The week’s lectionary passage takes us to the familiar home of John 3:1-17. It’s hard to resist the homiletical allure of preaching John 3:16, yet like the perennial texts we face at Christmas and Easter, is there anything new to be said about these most well-known verses of the four gospels?
If there’s anything about this passage that I find unavoidable, it’s the emphasis on God’s love. “For God so loved the world,” Jesus says to Nicodemus. Unfortunately, we often gloss over those words and read them as a prologue to the more important, “that he gave us his only begotten son.” They are the key to understanding verses 16 and 17, perhaps the whole pericope.
I don’t want to move on so quickly because we might miss something about the relationship between love and creation. Secondly, with this gift of love and creation comes a great responsibility that goes far beyond “belief” in the son who was sent “to us.” To understand our role in our relationship with God, we need verse 17. If we believe in the son who was gifted to us, we are accepting the terms of the gift, that the gift came not to condemn and further the same love of humanity that prompted the gift in the first place. That’s why the pericope doesn’t stop with verse 16.
Other religious traditions, particularly in the ancient world, show God (or gods) engaging in brutal and violent creation stories. In the ancient Sumerian religion, the goddess Tiamat was ripped in half to create sea and sky. We know of the traditional tales of the Greco-Roman pantheon that showed the gods’ contempt for each other and human beings. Gods in the ancient world hated people. Yet, in Genesis, we’re told humans were created as a little less than angels. In these familiar words from John, the early Christian community is reminded that the God of Israel loves the world. God does not hate humanity. We are not God’s playthings. God does not treat us like chess pieces on a board, moving us around according to a plan only God knows. God loves us. We are God’s partners and friends. Isn’t it wonderful to be loved by God?
God loves us. God gives us a son because he loves us. Because God loves us and gives us a son, he says it’s out of a desire not to condemn humanity but to love humanity. What is keeping us from getting the point? God loves us. Why can’t we love others unconditionally as God does? Why can’t we love others without condemning and judging? Doesn’t believing in God’s son make this kind of unconditional love possible? I believe it does. God created us out of love, not hate. Shouldn’t this free us from hate? How can we claim to love God’s son if we have hate in our hearts? If hate is in our hearts, the John 3:16 process stops, and the love God first shared in giving us Jesus stops with us. If love is there, we keep passing John 3:16 on, and that creative “For God so loved the world” process never ends.
What does it mean to be transfigured? That’s part of being human. We want to describe the indescribable. It is the word Matthew chooses for double duty: to describe an indescribable experience and to capture the importance of this theological moment on the mountain. Transfiguration is a two-way process, especially in this text. Jesus is transformed, and the disciples are transformed by what they witness. Everyone is changed by what happens on the mountain in one way or another. No one will ever be the same. Jesus is different; his purpose is set wholly toward the events that will lead to his death. The three disciples now see Jesus, no pun intended, in a different light. It’s more than they comprehend. They can’t grasp the whole picture but realize there is so much more to Jesus than they ever thought possible. They can’t put it into words. As the passage says, Jesus doesn’t even want them to try. Keep this quiet, he says. It’s more than most people can bear on a good day. Jesus indicates that the meaning of the transfiguration (what occurred on that mountain) won’t be fully understood until after the events of Easter.
So where do we plug in? Are we playing a semantics game? If we return to my first question, what’s the difference between transfiguration and transformation? Why does the Bible use the word transfiguration? How do we, on one end of the transfiguration process, understand what happens when we come to terms with who Jesus is, what he’s all about, and what’s expected of us when we’re let in on the big plan? How does that change us and our level of commitment to the team?
First of all, transformation is transfiguration light. Transformation is more of a surface-level change. You can transform by simply getting a haircut and changing clothes. Transformation is ephemeral. Transformation might involve learning a new language. Finally, transformations are more temporary or can be undone. Transformations, in short, are not permanent.
