests:
“What are you doing Jesus?! I need to be baptized by you. I’m not even worthy to untie your sandals, Jesus (which was the job of a slave). I need to be baptized by you not you by me.”
All four Gospels tell us that Jesus was baptized alongside hypocrites and thieves and tax collectors colluding with the evil empire— a brood of vipers, John the Baptist calls them. You think Chenda’s a heavy preacher. John the Baptist wouldn’t last two Sundays here.
All four Gospels tell us about Jesus’ baptism. In fact— pay attention now— the only two events mentioned across all four Gospels are the baptism of Jesus by John and the death of Jesus by a cross. That’s because they’re connected.
The baptism by fire predicted here by John the Baptist is the fire of God’s judgment— judgment that falls, once for all, upon Jesus in our place on the cross. The water John plunges Jesus down into here at his baptism is the water that pours out from Jesus’ wounded side, baptizing us into his death. Just as Christ’s ministry begins here standing along the Jordan amidst sinners counted as a sinner, Christ’s work ends— it is finished— hanging amongst sinners, thieves, treated as a sinner just like them.
And just as they heavens tear open here at his baptism, on his cross the temple veil is ripped (it’s very same word in Mark’s Gospel), torn in two, tearing heaven open to you and to me and making you, who once was a slave to Sin and Death— making you a beloved child of God. All four of the Gospels tell us about the baptism of Jesus and the passion of Jesus.
The two stories, they’re connected. Therefore, the meaning of the Gospel lies in that connection.
Luke leaves out what Matthew tell us about Jesus’ baptism: that John initially objects and raises questions. Baptize you? You’ve got it backwards, Jesus. How can I baptize you?
The connection between his baptism and his cross, the epiphany to be discovered in today’s text, lies in John’s question: “Jesus, how can I baptize you? Jesus, you don’t need the baptism with which I baptize.”
“How can I baptize you?”
It’s a good question. Maybe, it’s the most important question. You see— John resists baptizing Jesus because John’s baptism was a work of repentance. For sin. And Jesus is without sin. He’s perfect as his Father in heaven is perfect. He’s the only one of us who doesn’t need John the Baptist’s baptism, yet he insists upon it. By objecting to baptizing Jesus, John distinguishes for us between Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River and our baptisms into Jesus Christ.
Again, this is important so pay attention:
Christ’s baptism by John is NOT Christian baptism.
If you miss this distinction, you’ll miss how these two stories, baptism and cross, are connected and if you miss this connection, you’ll miss the central claim of the Gospel promise.
Christ’s baptism by John is NOT the Christian baptism performed by God in his Church. John’s baptism was a work we do— a work of repentance by which those who were condemned by the Law hoped to merit God’s mercy. John’s baptism was a human act (repentance) intended to provoke a divine response (forgiveness).
The water was an outward visible sign of your inward admission of guilt.
But the water did not wash away your guilt.
John’s baptism signified repentance for your unrighteousness.
But it could not make you righteous.
That’s why Jesus insists on submitting to John’s baptism— not because of any repenting Jesus needed to do but because of what John’s baptism could not do. John’s baptism could not make the unrighteous righteous before God.
By being plunged down into John’s baptism, Jesus condescends—Jesus goes down into the very depths of our unrighteousness. As Martin Luther said:
At Christmas, Christ becomes our flesh but at his baptism he becomes our sin.
The lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world does so by becoming a goat when he goes down into our unrighteousness and then carries it in him to Golgotha. As the Apostle Paul tells the Corinthians: “He who knew no sin becomes sin so that you and I could become the very righteousness of God.”
That’s the connection between the two texts, baptism and cross. And it’s why they’re the only two texts all four Gospels give you. Christ doesn’t just die for the ungodly with sinners beside him. He dies with the ungodly in him, with every sin all over him. He puts them on him in his baptism into unrighteousness; so that, by a different baptism— the baptism of his death and resurrection— we may be made what the former baptism could never make us.
As the Paul writes to the Galatians: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law by becoming a curse for us.”
At Christmas, he takes on our flesh.
Here at the Jordan River, he takes on the curse; so that, the curse hanging over us is carried in him unto the cross. And there, by the baptism of his once-for-all death for sin, he completes the joyful carol we sang at his nativity. He makes his blessing known as far as the curse is found— the gift of his own righteousness, his own permanent perfect record.
As Paul writes to the Colossians: “You who once were estranged from and hostile to God Christ has reconciled to God in his body through his death, so as to present you to God as holy, blameless, and irreproachable.”
“All your CrossFit sessions really work,” I said to CJ, rubbing the burgeoning bruise in my other shoulder.
“Sorry I keep hitting you” she said.
“It’s okay,” I said, “they don’t warn you in seminary but working with church people is a contact sport most days.”
“It just goes to show,” she said, getting serious, “how secular, how post-Christian, unChristian, anti-Christian is our culture that a question like “Do you consider yourself a good person?” isn’t considered in any way a problematic way of putting the question.”
And I couldn’t help but smile at the number this dark bottle of beer, yours truly, had done on her with God’s Gospel help.
