A Problem with Baptism?

One of the things that the church encountered in its wrestling with making sense of the Gospel, was a fundamental problem with Jesus’ baptism. Baptism is the foundation upon which we understand what it means to adopted through Christ into the household of God. In the sacrament, we say things like we are buried with Christ in his death. By it we share in Christ’s resurrection, and through these waters of baptism we are reborn by the Holy Spirit. The whole reason we understand this rite as a sacrament is because we can point in the scriptures to where Jesus did it. We’re doing just what he did. In other words, we’re following in the footsteps of our Lord and Saviour. We move closer to the perfection of Christ in doing such things. This perfection is part of the nature of the Saviour.

We assert that Christ is perfect and sinless. In the 39 Articles of Religion, which we’ve published in The Book of Common Prayer for your convenience, we state in Article 15 on page 870 that “Christ was made like us in all things, except for sin; from which he was clearly void, both in his flesh, and in his spirit. He came to be the Lamb without spot, who, by the sacrifice of himself takes away the sins of the world; and sin (as they quote from First John) was not in him.” This is our baseline from which we understand the nature of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. He was perfect and sinless.

Then we read in the story of his baptism that that sinless perfection might not be the case. In the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke we read that the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to John to be baptized in the river Jordan, confessing their sins, because John baptized with water for repentance. Do you see where this is going?

People were getting baptized as part of a process of being forgiven their sins. If Jesus went down to the Jordan River to be baptized, he must have had some kind of sin. Shocking? Yes! It must have been to many as Christian theology and doctrine began to take shape. The faith that has been handed down to us, and our acts of trying to make perfect sense of it all come into conflict. What are we supposed to do about this conundrum?

As I’ve said before, our faith is alive and dynamic because is surprises us with ideas that force us to keep discerning what it is we’re doing, and why we insist on following Jesus as our Lord and Saviour. There are inconsistencies, and sometimes contradictions in the very scriptures that form the backbone of our faith. We struggle with the promises we made at our baptisms; the same promises that we will renew in a few minutes. That’s part of the point of the Christian faith; that tussle for the truth. That’s an integral part of the Way of Jesus.

Remember that the whole context of baptism is changed when Jesus takes part in it. As far as we can tell his was the last baptism in the Gospels. There are accounts of baptism further into the New Testament, but as far as the accounts of Jesus’ earthly life and ministry, that’s it. Once Jesus came out of the water, neither the water, nor anyone who followed him through it was ever going to be the same again. Jesus perfected it and cleansed everyone who followed him of all their sins.

I don’t think this is a case of Jesus going into the water to be purified of sin. I think Jesus went into it absorb the sins that had been washed away from everyone who came before him, and truly make the water pure for everyone who comes after him. That’s a beautiful epiphany for the Season of Epiphany in our faith: that Jesus absorbed the sins of the world. Perhaps his baptism was the beginning of his sacrifice for us.

What do you think?