Transfigurations, on the other hand, indicate systemic change. When you alter something at a root level, you are transfigured. If you’ve been transfigured, it is not easily undone, redone, or able to return to whatever status quo you inhabited before the transfiguration. Transfiguration is not surface-level change. Instead of a haircut and a shoe shine, you are working on your heart and soul. Fundamentally, your perspective and identity are altered, and you come away looking at the world in a different light. So this is not an exercise in semantic hair-splitting. Transfiguration is a big deal for all involved. Jesus wants us with him to see what he sees, to be on the same page that he’s on, as up to speed as he is, and understand as much as we can know about God’s plan for humanity. In short, Jesus wants us to be transfigured by his actions.
Jesus places us in the most critical place and time of our lives. We’re not aware of it, but this is it. This is the most important moment in our lives. Up to this point in our lives (what happens in Holy Week will be more important, but up until now, this is it), nothing we’ve done matches this moment. This is the highlight of our lives. Jesus has placed us in a position and place to have our lives transfigured by God in a way we’ve never thought possible. Short of being resurrected from the dead like Lazarus (or Jesus), we’re about to be a part of the next best thing. We don’t know this, of course. We’re blindly following Jesus up the mountain and doing what he says. Here’s where the rubber meets the road:
Do we trust Jesus enough to follow him up the mountain? (Jesus, you want me to go up a mountain? I’m out of shape. Can’t you get transfigured somewhere accessible, where it’s flat and requires less physical exertion and spiritual commitment from me?)
Do we want to be transfigured? As I said a moment ago, that’s a serious, systemic, profound change. We probably like how we are and are comfortable with our lifestyles and expectations for the world around us. We are set in our ways and like things the way they are. Being transfigured sounds frightening. We heard one of the passages throw around the words “fear and trembling” a moment ago. Isn’t it our instinct to say, “No, thank you, Jesus, I’m cool just as I am? I’ll reserve the right to be transformed on my time and schedule. But I’ll treat being transfigured like I treat a colonoscopy. Something I would rather not do, and I’ll schedule later.”
Jesus is in no mood to negotiate. We didn’t even realize this was a negotiation. Jesus says, “You want to be transfigured. You need to be transfigured. You’re going up the mountain. Grab your climbing sandals; this isn’t optional.”
“But I need to go by the outdoor store and pick up hiking boots, a new Columbia jacket, a backpack, and a fancy sleeping bag,” we say. Jesus says, “Nope.” “We go as we are with our sandals and robes. Trust me.”
This is one of the reasons I remain optimistic about the future of the United Methodist Church. Transfiguration, change, hope, and everything being worked out, in the end, do not depend on us. So Jesus tells these three disciples. If Jesus makes a promise, Jesus keeps his word. Jesus will ensure you get home if he takes you on a trip. If Jesus takes you up the mountain, you will come back alive. We may be climbing up the mountain now, and I trust Jesus is changing us in ways I may not understand now, but he will bring us back down in one piece. Jesus has never let me down yet.
Everyone wants to take their mountain-top experience home. The three disciples wished to hold onto the experience. They knew it was special. If you’ve ever been that close to God, one of those thin moments where heaven and earth come so close you can feel the presence of God, you know how they felt.
What could they do? These were practical, hard-working men. Let’s build these guys a shelter. We’re up on a mountain, it’s the middle of the night, and we’re all going to need something to sleep in. It makes sense, right? You can see the logic of their thinking. However, God is not a noun (a person, place, or thing in the conventional sense.) You can’t hold onto God the way you grab your Bible. It works the other way around. God holds on to you. Our greatest spiritual frustrations come from trying to hold on to God, tame God, and make God fit into boxes (shelters) of our creations. Sometimes we do this out of the best intentions, and sometimes because we’re control freaks. But this is not how God works. God holds on to us. We can’t grab the intangible cosmic reality and the reality at the heart of the cosmos and start giving God orders. We are the ones who fall on our knees and pray, “Here I am, Lord, send me.”
When we understand this, we realize what it means to be transfigured by Jesus Christ.
