Baptism has always been a problem. The first time it was a problem was when Jesus came to be baptized by John. After all, if Jesus is the Messiah, why in the world would He need to be baptized? Each of the evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John struggles with this question in one way or another, but St. Matthew’s discomfort is most clearly stated.
Matthew puts his dilemma into the exchange that takes place between Jesus and John, which only St. Matthew records. John protests: “I need to be baptized by You, and do You come to me?” You get the idea that John’s hesitancy is also Matthew’s question. And Jesus grants the awkwardness of the situation.
But just like back in Advent when Joseph was caught in the dilemma of what to do about his pregnant fiancée, Mary, and yet remain a righteousness man, so also here in this dilemma. Jesus is the cause of the dilemma, but at the same time He is also the way out! Jesus tells John (as the angel told Joseph) that as odd as all of this may seem, go right ahead. “Let it be so for now.” Why? Because in this way they will “fulfill all righteousness.”
Well, that may solve Matthew’s initial problem of Jesus being baptized by John, but Christians ever since have struggled with a second, related question: Why is Jesus even baptized at all? Given that we connect Baptism to the forgiveness of sin, if Jesus is the sinless Son of God, in what way does He need to be baptized? What sort of righteousness needs to be fulfilled? Or, to put it more bluntly, what does Jesus get out of it?
On this point, all the evangelists agree: Jesus’ Baptism announces God’s favor and establishes Jesus’ identity as Messiah, the Anointed One, the Christ. In St. Matthew’s account the voice from heaven announces that Jesus is God’s beloved Son, the One with whom God is well pleased. So for Jesus His Baptism is about commissioning, the inauguration of His ministry and the promise of God’s presence in that whole righteous mission.
Which is exactly what St. Matthew emphasizes at the end of His Gospel where Baptism is the commission of the disciples to go into all the world with Jesus’ ministry of righteousness.
So after these two problems are addressed, a third one still remains: what does Baptism mean to us? Or, to be really blunt, why does Baptism mean so little to us?
Okay, maybe that’s a bit harsh. After all, most of us still make something of a big deal of a child’s baptism. But while the day itself may be a big deal, our appreciation for Baptism tends to end right there.
When I come to study the Sacrament of Holy Baptism in confirmation class I always ask the kids if they know the date of their baptism. In 28 years I have never had a student know that date. And I confess to them that for years I never knew mine either.
But when I ask if any of them knows the date of their birth, no one doesn’t know that date! Of course they know it. Since the day they were born, the anniversary of their birth is celebrated with cake and candles, with presents, and all sorts of hoopla! And some are really big, like 16 or 21. A year doesn’t go by without the hoopla…even if, after a while, you’re getting appalled at how many candles are showing up on that cake!
But with baptism, while cake and presents and hoopla surround the day itself…it ends right there! The day of our birth into a life which will inevitably end with death is celebrated with gusto. But the day of our rebirth into a life that will never end…meh…
Now some Christians solve this dilemma by taking Baptism away from Jesus and making it all about “me”! Baptism is my choice, my act, my obedience, my belief, my decision. Me, me, me, me, me! And to make it an even bigger deal, get bigger water…down to the river, at the lakeshore, in a big tank, out in a swimming pool. Big water! Big me! …big deal!
Clearly that is no answer, although it’s been around for a few centuries. Nor can a preacher instill appreciation for Holy Baptism by haranguing his listeners about their less-than-enthusiastic feelings toward this Sacrament…as though the beatings will continue until morale improves!
No, the solution to any problem involving Jesus rests with Jesus Himself, not by making His problem our problem! And this is what St. Matthew does in all dilemmas in his Gospel. Jesus is the cause of the dilemma and Jesus is the solution.
Okay, Matthew, so what is your Jesus solution in this episode? St. Matthew’s solution is there in Jesus’ words: “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.”
Jesus doesn’t deny that John has a valid objection. “Hey Jesus! We got this backwards. I should be baptized by You!” It’s just like the angel’s words to Joseph in chapter 1. It wasn’t as if Joseph didn’t have a valid complaint. His deep sense of righteousness was blasted apart by his fiancée’s pregnancy. And the angel doesn’t try to say otherwise. Nevertheless, the very thing which had caused Joseph’s righteous upheaval, baby Jesus, is the very thing that would fulfill all righteousness.
So here, the Jesus who steps into the water for Baptism blows John’s mind and any definition of righteousness which John could recite! And yet…by stepping into the water, Jesus does indeed fulfill all righteousness because He is the one in the water.
And that’s the deal! Because Jesus is in it, it changes how righteousness is fulfilled. Baptism is NOT something we must do to fulfill some sort of righteousness. Nor is Baptism merely this bucket-full of benefits—forgiveness, eternal life, salvation—which we get if we do the deed. Baptism is, in fact, a Jesus participation thing. Because Jesus is there in the water, righteousness is fulfilled, and these great gifts, these benefits, are there because that’s what happens when Jesus participates.
To emphasize that, Jesus says, “It is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” “For us,” He says. It’s not just Jesus doing His Jesus thing. It’s a participation thing. Because Jesus is in the Jordan, John participates in this fulfillment. Because Jesus is in the font, everyone who is baptized is part of this fulfillment!
So what is fulfilled? Righteousness. Whose righteousness? Not ours. Not John’s. Not old Joseph’s. It’s God’s righteousness. And St. Matthew is going to drive that point all the way through his Gospel until he gets to Good Friday and Easter.
Because there on Good Friday, it’s not just Jesus up there doing His crucifixion thing. It’s a participation. Jesus is every sinner on that cross. He’s you. He’s me. “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” He will shout, as many a human being has thought or shouted at some point or another. Death and divine judgment, this ultimate righteous dilemma, isn’t just simply waved away. It’s solved, fulfilled, by Jesus’ participation in it.
So He participates with us who die, that by His resurrection, we who die shall live because the resurrection is Jesus’ ultimate participatory act! Not just me, me, me… It’s us, us, us all the way. A participation. Jesus with us. Us with Jesus. And God’s righteousness is fulfilled.
And that, finally, brings us back around to the question about appreciating Baptism. Holy Baptism doesn’t require cake and candles and presents and hoopla every year for us to appreciate it. It doesn’t require anything from us because it’s a participation thing with Jesus.
Which means that the appreciation will come all on its own, as St. Matthew shows us by his next chapter. (But the way the calendar is set up, we don’t get that next chapter until the first Sunday in Lent.) Chapter 4 is Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. There in the wilderness everything that happened in His Baptism is put to the test. In the wilderness Jesus comes to appreciate all that He is as the beloved Son, with whom God is well-pleased.
So we too, having shared that water with Him, we too are thrust into the wilderness of a world where we learn to appreciate who we are and what we have because Jesus participates in our Baptism. This wild, wild life, with the good we would but do not, and the evil we would not but we do…oh yes, life quickly teaches us a great appreciation for who we are and what we have as God’s beloved in Holy Baptism.
Jesus participates with us. With us! And because that means that our participation is with Him in Holy Baptism…with who He is and with what He has…well…considering all of that, our appreciation for what happened in that water has only just begun!