I spent the first half of the year portraying the Bible as the freeing thing that it is instead of the enslaving thing that we’ve made it. And I’ve spent the second half of the year working on your spirituality becoming more earthy. So today we’re going to tackle what you surely have been thinking is the most obvious question.
Why was Jesus baptized?
(didn’t see that coming, did you?)
The Bible provides little about Jesus’s life until the day he went to the Jordan River to visit his thunderous but mysterious cousin, John. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke inform us that John was immersing large crowds in the Jordan River in a “baptism of repentance.” Jesus traveled among the crowds to participate in these baptisms. Now, before I go any further, let’s stop right there and pay attention to what should be a nagging problem.
According to all the atonement theory I heard growing up, God needs stuff to die when we sin and Jesus could perfectly atone for our sins as a sacrifice only if he himself was a perfect sacrifice. Yet, the only baptisms we find in the New Testament are John’s baptism of repentance and Peter’s baptism for the forgiveness of sins. According to Paul, when we are baptized we enter into Jesus’s death, burial, and resurrection. And, of course, we read that to mean: I’m a wretched sinner, but Jesus as the sinless sacrifice means I get my sins forgiven! I’m saved! Hallelujah!
We baptize thousands of frightened young teenagers in summer camps all over the country by convincing them that that one time they masturbated means God now views them as a loathsome spider, and they will spend eternity in a scorching and searing torture chamber—unless they accept the perfect sacrifice of Jesus Christ!
(and we wonder why kids leave their upbringings with all kinds of psychological problems)
Except . . . wait a second.
Wait just one second.
If Jesus was the perfect atoning sacrifice who never sinned—who never needed to repent of anything—then what was he doing at his cousin’s baptism of repentance extravaganza in the Jordan River?
Of course, the church of Christ (my tribe) has a quick theological answer for this (as we always do when we get backed into a theological corner). In order to protect our tight biblical scheme, we like to say that Jesus would never ask us to do something he wasn’t willing to do himself, and so he set the example to emphasize that we either do that little thing in water or else burn in fire for eternity. And that does it. We swiftly move on from the temptation in the desert through the rest of Jesus’s life—not asking too many questions about what we find there—until we reach the writings of Paul where we really stop and savor good old atonement theology.
But, really. Is that it? Is that really the point of the whole baptism story? Is that the point of Paul’s writings on atonement? Is that the whole point of life? Believe in Jesus and get in some water and you’ll be saved from fire?
(Really, this is a point for another post, but if conservative Christians understood Paul’s writings more critically, I’m convinced we’d use them nowhere near as much as we currently do.)
Well, I think that is a miserable understanding of Jesus, Jesus’s baptism, Paul’s letters and the years you’ll spend on this planet of coral reefs and glaciers and swamps and rainforests and beaches and mountains and deserts and sunsets and wind and rain and sunshine. The good thing is there’s a better way of understanding the story—a way that doesn’t suck all the life out of the thing. But it requires more critical reading than we usually bring to the Bible.
The first thing you need to notice about the story of Jesus’s baptism is what Luke does immediately afterwards. Unfortunately, that thing is the very thing that your attention-sapped brain is almost certain to ignore: a genealogy.
Not just a genealogy.
But a long one.
Full of names you don’t know.
Or care about.
(And—most importantly—one that has nothing to do with what one must do to get out of Hell.)
Do not ever skip a genealogy. Never ever, ever. If ever there was a sin worthy of being consigned to the weeping and gnashing of teeth in the outer darkness, skipping a genealogy in the Bible might be that sin. You need to understand that every time you read your Bible and it suddenly forces you to read a genealogy—a long one full of names you don’t know or care about and you think “this has nothing to do with what I must do to get out of Hell”—what your Bible is really doing is making an important argument about something.
When Jesus comes out of the water, the story tells us that a voice comes out of Heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” In the baptism story, God announces from the Heavens that Jesus is the son of God. Remember that when you read the genealogy, which states as follows: “Now Jesus himself was about thirty years old when he began his ministry. He was the son, so it was thought, of Joseph, the son of Heli . . . [skipping a lot] . . . the son of Seth, the son of Adam, the son of God.”
That’s very interesting. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus gets baptized, God announces Jesus as the son of God, and, immediately after that, we read a genealogy in which Adam is named the son of God. And if you’re wondering whether Luke wants you to connect those two things, you are absolutely right. Luke wants you to connect Jesus with what happened in the Hebrew creation myth of Genesis.
On day one, God saw what he made and said that it was good (“tov”).
On day two, God saw what he made and said that it was good.