I never get tired of talking about the Andy Griffith Show. It was one of the most important shows in the history of American television. Think about all the issues Andy addressed in Mayberry in the early 1960s. Andy dealt with alcoholism, addiction, greed, fair housing, poverty, women’s rights, single parenting, fair play, and how to handle small-town gossip. He didn’t judge people no matter how uncultured or far back up in the woods they came from. And he did it all without a gun. And that’s when the show first aired when Eisenhower was in the White House. Andy was cutting-edge! That was, Andy might say, a fair piece of years ago!
There’s an episode where Opie and his friends sell something called “Miracle Salve.” One of Opie’s buddies, Trey, has been threatened with being “blacklisted” for not selling enough of this worthless salve. The boys don’t know what it means to be blacklisted. Opie guesses his dad will know, so they run off to the sheriff’s office to ask Andy. Andy is out on a call, but they find Barney asleep at his desk.
After waking Barney from a dead slumber, they ask him, “What’s a blacklist?” As he always does, Barney tries to sound more intelligent than he is: “It’s when the party of the first part does something to keep the party of the second part from being able to get a job.” Now the boys are confused. Trey needs this job. Who’s the party of the first part? Some fly-by-night salesmen are taking advantage of the kids, who need summer jobs, to get them to sell their salve.
Barney comes up with this bright idea. He’ll write a letter to the salespeople in Mount Pilot, pretending to be a lawyer, telling them to cease and desist from threatening his clients Opie and Trey. Why is Barney going to do this? He’ll meet one official letter with another. Barney poses his strategy in the form of a question: How do you fight fire? The boys answer with a hose! No! Barney exclaims, “with fire!” Andy eventually returns, and they run the whole plan by him. Barney asks him the same question. How do you fight fire? Andy, too says,” with a hose!” Barney, even more frustrated, says, “with fire.”
That’s where we are this morning. Are we like Andy and Barney having a debate? How do you fish for people? Do we do it with a hose or with fire? Those are not exactly our options, but you get the point. There is the practical answer, which is time-tested, genuine, and makes sense. There’s also the idiomatic, colloquial expression that sounds good when you’re sitting on a bench whittling with your buddies. We want to find those two answers, specifically those regarding being a follower of Jesus.
Last week we talked about being and becoming excited about Jesus. How long has it been since you were eager to tell someone else about Jesus? What would it take for you to invite someone to church to say, “Come and see Jesus with me.” Have you ever been as excited about Jesus as you’ve ever been about the things that most excite you in your life? That was last week.
This week we’re taking that one step further. What does it mean to be called to be a disciple? And what are the best ways to reach more disciples? Do we fish for people the same way we fish for fish (i.e., fight fire with fire or with a hose)? Those are the two big questions raised by Matthew’s retelling of Jesus’ calling of his first four disciples along the shores of the Sea of Galilee. Embedded in those questions, others ought to come to mind as we look for more profound answers. What does Matthew mean when he says, “immediately?” I know what I mean when I think of “immediate” or “Immediately.” Does Matthew mean the same thing? Did these guys literally drop their tools, abandon their families, and walk away like zombies to follow Jesus without so much of a goodbye to their families and friends?
Popular movies about the Bible like to leave people with that impression. However, suppose you read a little further in the text. In that case, you see Matthew’s definition of immediacy means something closer to this: Peter, Andrew, James, and John started a lifelong conversation on that day, at that time and that place, with their families and friends, that led to their becoming full-time followers (who asked others to come and see) of Jesus Christ. Read four more chapters and you see that Jesus’ definition of immediate doesn’t mean what you think it means.
The essential words Jesus utters in this passage involve Peter’s (and the other’s) transition from fishermen to disciples. We have to understand the nature of that transition to understand Matthew’s definition of immediacy and how Jesus will immediately (pun intended) show them his fishing methods can yield large catches of people.
