Glorious Immersion

The First Sunday After the Epiphany: The Baptism of Jesus

Genesis 1:1-5; Psalm 29; Acts 19:1-7; Mark 1:4-11

January 10, 2021




I have an image in my mind’s eye of swimming, or rather, of frolicking in the water. I’m a child, and I’m having so much fun flopping about, throwing a ball back and forth, doing handstands under water and trying not to flip backwards so my poor sinuses get would flooded. It was a blast playing with other kids, but how much more fun it was when a parent joined me in the water. The memory of being carried on the back of a swimming parent or grandparent or being launched out of the water in a dolphin-like leap by a spring-boarding grown up, makes me smile. There was something about being joined in the watery fray that moved me at a depth I could never have articulated at the time. I could only have gleefully called out, come on! jump in! As one of those grown-ups now, as my family can tell you, I’m not the best about jumping in. Kateri is the beach and pool person in our family who loves water, who rejoices in that immersion. It takes something extra in me to go there now, and that’s been true since my teen years. But when I can get there, when I can cross over and allow myself to be in that water, floating and frolicking, immersing in our shared life, I am reminded profoundly that we are not alone in the watery chaos of this world. We are profoundly joined.

Today our gospel passage signals just that at a deeper, divine level. Having celebrated the Feast of the Epiphany on Wednesday, we now enter more fully this new season in the Church year. It actually is something of a new season, having been labeled as such in the Episcopal Church for the first with the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. Prior to that, like much of the wider Church, we would celebrate the Epiphany story of the Magi’s visit, followed the next Sunday by the Baptism of Jesus, as we are doing today, but without entering an actual season. We would simply find ourselves in so-called “ordinary time” until Lent came along. But now we step into several weeks over which the light, the glory of Epiphany is meant to shine. If the stories of early Advent led us into a space of apokalypsis, of revelation in the literal sense of unveiling, Epiphany now leads us into a revelation pervaded by manifestation, appearing, as epiphaneia can be translated. The stories we hear until this season comes to a close at Transfiguration Sunday in February invite us to perceive God’s glorious, transforming presence with us. And what the Baptism of Jesus in particular show us this morning is the glory of God’s immersion in our waters.

The story of Jesus’ baptism as the gospel of Mark tells it, returns us to the borders of the wilderness. It links us back to Advent, to John the Baptist’s preaching and ministry. People from all around “the Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem,” we are told, were drawn to him (Mk 1:5). In the living waters of the river Jordan this man whose clothing and eating seem to embody the wilderness would baptize these folks who confessed their sins. John also described to them one who was coming after him, one “more powerful,” one the thong of whose sandals John professed himself unworthy to stoop down and untie. John may have been baptizing them in water, but this one would baptize them with the Holy Spirit. Yet this one also came for John’s baptism. As Mark very simply and straightforwardly conveys, “In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan” (Mk 1:9). This is only the second time Jesus’ name has arisen in Mark’s gospel, and it is the first thing Jesus does. No nativity narratives frame Jesus’ ministry for Mark. Instead we have immersion. Immersion and glory. Other gospel accounts of Jesus’ baptism implicitly raise the question of why Jesus would have begun his ministry with this action. And later tradition also asked, why would Jesus have needed to be baptized in the first place, particularly if baptism was associated with confession and cleansing from sin. But what all the accounts affirm is the revelatory quality of this moment. As Jesus emerges from the waters, and as Mark depicts it, “he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased’” (Mk 1:10). If anyone had any questions as to what the baptism of John signaled about Jesus, this moment declares his divine sonship/childship, his chosenness and belovedness. The Spirit that had descended upon him like a dove would immediately drive him out into the wilderness, as we will hear in Lent with the very next sentence in this story, as Mark tells it. But in this moment, we are invited to receive this living water, to behold the glory of this immersion.

And lest the brevity of this story belie this glory, our first readings help us to stay with the water. We heard the opening of Genesis, in which “a wind from God swept over the face of the waters” (Gen 1:2). That word for wind, pneuma as it would be translated from Hebrew into Greek, was a word also translated as breath or as Spirit. We are asked today to hear in the descent of the Spirit upon Jesus like a dove, that same wind, that same breath, that stirred creation into being from out of the watery chaos. And then again in the Genesis 1 Creation account, the voice of God speaks light into being. Reminded of that creative vocalization, we are invited to hear in the voice from the heavens proclaiming Jesus beloved, that same powerful, light-bearing force. The Psalm, too, is assigned to us today to inform our hearing of Jesus’ baptism. The voice that sung creation into being “is upon the waters,” “splits the flames of fire,” “shakes the wilderness,” and “makes the oak trees writhe” (Ps 29:3, 7, 8, 9). That voice pierces the watery wilderness of our world even as we cry out “glory” to the one who sits enthroned above that chaotic flood (Ps 29:9). These passages given to us on this day help us to see in the story of Jesus’ baptism, God revealed to us as both above the water, transcendent, andimmersed in our midst, immanent, joined with us thanks to the Good News of the Incarnation that we have just celebrated through Christmastide. The God who in Jesus Christ pitched the divine tent in our midst is Emmanuel, God-with-us no matter what. The God who created the world is also gloriously immersed in it, with us in our chaos. God in Jesus Christ is not overcome by the oppressive forces of our world, the evil we do and the evil done on our behalf. By the outpouring of his Christ’s, God proclaims that our burdens are now God’s own, and that because of this profound sharing, we will not finally be overcome. We may groan in this earthly tent, as Paul puts it in his Second Letter to the Corinthians, but what we are swallowed up by is not death, but God’s own everlasting life. Jesus’ baptism is a glorious icon of that belovedness, shared with us beyond our wildest imagining, despite all the havoc we wreak on this earth.