On day three, God saw what he made and said that it was good. (twice actually)
On day four, God saw what he made and said that it was good.
On day five, God saw what he made and said that it was good.
On day six, God made plants, animals, and humans, and God saw what he made on that day and said that it was very good (“tov meod”).
The story of the Old Testament is the story of how God made everything in the beginning to be tov but greedy systems of oppression, injustice, inequality, poverty, war, and empire (played out in the narrative of the Old Testament and symbolized in the garden story that itself is a repurposing of important national myths from the mighty Babylonian empire) separated humanity from God’s adama tov (“good earth”). It should be no surprise then that Jesus’s baptism took place in the same river where the Israelite’s historical myths recorded that they entered the land of Canaan (and slaughtered everyone they found). Jesus’s baptism is in one sense a kind of redo. A kind of lets-start-from-the-beginning-and-try-again. A return not just to the entry into the promised land but a return to the original blessing that all created things are good.
Luke wants you to think of Jesus as the new Adam.
Not as one who came so we could separate ourselves from the Earth. Or who came to announce that we should live in accordance with only those things that fit into neat religious categories.
God loves the Earth. He loves the cherry blossoms in Japan. The Grand Canyon in Arizona. He loves the Northern Lights in Iceland. The sequoia redwood trees in California. The Alps of Switzerland. The rice fields of Vietnam. The cotton fields of the Mississippi Delta.
He loves brown bears. And antelope. And hippos. And kangaroos. And eagles. And alligators. And lions. And big dogs. And small dogs. And those little bitty dogs in the toy category of the National Dog Show. And maybe a few cats.
He loves humans. And human culture. He loves the English language. The French language. The Chinese language. The Swahili language. He loves the riddled poetry of T.S Elliot. The literary triumphs of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. He loves the Delta Blues songs that were sung on Saturday nights by black plantation workers in Mississippi and the gospel music songs that were sung by those same plantation workers on Sunday mornings. He loves the paintings of Marc Chagall and Mark Rothko. He loves the heartbreak of Beethoven’s symphonies and Shakespeare’s sonnets. And plenty more.
But what God doesn’t love are the systems of Caesar, Pharaoh, and Nebuchadnezzar. Systems that work for some but don’t work for most.
This is what John the Apostle meant when he wrote “do not love the world or anything in the world.” When John wrote those words, he wasn’t questioning the first chapter of Genesis. He wasn’t arguing against God, who said it was good. He wasn’t arguing with Jesus who said that God so loved the world that he sent his only son to save it. He wasn’t saying that what Jesus really meant was God sent his only son to save us from it. No, he was warning us not to love the systems of power he observed in the world that had not yet been reconciled in the image of Christ (which he calls “the lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes, and the pride of life”). He was warning us against systems that seduce us into feelings of power, but ultimately bring about suffering to most of the world.
And this is the sin from which Jesus repented when he made the long hike down from Galilee to the Jordan River. We confess that Jesus committed no individual sins, and I have no qualm with that.
As we confess that Jesus saves us from our sins, Jesus’s baptism in the Jordan calls us to question what exactly that means. I think Jesus’s baptism is a recognition that our primary sin is the sin we do as a group—as a nation—as a planet. A recognition that we are all in this together. A recognition that you cannot separate the individual from the system. Jesus lived in systems that separated the mass of humanity from the good creation that the poets of the post Babylonian exile described in Genesis. He grew up in and lived in them.
And because—as John’s words reverberated throughout the countryside—the kingdom of Heaven was at hand, Jesus repented of the system.
I’ve been talking about systems for several posts now. God’s care for them is central to a proper and complete understanding of the Bible. It is central to what Jesus calls “abundant life”. Yet, most conservative, atonement-theory Christians simply aren’t good at this. We lump all of life into (1) things that fit into our atonement-for-sins-so-we-don’t-burn-in-fire theology and (2) everything else. Once we’ve successfully placed everything into the holy and the profane (or “spiritual” and “worldly”) we celebrate the one and neglect the other, thinking we’re being godly.
I’m calling Christians to a more earthy, more Jewish theology. A theology in which everything is spiritual. A theology of rocks and trees and soil. Of sweat. A theology of wine. A theology of justice. A theology of peace.
I’m calling Christians to turn their gaze away from some invisible place beyond the clouds (where nothing is changing) and return it down to God’s adama tov.
The amount you can learn about God from trying to use your Bible to escape this world pales in comparison to what you will learn by sitting in the mountains, reading great literature, listening to Delta blues, eating strange foods with foreigners, and involving yourself with the most vulnerable people in your midst.