Let’s talk about fishing methods on the Sea of Galilee for just a moment. I know a little about this because the fishermen on Ocracoke also used net fishing methods like Peter, James, and John. The fisherman who lived directly across from our church on the island would string his nets across his front yard and mend them, just as Matthew described Peter mending his nets in this passage. I’d walk out my office door and see the Bible happening right before my eyes. I’ve been to the Sea of Galilee, and these methods came alive when we lived on the Outer Banks. Nets require constant mending and upkeep. It takes skill and stamina to stay up all night, throw them out, and bring them back into rickety boats.
I’m going to do an Andy/Barney thing for a moment. What’s the goal of the fishing net? It’s to capture and ensnare as many dumb and unsuspecting fish as possible in your net and hoist them onto the deck of your boat, so deprived of oxygen that they quickly die. Once dead, they can be sold to fish merchants, and people can buy the fish and eat them. This is what net fishermen do. They aren’t like Bill Dance in a bass boat with a depth finder. 1st century fishing methods are still in use in many places around the world today. Throw out the net and hope to God it lands over a school of fish or shrimp dumb enough to swim into your net. Peter, Andrew, James, and John were fishermen. Being a good fishermen is not something that happens to you because of good luck, weather, and years of experience. Fishing is arbitrary. Use your common sense here: When Jesus said to them, from now on, you will stop being fishers of fish and be fishers of people do you think Jesus wanted them to substitute what they usually did in their quest for fish except literally do that now for people?
Was Jesus asking them (and by extension us) to use nets to capture unsuspecting people, lure them into our communities, suck the life from them, throw them onto our decks, gut them of their hearts and souls, and tell them not to be whom God created to be? Once in our net, you’re not a fish; you’re money, a number, and anything other than whom God created you to be. Do you honestly think that’s what Jesus meant when he said you’ll be fishing for people, as it was when you were fishing for fish? Because if you do that, you are going to run everybody off. That’s like saying you fight fire with more fire, not a hose!
You fish for people by bringing people together and not by cutting people off from their families but by bringing their families in. Here’s how I know Peter, Andrew, James, and John, didn’t drop their tools and walk off like zombies. The Bible tells me so. I keep reading—just four chapters over in Matthew 8. Peter had a Jewish mother-in-law. You don’t just leave your wife to follow a charismatic even if his Jesus of Nazareth. He’s got a mother-in-law. That means he’s got a wife and a reasonable guess that a married Jewish man in the first century will probably have a couple of kids. Is Jesus of Nazareth, the most remarkable man in the world, going to ask a married man to abandon his wife, kids, and sick mother-in-law? Is that the kind of thing Jesus would do? Or, as in Matthew 8, he would heal Peter’s mother-in-law and invite the whole family to the Jesus movement.
Suddenly, now stay with me, he’s caught Peter, Peter’s wife, Peter’s Mother-in-Law, and Peter’s children. If the same pattern is repeated for Andrew, James, and John, Jesus has caught approximately 20 people. Talk about fishing for people. He’s gone from one person (himself) to, most likely, 20 or more, by healing and being gracious to Peter’s mother-in-law. He wanted to meet Peter’s entire family. It wasn’t a one and done operation. When Jesus opens up a space for conversation, the idea of immediacy takes on a whole new dimension. It’s more like, “Let’s immediately go home for dinner.”
No one is captured in a net and forcibly brought into the fishermen’s boat. We don’t have any nets. I didn’t see any when we were putting out or putting away the Christmas decorations. We have a few fishermen in the church, and they use poles. There aren’t any net fishermen, as on Ocracoke, regularly mending nets, going out each night to catch shrimp to sell to local restaurants.