Earlier this week in the Wrestling with the Scriptures monthly Bible study, we looked at a passage from Luke’s gospel in which Jesus says, “I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!” (Luke 12:50). Given that Jesus’ baptism had technically already taken place earlier at this point in Luke’s Gospel, we were struck in our conversation that baptism here signals something literally stressful. It is an immersion in the agon, the contest, the challenge, of Jesus’ life and ministry, which led him into death and resurrection. In the tenth chapter of Mark (with synoptic parallels) when two disciples as Jesus to grant them power and status, to sit at his right “in his glory” (Mk 10: 37), he responds that they have no idea what they are asking. Were they able to “be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” he asked (again signalizing baptism as something challenging) (Mk 10:38). Even in their naivete, Jesus responds, they would be. The glory of the baptism of Jesus is not a peaceful one. It is his immersion in a world fraught with human evil and sin, his submersion in our mortality, his taking on of our burdens, promising us that death will never have the last word. It is his call to live transformed, walking in newness of life even as human evil remains around us.

This week has been extraordinary. We have seen profound signs of hope in Georgia, through the painstaking, years-long work of solidarity, connection, and relationship building led particularly by Stacey Abrams. The Reverend Raphael Warnock now will become the first ever Black senator from Georgia, a tremendous gain for a community shut out of power through years of structural racism.[1] And this week we have also seen a profound attack on this country by an aggrieved, mainly white community, incited by the words of the President of the United States.[2] And as I know from conversations with folks across our community all week long, we are reeling from this attack, seeking to make sense of it. As I have been in that process myself, I have been turning to voices of analysis, particularly coming out of the Black community in this country. Among those, I have found myself drawn once again to the Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas’s book Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God, which we read together a few years ago.[3] In that book Dr. Douglas names the pervasive and pernicious mythology of racist American Exceptionalism that, in my judgment, helped fuel this week’s attack on the Capitol. And at the same time, powerfully, Dr. Douglas gives witness to the profound faith of the Black Church, existing both within and beyond the Episcopal Church, a “faith born in the cauldron of oppression and giving witness to the freedom of God.”[4] This faith, she emphasizes, “does not resolve the contradictions” that pervade a world that continues to be structured by racist oppression and all manner of human-caused evil. She has a way of naming that “original paradox” that I quoted and wrote about in the Flame this week.[5] Faith, she emphasizes, “does not promise” freedom suffering in the midst of pain and oppression but rather “is a testament to a God who is present” no matter what, and who “has a preferential option for the liberation of black bodies from that which denies them a free life.”[6] This faith bears witness to the call to “stand in the gaps between being free yet not [fully] free, without becoming lost” in those gaps.[7] This faith calls all who love freedom not to hopelessness, but to “a restless hope.”[8] A Restless hope. I feel called into precisely that place that recognizes the existence of the contradictions, wants to be true and real about that, and to hope with restlessness, moving forward in transformation.

“Into what were you baptized?” our passage from the Acts of the Apostles asked (Acts 19:3). We were baptized into the body of Christ. We were buried with Christ when we were baptized, as Paul put it in his letter to the Romans (6:3-4), so that we might be raised with him. And Christ was baptized into the body of restless humanity, of a creation crying out in birth and death. Jesus was immersed in our waters. And that takes me back to our call to immerse in one another’s waters. As hard as it is sometimes to cross the threshold and jump into the pool, we are called to do that. We are called to jump into the water with one another in solidarity, to be about the work of freedom with all who are oppressed. We are in this struggle together. We need one another. And God in Jesus Christ is with us, strengthening us, reminding us that the God of freedom calls us to be free and be about one another’s freedom. As we make our way forward, may we remember our own baptism, our presence with one another in the water, and know that Christ’s own baptism immersed him with us. Thanks be to God for that.

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/05/us/politics/raphael-warnock-georgia-senate.html [2] https://www.nytimes.com/live/2021/01/06/us/electoral-vote [3] Kelly Brown Douglas, Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God (New York: Church Publishing, (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2015) [4] Douglas, 164 [5] https://mailchi.mp/8fb956c7a60c/memory-grief-hope-life-the-flame-for-thursday-may-14-12923039?e=[UNIQID] quoting Astead Herndon, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/08/us/politics/trump-georgia-capitol-racism.html . The section of this part of Douglas’ book on p. 164 is called “The Paradoxical Meaning of Black Faith.” [6] Douglas, 164 [7] Douglas, 165 [8] Douglas, 165

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