Have you ever known a polar bear? I don’t mean the real bear type bear. I mean those nutcases who decide that the best way to celebrate the new year is by finding a semi-ice-covered body of water and jumping in. There must be some sort of sanity gene missing from these folks. I have even read of mishaps taking place during this annual polar bear swim: heart attacks, frostbite, chilblains - whatever those are. Yet, they keep doing it. Not only that, but they seem evangelistic about it. They talk about what a wonderful experience it is; they bubble over with enthusiasm; they invite folks to join them in their madness: “Come on in; the water’s fine!”
I’m always suspicious when someone tells me that. Even in the heat of summer, when a friend is swimming in a pool or lake and tells me not to worry, the water’s fine, I don’t trust him. I don’t like the chill of plunging into icy water. Oh, it can be refreshing when you are sweating like crazy, and the air temperature hits three digits. But most of the time, I’m reluctant. I don’t like to shiver. I don’t like to lose the feeling in my toes.
At the same time, I don’t like being left out. When it looks like folks are having fun and I’m standing on the shore watching, my desire to join in the party overrides my fear of freezing, and I’ll jump in too. Or wade in. Slowly. But I’ll get there eventually.
John stood in the waters of the Jordan River and shouted out, “Come on in; the water’s fine.” And some joined him, and others stood on the shore. He had a word or two for those on the shore, but that is a different passage. Today, we look at one who took him up on the invitation and joined him in the waters.
There are just a whole lot of issues that grow out of this little gospel moment, and I can’t pretend to deal with them all here. We know how seriously the church takes these things by the level of debate surrounding baptism issues. First of all, there is the infant versus believer baptism; then there is the methodological question, followed by the liturgical issues (such as do you invoke the whole Trinity or simply baptize in the name of Jesus?). All of these matters have been hotly debated for centuries and are no closer to resolution than they were at the beginning.
And don’t look for me to resolve them all here either! I am a United Methodist and hold to the validity of infant baptism, but accept those who choose believer’s baptism as well. I am a United Methodist and recognize that our tradition is overwhelmingly weighted toward sprinkling, but have taken baptismal candidates to pools and rivers and fonts from neighboring congregations for immersion baptism. I use the liturgy our church provides that emphasizes the Trinity (in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit) but also acknowledge that our understanding of the sacrament as a whole comes from Jesus directly.
And I can find meaning in all of it. I can find justification for baptizing in a variety of ways, in a variety of settings, with a variety of words. But there is one dimension that has to be present, in my way of thinking.
When Jesus climbed down the bank into the river, John was shocked. How he knew who Jesus was, we aren’t told. Maybe it is something from their shared family history that gave John the clue as to who was standing in front of him. Maybe it was a whisper from the Spirit in John’s ear as Jesus approached and what he heard made him think that something was wrong in the way this scene was playing out. Maybe there is just something about the face of Jesus that caused fishermen to leave their nets and broken people to reach out in hope and powerful people to tremble in their boots and this wild man from the desert to want to fall to his knees and be blessed instead of attempting to confer a blessing. We don’t know what happened to cause John to say what he said. Or caused Matthew to record what he said. But something did. Some sense of what was right and what was wrong. And John’s sense of what was right was that Jesus should be the one blessing, should be the one baptizing.
Yet, Jesus says, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness" (3:15). Let it be so for now? What does that mean? Let’s go through the motions? Let’s pretend for now? And what is this righteousness that Jesus is trying to fulfill?
The truth is, we don’t really know what this means. We have some guesses, and some are more certain than others. But we don’t really know. What makes sense to me is that Jesus is saying, “I want to join the party. I want to be seen joining the party. I want my ministry, my life, my witness to be one about becoming a part of the body, about joining up with the kingdom of God.”
John’s hesitation has to do with, some say, his understanding of baptism being one of repentance, of forgiveness of sins. And this man had no need to have sins forgiven. So, why would he consent to this baptism? Maybe Jesus’ view of what was happening was larger. Maybe John, and most of us, think of repentance as turning away. When we repent, we turn away from our sins, our life of sin. We are sorry for what had gone on before; we are sorry for what we had done before and we are pledging to not engage in those behaviors again. That is how we understand repentance.
But what if Jesus understood repentance to be primarily a turning toward? What if the gesture that Jesus was making was one of inclusion or acceptance or entrance? This was a beginning moment for the ministry that Jesus would perform. This was a sign that something new was about to be launched. And this new thing was nothing less than the kingdom of God, nothing less than a new way of living in community.
Righteousness refers to being faithful to relationships. You cannot be righteous all by yourself. You are righteous with God and righteous with one another. Righteousness implies a relationship. The necessary requirement for baptism in The United Methodist Church is the community. Baptism is a corporate act; it is almost always done as a part of worship. And when in extreme cases it is not a part of a regular worship service, then the community must be represented. Baptism is an entrance into the fellowship of believers; it is a joining up with the body. Once you have been baptized, you are never alone. There is always a family around you. You have joined something larger than yourself, which is sometimes startling, but always worthwhile.
Come on in; the water’s fine.