“Look, I get it,” she said, “Most people— cognitive dissonance and all— probably do think they’re basically good people, but Christians at least— at the VERY LEAST— should understand that as soon as you’re considering yourself a good person you’re no longer speaking Christian.”
She didn’t say so and probably she wouldn’t put it like this, but the confusion is a confusion between these two baptisms, Jesus’ by John in the Jordan and ours by God into Jesus.
John’s baptism was a work we do— we’re the active agents in John’s baptism.
John’s baptism was a work we do in order to solicit God’s pardon.
Our baptism is a work God does.
Our baptism is not a work that solicits God’s pardon.
Our baptism incoporates us into the work God has already done to pardon us.
For everything you’ve done and everything you’ve left undone.
Our baptism is not an act of repentance.
Our baptism incorporates us into Christ’s act of redemption by which God declares you (though a sinner you are and a sinner you remain) his beloved son…his beloved daughter… to whom heaven will always be open not because you’re good but because he is gracious.
It’s John’s kind of baptism— the work that we do— that misleads us into thinking that we’re basically good people because, according to the rules of John’s Old Age— and that’s what scripture calls it, the Old Age (even though most of us insist on living there still)— you and I have to be good.
Perfect even. As perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect— perfection, according to the rules of the Old Age under the Law, is actually the expectation. Yet the Law came with Moses, the Gospel promises, but Grace has come with Jesus Christ and in Christ the perfect righteousness required of us has been fulfilled by his own faithfulness for us.
In other words, our baptism into Christ—the work of God and his grace— frees us to admit that we’re worse than good. Those of us who are baptized into Christ— we should be the freest to admit our brokeness, to be vulnerable about our sinfulness, to be authentically imperfect.
Baptized Christians should be the least defensive people.
I mean— I don’t know what newspaper you read, but the world could certainly use Christians who are quicker to confess their own sins rather than castigate others for theirs.
John’s baptism leaves you in your sin.
And left in your sin, you’ll either refuse to admit the truth about yourself or you’ll be anxious about whether or not God will forgive you. But your baptism is not John’s baptism. By your baptism you are not in your sin— though a sinner you are— because, by your baptism, you are in Christ. That’s the distinction between Jesus’ baptism and your own baptism. In his baptism, Jesus enters into our sin and unrighteousness. In your baptism, you enter into Christ.
In Christ, you’re crucified with him, Paul says. Your sin and your old self— it’s left behind, Paul says. Buried with him in his death, Paul says. Your rap sheet is now as empty as his tomb. And instead of your rap sheet, you’ve been handed his perfect record. Permanently.
No take-backs. No do-overs. No need ever to earn or deserve it.
That’s the promise we call the Gospel.
The Gospel of Grace is not God loves you just as you are and accepts you just as you are.
No, that’s liberal sentimentality.
The Gospel of Grace is that God the Father loves Jesus Christ the Son.
And God loves and accepts you— just as you are— not because of who you are but because of where you are.
By your baptism, you are in him.
He is your new you.
That’s the promise we call the Gospel.
And if you add anything to it at all, a single footnote or condition (especially a qualifier like “I’m basically a good person”) you’ve smashed the Gospel to smithereens.
Grace can only begin where you (and all your pretensions) end.
Put it this way—
Gratitude is not something we muster up on our own by our own initiative. I’m going to be more grateful today— go ahead and try it; it won’t work— the Bible tells me so (Romans 7). It just turns gratitude into another Law.
Gratitude is not something we muster up on our own.
Gratitude is the spontaneous response elicited in us by a message that comes from outside of us, by something surprising and undeserved that has been done by another for us.
Christianly speaking, what has been done for us in Jesus Christ has no content apart from the why: what it is about us such that it had to be done for us. In other words, Christianly speaking, people who insist that they’re good, people who refuse to live into the freedom that their baptisms gives them, the freedom to be honest about their own sin or the societal sins they’re complicit in, such people can never be grateful.
And without gratitude you cannot be a gracious, grace-giving person.
Gratitude can only begin where you end.
Of course, I’m not saying anything here we don’t already say with bread and wine. This Table of Thanksgiving— that’s what the word Eucharist means— is also at the same time a table for traitors. To deny or ignore the latter is to foreclose the former from you.
Don’t take my word for it.
Check out the first two questions and answers from the Heidelberg Catechism.
Question 1: What is your only comfort in life and in death?
That I am not my own but I belong by baptism—body and soul, in life and in death— to my faithful savior and substitute Jesus Christ.
What must I know to live and die in this comfort?
1. The greatness of my sin.
2. How I’ve been forgiven and set free from all of them.
3. The gratitude that comes from such a redemption.
I followed up with CJ later, over black coffee.
“Do I consider myself a good person?” she dwelled on the polygraph question like it was a missing button on her blouse.
“The trouble is— it’s a lie detector test, right? You can only give Yes or No responses. How am I supposed to respond when the answer is ‘No, but…’?”
“No, but?” I asked.
“Yeah, no, but: ‘No, I’m not a good person, but at once and the same time, I’m something better than good. I’m righteous.’”
“If you really want to mess with him,” I said, “you could just say that ‘I’ve been baptized.’”