When does Jesus become Jesus?
The Gospel of John tells us that Jesus has always been, from the beginning of time: in the beginning was the Word. Luke and Matthew emphasize all the signs that occur while Mary is pregnant and when Jesus is born. His birth is the time he arrives among us, according to these gospels. But in the gospel of Mark, there’s no mention of any of this. Instead, this gospel begins with Jesus’ baptism.
John is in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Lots of people are going out to hear him: people from all over the Judean countryside and even from the great city of Jerusalem. Many are baptized by John in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
Jesus joins these throngs of people. Apparently, he is just one of the crowd. No one seems to know who he is. Nothing seems to mark him as special. Nothing, that is, until it is his turn to be baptized. As Jesus comes up out of the water, he sees the heavens torn apart. The Holy Spirit descends on him like a dove and a voice comes from heaven, saying: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Amazing.
In this gospel, Jesus’ baptism is the moment when Jesus becomes recognizably Jesus: holy, special, singled out. Strangely, however, the text doesn’t tell us if anyone else notices. It is Jesus who sees the heavens torn apart. Was it only Jesus who saw that? Was it only Jesus who felt the Holy Spirit, or heard the voice from heaven? It hardly seems to matter. Jesus has this amazing baptismal experience: and that experience starts him off on a journey towards his calling.
This week, our President was in the midst of a discussion about immigration when he said some words denigrating Caribbean and African nations – words I will not repeat here. I’m sure I don’t need to. You’ve heard them already. Looking out from his vantage point as a wealthy white American man, he expressed his utter disregard and disgust for people with less wealth, with different skin colors, with different cultural and political backgrounds, with more recent American immigration dates.
The president’s comments were profane, but that is not the worst thing about them. These comments and many of the reactions to them demonstrate the continuing power of white supremacy in our nation. Too many believe that white skin and wealth and power are what make people valuable: worthy of citizenship, worthy of human rights, worthy of compassion.
The lies of white supremacy are not only vile in and of themselves. They are worthy of our deepest condemnation because they purposefully obscure and ultimately legitimize the most shameful parts of our collective history. The economic inequality we witness today both within and beyond our country is not the result of a difference in capability or effort, or even the result of chance. It is, instead, the result of a systematic stripping of resources from the hands and lands of people of color. Our white European and American for-bearers took what they wanted to enrich themselves and justified it with racism. We even took people. We took people, people our white fore-bearers kidnapped and enslaved.
To now denigrate and despise those whom we and our ancestors have wronged does not demonstrate American greatness. Instead, it adds grave insult to a devastatingly vast and infinitely painful injustice, a national crime.
Thankfully, the voices of people like our President are not the only ones we hear in this nation. This weekend we give thanks for the life of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.. By extension, we also celebrate the movements that he was a part of: movements for civil rights, and for the alleviation of poverty, and for the end of the Vietnam War.
Each of these movements was animated by countless leaders with powerful voices. King had a particular gift for communicating our call to both justice and compassion. He also painted a clear picture of the evil that stood in the way of these goals. He said:
Now we all should seek to live a well-adjusted life…But there are some things within our social system to which all of us ought to be maladjusted. I never intend to adjust myself to the evils of segregation and the crippling effects of discrimination. I never intend to adjust myself to the inequalities of an economic system which takes necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes. I never intend to become adjusted to the madness of militarism and the self-defeating method of physical violence.
It may be that the salvation of the world lies in the hands of the maladjusted…As maladjusted as Jesus who could say to the men and women of his generation, “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that despitefully use you.”
Quoted from James Melvin Washington, ed., A Testament of Hope: e Essential Writings of Martin Luther King Jr. (Harper & Row Publishers, 1986)
As we witness what is happening in our nation today, we are still called to maladjustment. We are called to be maladjusted to hate speech. Maladjusted to white supremacy. Maladjusted to every form of cruelty and selfishness and violence and dehumanization and falsehood.
And how shall we do this? How can we be maladjusted, especially as so many of us benefit from the wrongs in our nation?
When we baptize babies, at our font; when people young and old come of their own volition to be washed in the waters of baptism; we talk about evil. Resisting evil. This is no joke. Evil exists, and it is powerful. I know of nothing so powerful in resisting evil as what is given to us at the font: the knowledge of God’s blessing and the welcoming of the presence of God’s Holy Spirit.
Jesus isn’t the only one who experienced the transformation of baptism. Many years after the events of our gospel lesson, the Apostle Paul is traveling to share the good news of Jesus’ teachings and resurrection. He comes to the city of Ephesus, where there is already a small gathering of Jesus-followers. A little house church. And Paul asks, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?”
They reply, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” So Paul baptizes them, and lays his hands on them. And the Holy Spirit comes upon them, and they speak in tongues and prophesy. Suddenly, they have power that they never had before, God-given power for truth, and witness. Power that continues within them, now that they know the Holy Spirit can work in them.
We are baptized once, in this tradition, if at all. But baptism isn’t just about the moment when it occurs – although that moment is often amazing. Baptism is about receiving the message that we are beloved children of God, and about welcoming the movement of the Holy Spirit within us. For the long term.
We are each beloved, baptized or not; Haitian or Norwegian; Namibian or American; President, everyday citizen, or refugee. And the Holy Spirit seeks to move in all of us, empowering us to become more and more who God intends us to be.
So when the voices and practices of hate grow around us, we have a way to resist that evil. We will still know who we are. We can even help everyone else to remember too, and continue to tell one another: Beloved, beloved, beloved. Beloved children; beloved communities. Beloved.
We’ll begin to sing in a moment. As we do, I’ll be going around sharing a little water with you. I hope you will remember or imagine or anticipate your own baptism. And I hope you will remember that you are God’s beloved child, and that the Spirit moves in you. This whole world is full of God’s beloved children, and full of God’s Spirit, always at work for the good of the whole. Thanks be to God.