The Power and Humility of Baptism

January 12, 2020
Matthew 3:13-17; Isaiah 42:1-9

I remember my baptism. I was scared to choose it and scared not to choose it. My questions and doubts about the way things were explained (or unexplained) in church overwhelmed me. But, as the pastor’s kid, I felt I had to see the membership class through to completion along with the others in the youth group. I suppose my fear of not being the good girl was even greater than my doubts so there I stood, in front of the congregation.

There were probably six or seven of us, all 14-16 years old; we answered the questions we were asked about choosing Jesus and eternal salvation and renouncing the devil. We each knelt to receive the water poured on our heads.

At least I think the water part happened that way. What I remember much more clearly is that after we rose from our knees, the whole church lined up along the wall and processed forward to welcome each of us into the fellowship. That was a lot of holy hugs and kisses. A lot of “God bless you” and “Welcome Sister.” By the end, I was in tears, moved by the love and care that this church of Mennonite Christians showed us as teenagers. Several years later it was my turn to line up along the wall and welcome the next class of young, brave souls, risking baptism.

And yet – many days I still wonder what it means to “believe” or how we can ever really know – what the bible means, what God is, how the Spirit works… I know there are days when I do not meet my own or others expectations of how a follower of Jesus should live. It is good on those days to remember that line of people, the old men and old women (now I am one) who invited us into the fellowship with open arms. It is good to recognize that surely that line of the faithful also had doubts and questions. And yet they got over themselves and welcomed us into the fold as children of God, right alongside their own wonderings.

John and Jesus are not without their own questions at baptism. While we read about Jesus’ baptism by John in all four of the gospels, it is only Matthew that conveys this conversation between John and Jesus. According to Matthew, John is baptizing a whole lot of people: At that time, Jerusalem, all Judea and the whole region around the Jordan were going out to him. Despite the large crowds, when Jesus shows up it is like time stops, the camera zooms in and the only people we can see or hear are John and Jesus.

John tries to dissuade Jesus, saying, “I should be baptized by you, and yet you come to me.” But Jesus replies, “Leave it this way  for now. We must do this to fulfill God’s justice.” So John reluctantly agrees.

John, for all his strange clothes and “natural” eating habits, is a man of power, at least in his own small and expanding realm. John is known for his fiery preaching and his intense commitment. When Jesus approaches him, John suddenly finds humility and is willing to step back from his larger than life role.

In Matthew, we are not told that Jesus has any previous relationship with John – unlike Luke’s telling where John and Jesus are cousins. Matthew does not indicate Jesus has had any public ministry; he just walks up to John, as a grown man, and asks to be baptized. Somehow John recognizes him. Somehow John knows who Jesus is – and not just who he is but what he is. There is this standoff of mutual humility, each believing the other is closer to God, the one more able to confer God’s love and grace, the one who should be the baptizer. In an upside down kind of way, this humility gives each of them their credibility, their power.

Matthew doesn’t give much detail to the rest of the scene. There is no description of how the baptism occurs, no written instructions for how a baptism is to be performed. Instead we are given a description of what Jesus experiences, the spirit that reminds him of a dove, the voice he hears. And for those Jews, and those who come later, who know the scriptures, the voice Jesus hears sounds an awful lot like Isaiah the prophet:

Here is my servant whom I uphold,
my chosen one in whom I delight.

I don’t know if these two, John and Jesus, were unusual in their own time, but this kind of humility, stepping back to let someone else lead, well let’s just say it isn’t the usual behavior of contemporary religious leaders. We like to be given credit; we like to have our holiness recognized, admired and elevated. Jesus and John seem to be operating out of a different guidebook, each one of them willing to kneel. They see God in the other. They see and respect the gifts and possibilities in the other. And they are each willing to receive, not just give. Only Jesus’ baptism is recorded but I wonder if John was also baptized.