Though shame, guilt, and the church can cast modern-day nets, we must be careful. We can quickly revert to fishing for fish instead of people. We want to grow through warmth, charm, love, and invitation. So often, though, churches find it easier to get people on the boat through shame and guilt. You know what I mean: you better get here, get in the net, or you’re going to hell. Change your ways or else. You’re a dirty rotten, low-down sinner; God hates you, you don’t come to church, and you’re bound for damnation. Do you know why you got COVID, cancer, or other diseases? It’s because you don’t come to church or didn’t pray hard enough. The list could go on and on. People say those things. Let’s try not to. That’s not how you fish for people. People aren’t fish. People deserve our best. Jesus gave us his best. He gave us his life. Let us expand by reaching out to anyone and everyone who wants to be in our boat. We don’t have to capture people. Evangelism isn’t warfare. As the Love Boat theme song says, “Come Aboard, we’ve been expecting you.”
Have you ever been so excited that you can’t wait to tell someone else about a new thing you’ve discovered? Maybe it is a new restaurant, a dish at this restaurant, hearing a new band, a song by this band, a particular vineyard, and a unique grape they use to make a new pinot noir. It could be any of those things or something else. Whatever it is, you’ve been turned on. Now everyone you meet, from family to friends, has to hear about your trip to this restaurant, how good this one particular dish was, how the chef combined flavors in a unique way that created a virtual nuclear explosion of taste on your pallet unlike anything you’ve ever experienced before, the dish was plated like a Salvador Dali painting, and before this person does anything else, they have to make a reservation and go with you to this restaurant at their next available moment. You want to be there with them to see the look on their face when they are served an appetizer of lemon caviar on raw oysters with mignonettes followed by pressure-cooked vegetables, roasted fillet, potato confit, beef just, and bone marrow. Then you want to say, “See, I told you, wasn’t this the best thing you’ve ever eaten!”
That’s what this passage is about, that kind of encounter. Instead of some innovative gastronomy, the one thing you’ve become so incredibly excited to share with the world is a person whose name is Jesus of Nazareth. We’ve all been that excited about something in our lives. It may have been the last time you bought a new truck or car. Perhaps it was the place you stayed on your previous fishing trip. You’ve felt the energy and enthusiasm of an event or an encounter. You know what it is like to be unable to keep good news bottled up and to yourself. So here’s my first question this morning. Have you ever felt that way about Jesus? In your entire life, have you ever been so excited about your relationship with Jesus that you couldn’t shut up about Jesus and had to say, “I’ve got to tell someone else about Jesus?” We tell people about the new bigger engine in our trucks or how we got a new roof on our church. We tell people about where we went on vacation, how we had a great time, and how they ought to go there and enjoy it in the same way we did. Think of all the heartfelt and exciting recommendations you give day after day. When was the last time you said to someone, “Oh my God, you have got to meet this guy Jesus; he changed my life! Let’s go now or at your first free moment; I’ve got to see your face when you talk to him.”
People used to put bumper stickers or license plates on cars saying, “Follow me to church,” but those are not the same. I can’t tell you the last time a bumper sticker changed my life. I’ve never voted for anyone or changed my opinion about anything because of a bumper sticker. With my bifocals, I can’t read bumper stickers or vanity plates. I can, however, respond to conversations. Come and see; we hear the disciples saying. Come and see; I know what it means. When was the last time we spoke to someone, “Come and see?” When was the last time you wanted to see Jesus? Do you want to have a face-to-face encounter with Jesus? Are we afraid of how the conversation might go? Some of us might be worried about what he wants to talk about. We’re comfortable talking to him in prayer. Come and see opens the door to the possibility of him talking back. Yes! Amen! That’s where our Christianity and our faith start to get exciting.
When the disciple found Jesus, what did they see? What did they see in him? That’s the question that has fascinated me most about this passage. They heed the call to “come and see” Jesus. I wonder about their first impressions of the man who was destined to save the world, this humble rabbi, identified by John as a “teacher” in their eyes; what did Jesus look like (physically), and who did he seem to be (spiritually)? These are meaningful questions because whatever they saw was necessary (and substantial) enough to cause them to drop everything, become his students, follow him, and start telling more people to come and see the carpenter-turned-teacher from Nazareth. So how did he appear? I picture him exuding kindness, approachability, and love. You know those people. Whether by genetics or life experience, some people carry a countenance that disarms critics, invites conversation, and welcomes questions. Regardless of whatever charisma their words or spirit may convey, their body language and gestures include others in their world. I believe the gospels offer this image of Jesus.
