Whether we realize it or not, we have probably just heard one of the more embarrassing or awkward stories about Jesus recorded in the gospels: his baptism in the Jordan by John, a baptism of “repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” The fact that it’s a story covered by every gospel of the four is a signal that, well, it really happened, though each gospel writer handles it a bit differently.
Mark tells it quickly, as if ripping off a Band-Aid. Matthew has John protesting that he shouldn’t baptize Jesus at all—with Jesus reassuring him that everything will be OK. John just barely mentions it, as if in passing—moving on… For his part Luke doesn’t even call special attention to Jesus’ participation—Jesus was evidently just lined up with everyone else.
Why was this so embarrassing that every gospel has to cover it, to make sense of it? Was it because it made John look like the teacher of Jesus, or because it made it look like Jesus had sins that needed forgiving? Or both?
Truly, it’s pretty likely that Jesus was indeed a disciple of John at the beginning of his ministry, and some of the gospel stories hint at a conflict between them—specifically that some disciples of John left him to go and follow Jesus (with John’s blessing, so the story goes). And we also know that among early believers there was a conflict between those who believed Jesus to be the Messiah and a group of hold-outs who thought it was John. Looks like there may have been a bit of embarrassment even then, a little awkwardness that kept going for a 100 years or so.
Not that Jesus’ awkward and sometimes embarrassing behavior ended when the Holy Spirit descended on him at his baptism. This is the Savior who was literally born in a barn after all, and Jesus keeps it up all the way to that embarrassing death in Jerusalem: He eats and drinks with tax collectors and sinners, including the infamous Zachaeus; he not only talks to women, he even lets them be disciples (!!), such as Mary of Bethany, and some of them even funded the operation, including the woman we know as Mary Magdalene; he heals the slave boy of a Roman centurion, one of Israel’s imperial occupiers. I wonder how that went over...
And that doesn’t even cover what he teaches, notably an offensive parable about a so-called “good Samaritan,” one considered a heretic and traitor by those who heard it, but who turns out to be a better neighbor than the best of Israelite Jews in the story. Then there’s the one about prodigal father with no self-respect whatsoever, who forgives his ingrate son, the one who told his dad that he wished he was dead so he could have his inheritance early, and go and blow it all in the ancient equivalent of Las Vegas.
And, to top it all off, according to this gospel of Luke we read for this whole year, it’s exactly through all these awkward and embarrassing ways that the kingdom of God comes near and the whole world gets saved. And it all starts with that awkward and embarrassing baptism, the one we incidentally share, and which we are going to renew again in just a few minutes. And I think all those awkward parts are worth thinking about, even embracing, as we make our promises once again.
First off, if any of us ever wonder if there is something about us that makes us unworthy to be a part of the body of Christ, anything about ourselves that we find embarrassing or awkward, or even ginormous mistakes or sins in our past (or in our future), we can rest assured: If the story of Jesus and his ministry is any indication, much less the history of the church, there’s nothing that baptism cannot forgive, reconcile, and heal in us, as well as give us strength to make amends and stay faithful to the gospel road Christ lays before us.
Even more, and maybe more importantly, some of the differences or characteristics we bring to that font and this Table, especially those that seem awkward or that others have suggested we should be embarrassed about but are part of who we really are—those may be the exact ones that God is blessing and affirming in us through our baptism into the body of our embarrassing Lord.
Which leads to a consequence, for lack of a better word, of that same baptism, which is simply that it may require us to examine again those attitudes that we may have about our own equivalents of Samaritans and centurions, tax collectors and sinners, women or men or folks in between, anyone who doesn’t fit our own categories of what is “respectable.” It may be that our own attitudes about what is awkward or embarrassing may not quite line up with our awkward and embarrassing Teacher who not only didn’t let any of that get in his way, but deliberately crossed all those boundaries and made his place with the shamed and excluded and mistreated. And to follow him in baptism means to do as he did.
To me, embracing the awkward in both ourselves and others looks like two sides of the same embarrassing coin, and acknowledging both sides steers us toward living more deeply the divine truth at the heart of this story of Jesus’ baptism: “You are my child, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” No matter what. Or, as the prophet Isaiah put it centuries before: “I have called you by name, you are mine. You are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.”
That is the blessing God speaks upon all of us in our baptism, without reserve, and it’s the down payment on the universal blessing God pronounces on everyone and everything that God has made. So, if you’re still willing, let us gather at the font and make present once again the awkward and embarrassing moment that started it all.