The humility of Jesus and John came to mind as I read John Roth’s column in the January 2020 issue of The Mennonite. (“Learning from African Theology”) Roth writes about Kenyan priest and theologian, John Mbiti, who studied traditional religions from all across Africa. In his research Mbiti discovered that what many Africans understood about God was a version of Christianity before the Europeans ever arrived with their version of the gospel. And yet the Africans were considered to be younger in faith. Mbiti wrote, “Theologians from the new (or younger) churches have made their pilgrimages to the theological learning of the older churches. We had no alternative. We have eaten theology with you; we have drunk theology with you; we have dreamed theology with you. But it has all been one-sided; it has all been, in a sense, your theology… We know you theologically. The question is, Do you know us theologically? Would you like to know us theologically?”

This kind of question from Rev. Mbiti is one that invites others into a position of humility. He is not trying to wield power so much as invite those who view themselves as over and above, into an experience of sharing power even as they humble themselves. Mbiti asked this question,”Would you like to know us theologically?” in a written article in 1976. He died in 2019. I wonder how many people responded to his invitation in the intervening 43 years. As White, western Christians we still have a ways to go in knowing and understanding African Christians in a genuine, egalitarian way.

Mbiti’s question is perhaps the African version of what many African Americans experience in this country. White culture, language and customs are dominant. African Americans learn early to navigate in both white culture and black culture. African Americans learn early that even friendly white people may be naive to our power and privilege, naive to the ways that white traditions are considered the norm and all others as deviations.

Even when we well-meaning white people say we are against racism, even if we say “we want to know you,” we too often hesitate to let go of the power we have. It takes intentional energy and commitment to place a culture and tradition other than our own at the center. When are we willing to kneel and be blessed by someone who has less power – unless it makes us look good, as we cultivate a prideful humility.

I am not sure there is any way that white people can ever quite grasp the depth of injustice, not to mention trauma, that African Americans in this country live in their bodies every day. As white people we should kneel, not for a blessing, but to ask forgiveness, to humble ourselves as we recognize our complicity and the ways we benefit from a system that continues to punish African Americans for no reason other than skin color and heritage. As the South African anti-apartheid song “Senzeni na” says “Our only sin is that we are black.”

Some in this congregation are looking for ways to figuratively kneel to ask for forgiveness. The racial justice group here at HMC has been meeting for several years. They are opening themselves to each other, committing to the long journey of recognizing how racism infects all of us. They are putting themselves in places to better understand how when African Americans are diminished, all of us are diminished. They are seeking to understand and eradicate racism within themselves, in social systems and in the church.

As part of that goal of working against racism, they are finding ways to be involved with black-led organizations locally. Ask Mardi Hastings and Dawn Longenecker about their involvement with Life after Release, a Prince George’s County based organization founded and led by black women to walk with people caught up in the criminal justice system.

The title of this sermon is “The Power and Humility of Baptism.” So where is the power? Part of the power is in receiving that same blessing that Jesus heard, “You are my beloved with whom I am well pleased.” And in remembering the rest of Isaiah 42 from which the blessing is taken. 

I, YHWH, have called you
to serve the cause of right;
I have taken you by the hand
and I watch over you.
I have appointed you to
be a covenant people,
 a light to the nations;
to open the eyes of the blind,
to free captives from prison,
and those who sit in
darkness from the dungeon.

Baptism is not for a lone person. Isaiah gives the call not to one person but to a covenant people, to the whole community. When we choose baptism, we humble ourselves and become part of a community committed to healing (open the eyes of the blind) and freedom (to free captives from prison) and accompaniment (those who sit in darkness from the dungeon.) It is a tall order for teenagers to choose, for any of us to choose – and yet in community it is made possible as we invite and support each other toward empowerment and a powerful life of service.

Sometimes we need to be reminded of our commitments, of the intentions that we made long ago. If you would like to remember your baptism, or recommit yourself to healing, freedom and accompaniment or loving kindness, food and friendship and making peace in the world, you are invited to come forward during the song and receive a blessing, reconfirming your commitment. And if you have never been baptized, you are also welcome, to receive the water and a blessing, as part of this community committed to making Love and Peace present in the world.