A man who readily held children and brought lepers into his life was open to everyone who was all too willing to reject anyone who defied religious norms and traditions. Here was God in the world, something these people had yet to fully comprehend, not existing above or beyond creation but entirely within the world. This wasn’t magic, smoke, and mirrors. Jesus was flesh and blood. Simon, Andrew, and John weren’t following a ghost, a spirit, or the appearance of a man. Something about this man was different, they might not have been able to put their finger on it at that moment, but they knew it when they saw it, so they went. They came, they saw, and they believed. It’s worked the same way ever since. He spurs something in us that makes us want to be better than we are at the current moment and tell others about this experience of kindles, love, and acceptance. We’ve never known something that could only come from God because God knows people don’t treat each other this way.
The other question this passage raises is this: “What does Jesus see in us?” I hope he sees potential. We’re a motley crew, we modern-day Galilean fishermen. Just look at us. Despite our differences in age, genetics, skills, diversity of opinions, and taste in basketball teams and music Jesus looks at us and still sees possibilities. Jesus looks at us unlike anyone else, except maybe your Mama and Daddy look (or looked) at you. You are worth being loved no matter what. Nothing you can do or say would drive me away, separate me from you, or make me turn my back on you. He looks so hard at you that he almost says, “I’d die for you.” Paul put it this way; there’s nothing that can separate us from the love of God. In Romans, Paul writes, “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” I believe Jesus sees love in us.
As I’ve said on many occasions, the gospel writers make a big deal of Jesus knowing people’s names. Jesus is not a “hey you, worship me” kind of God. We’re not just numbers on a divine spreadsheet of followers. When we use the phrase “personal relationship,” we mean a personal relationship and all it entails. He walks with me, talks with me, and chucks me on the chin while the car defrosts in the morning. Yet so often, that person is one-sided; we know him. We phrase it this way: we know Jesus. We’ve met him. We’ve let him into our lives. That’s how we talk. Our language places us as the ones choosing to allow us entrance or access to the most vital areas of our existence, our souls. We accept salvation. Not to make too fine of a theological point, but Methodists believe that Jesus saved us all on the cross, and what happens down the road is that we realize that Jesus is already in here, and we didn’t know it. We don’t need to let him in; he’s been here the whole time. There was never a time Jesus wasn’t in our lives; we just weren’t aware that he was there. So when Jesus sees us, he sees people already on his team; we don’t know we’re on the bench and about to be put into the game.
You may pick up a nickname when someone gets to know you. Sometimes we get nicknames during childhood that stick our entire lives. I’m sure you all know a Bubba in their 50s or 60’s that’s been Bubba since they were in the third grade. Here I’m talking about real nicknames that friends give each other because they reflect a person’s personality. People who don’t know each other well don’t give each other nicknames. Generic nicknames like hoss, chief, sport and big guy don’t count. I’m talking about real nicknames. This is what Jesus does to the disciples, specifically Peter, in this passage. Jesus says, “I’m going to call you Cephas.” Jesus says, “I’m going to call you Rocky, Rocky Johnson. Cephas/Peter means Rock, and he was the son of John. That’s Peter’s name, Rock Johnson. Not only did Jesus know his name, but he felt so comfortable and familiar with him to give him a nickname immediately. What do you think your Jesus nickname might be? Think about it this week; email me and let me know.
Get excited about Jesus! Someone brought you here to come and see. Could you tell someone else to come and see? Jesus is already at work in people’s lives, waiting to hear about this next big thing that we can’t keep to ourselves any longer, this Jesus, this carpenter, the teacher from Nazareth. He sees us and knows in ways no one else ever will. Whom will you tell?
