As an inauguration approaches in 21st century America, the church calendar takes us back to another inauguration in 1st century Palestine. Jesus began his public ministry by being plunged under the running waters of the Jordan river.
(“The Baptism of Jesus”, by Antoine Coypel, 1661 – 1722)
It is a deep mystery why the Sinless One would submit to being baptized by his cousin John. John’s baptism was one of repentance. It was a purification rite to ceremonially cleanse people of sin. Baptism was not something a perfect God-man would require.
John said as much when Jesus approached: “I should be baptized by you.” Jesus’ answer was short and cryptic: “Let it be so, to fulfill all righteousness.”
One Rev John Watson, a 19th century Scottish Presbyterian, described Jesus’ motives this way:
What Jesus desired was to forget His perfect purity and Divine dignity, and to plunge into the very depths of ordinary sinning, sorrowful human life. In His pity and sympathy, Jesus desired to lift the burden, which would be on His own shoulders, but could be no part of Himself. According to the excusable idea of the Baptist, his Lord should have gathered His white garments around Him with fastidious care and stood alone on the banks, while at His feet the waters were stained with the sins of poor struggling humanity. But according to the heart of Jesus He must descend into the midst of the river so that in the end what neither the water of the Jordan nor any other could do would be accomplished by His lifelong Passion and His death. This baptism was a sacrament of the messianic love–a pledge of utter devotion to His fellow men, a symbol of identification with Humanity. (The Life of the Master. New York: McClure, Phillips, 1901).
Today, we celebrate this great mystery. Jesus didn’t need baptism, but he chose to undergo it as a way to identify with us, and to inaugurate his ministry.
In the aftermath of the tragic shooting in South Carolina, a shockingly racist hate crime, this bit piqued my interest:
What too many whites seem to demand from these families’ statements, however, isn’t really grace. As the journalist Jamelle Bouie pointed out, people like Santorum insist on what the German theologian and anti-Nazi freedom fighter Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace” — the “preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance” from those who have sinned. The forgiveness they want is so cheap that I can only call it “Wal-Mart grace”: low-priced but shoddy, destructive of real community and built on exploitation.
Source: LA Times editorial online at: http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-0625-baptist-charleston-forgiveness-20150625-story.html
The author goes on to suggest a theological error–that whites need to atone for their years of racism. As if they could do so. In fact, the heart of the gospel is this: We cannot atone for our own sins. Only Jesus can pay that price.
However, while we can’t atone for the past, we can choose a better future. We go forward trying to live differently, and making what amends we can out of love and gratitude. The word that the author should have chosen here is the word “repentance”. This is the word that Bonhoeffer chose. For even as Jesus says “I forgive you”, he also says, “go, and sin no more.” To do otherwise is indeed to cheapen that precious gift of grace.
The movie directed by Angelina Jolie tells of the remarkable experiences of Louis Zamperini during WWII. Apparently something remarkable happened after the war, as well.
His marriage on the rocks, his life in shambles, he went to a meeting by the evangelist Billy Graham:
“The moment the invitation began, he grabbed his wife’s hand and headed toward the exit. But in the aisle, overwhelmed by the realization of how broken his life had become, he turned around and gave his life to Jesus Christ in repentance and faith. He left the tent with God’s complete forgiveness.
“From that day forward, everything changed. He started reading the Bible. His nightmares disappeared, he gave up drinking, his hatred and violent anger melted away, and he began to live for Christ.”
Read it all: http://billygraham.org/story/franklin-graham-the-rest-of-the-unbroken-story/?SOURCE=BL151YEBL&utm_source=prayer+letter+email&utm_medium=bgemail&utm_campaign=bgemailnewsletter&content=12.30.14