What is the big deal about Baptism? Is it just a holy bath with some sacred words said over you by a preacher? What does it matter today, whether it happened to you when you were a baby or an adult? Does it matter if you were sprinkled, poured, or dunked in the river? How does it change your life? Does it erase “original sin”? What difference does Baptism make?
To answer these questions, we must understand how we got to baptism as we know it today. Baptism didn’t fall from heaven as in its current, well-defined form. What is baptism intended to do? What is the practical and spiritual benefit of being baptized? How does baptism change your life? Is baptism crucial to our salvation? Jesus told his disciples to go out and baptize people, but is it needed to get into eternity? Remember, back in the middle ages; people would wait until right before they were about to die to be baptized. They didn’t want to sin after their baptism and nullify the impact of baptism, preventing them from getting into heaven. Most of us are baptized as babies, and then we go about living and sinning. How did that notion change? When did that shift occur?
Do you understand what I’m saying: people of faith viewed baptism as something so sacred that it wiped away all our sins, something we did at the end of our lives to guarantee our entry into God’s presence to something we now do at the beginning of our lives, fully aware of our sinful nature. At some point in Christian history, theologians and people, not God, decided that Baptism became a symbolic act that addressed original sin, not our daily sins. And if we were managing our daily sins and asking Jesus for forgiveness in something such as the Lord’s prayer and our original sin was addressed by baptism, our likelihood of living a virtuous life and having a shot at heaven was better than average. Someone came up with that idea and invented it out of whole cloth. Jesus, Paul, or no one else in the Bible said to wait until you’re about to die to be baptized, baptize babies, or baptize people when they can decide for themselves. We made up the rules.
This theology of Baptism, whether the medieval wait-until-you-die method or the modern, do it when you’re a baby to address original sin, and the community of believers will raise you according to Christian standards, are nowhere to be found in the Bible. They are the work of theologians, written 300-plus years after the death of Jesus and John the Baptist, by regular people trying to write rule books for the early church. They tried to connect an ancient Jewish purification ritual to what evolved into an early Christian initiation rite, then create a practice that has remained unchanged for a thousand years. That was until the Protestant Reformation, and the first Baptists bought a swimming pool.
John was baptizing people for the forgiveness of sins, not purifying people for entrance into the temple. John wasn’t preparing people to become Christians or baptizing them in the name of the father, son, and Holy Spirit. What we read about, what John said, what Jesus experienced, and what we do are different expressions of similar practices.
Much human intervention went into creating what modern Christians call Baptism, what it means, what it represents, and how it plays a role in our faith. It’s a very subjective sacrament. We know this, and we see evidence of this because most denominations have different views on how they regard baptism when they baptize people, how they baptize if they baptize people more than once, does baptism erase original sin, and so on. Churches of all shapes and sizes share language, theology, and some commonalities in Holy Communion. It’s not the same with baptism. Most denominations have made their rules about baptism as they go along. First, they say, “We think this is what God wants us to do.” Then the next denomination comes along and makes different rules.
Baptism is a variable. Baptism’s meaning is subjective and, in our day, depends mainly on your denominational tradition. Besides, Jesus telling us to “go baptize” doesn’t explain what he means by baptism, his theology of baptism, when to baptize, and how to baptize. (Remember the debates about “John’s baptism” or “Jesus’” baptism, what were those differences?) Whether baptism is about original sin is never covered. We’ve filled in the blanks and hope we’re right. That’s a giant leap to infer meaning from Jesus’ understanding of a vast theological concept. Essentially, we’re trying to read the mind of God from a few words in a 2000-year-old text. Talk about presumption. (Maybe that’s our original sin, presuming to know the mind of God?) I prefer to err on the side of caution. I don’t want to guess what Jesus meant. I think that’s where Christians get into trouble. I want to go with what I know.
Let’s go back to the beginning. Baptism evolved from a Jewish purification ritual. People had to take a ritual bath to go to the temple. This had nothing to do with moral or ethical cleanliness (for the most part) but with becoming clean after all those things in daily life (sex, death, menstruation) that made a person unclean and unable to enter the temple grounds and participate in the ritual life of the Jewish community. Living life made you unclean. Doing ordinary things in ordinary ways leads to ritual uncleanliness. That’s not sin; that’s just living. So people would go to a ritual bath, enter on one side and come out the other clean. Then they go to the temple. This is what large portions of Deuteronomy are about. How to stay clean in life.
If you committed a moral transgression, that would have to be addressed with a sacrificial offering in the temple. If you needed to atone for murder or another violent crime, you had to be made pure to enter the temple first for the right offering for that specific sin and forgiveness to be sought. The water didn’t forgive you of the murder. Instead, it cleansed you of your daily impurities and got you to a place where you could enter the temple. Once in the temple, you could address a more in-depth sacrifice with the priest for the more severe offense you’ve committed.
What John does in the desert has nothing to do with temple worship. He’s baptizing people for the forgiveness of sins. It’s a new thing, independent of the sacrificial system in the temple (recognizing the corruption in the temple) and trying to renew the spiritual life of ordinary Jewish believers. He’s not starting a new church. There are no babies in pretty white outfits. It’s a simple proposition. John is a prophet. People trusted him to cleanse their souls more than they trusted the priests in the temple.
Jesus gave John’s actions validity. When he showed up at the Jordan, it changed the entire baptismal dynamic. This was to be more than an off-the-beaten-path symbolic step in the river. Instead, something bigger was happening. Once Jesus arrived, John realized that forgiveness was more significant than he had imagined. With Jesus on the scene, Baptism wasn’t ultimately about sin, the depth or depravity of sin, but the expansiveness of forgiveness. This is what Jesus brought to the riverside.
Whereas we usually focus our discussions of Baptism on sin and repenting, Jesus, here in Matthew 3, has two clear and distinct emphases: forgiveness from sin and being beloved. Far from stepping into the waters, the river, the swimming pool, and the font and being reminded of washing away the stain of original sin, we are reminded that baptism marks us as part of a community from the beginning of our time in God’s community we are forgiven (what I call original forgiveness-not your identity as a sinner), and that forgiveness is made manifest in being called “beloved” of God. In this way, Baptism is not a choice we make or a choice our families made for us as infants. Ultimately, baptism is a gift to us from God. It is a means of receiving God’s grace, freely entering our lives. I don’t think we need to make up an elaborate theological system as to how baptism works. Isn’t being told that through this one action, we are God’s forgiven beloved enough? Why do we need more? Why is our trust in God’s providence lacking?
What do we do about our original sin? Doesn’t it need to be addressed? Isn’t this what baptism is all about? Again, this is a question first posed by Saint Augustine and refined by later generations of Christians, one that Jesus never mentioned or discussed. To Jesus, sins were rather ordinary, a fact of life. Nobody was so broken that they couldn’t be put back together or redirected toward God. Instead, as we talked about last week, Jesus restored people to a right relationship with God. We didn’t understand that God had blessed us and the full implications of that blessing. God wants to be in a relationship with us. Our failure to comprehend God’s over-the-top willingness to love us-that’s the root cause of sin, not whether Eve ate an apple from a talking snake. (Besides, the word sin doesn’t appear in the Bible until the story of Cain and Abel in Genesis 3.)
Blessings are God’s original trademark. Creation began not with condemnation and evil but with God proclaiming blessing over the entire world, exclaiming, “It’s all good.” Somewhere along the way, we stopped seeing God reaching out with blessing after blessing and began to focus solely on sin and judging others. At our baptism, God redirects our priorities. This is what we read in the Gospels and what we hear the voice of God reiterate as if proclaiming the blessings of Genesis again, “You are my beloved, and I am well pleased. Be blessed.”
The gospel is not a story of sin. It’s a love story. If you listen to the message from most churches, you’d think God is obsessed with sin. It’s the other way around. We’re obsessed with sin. God is consumed with love.
Sin is about division. Sin separates us from God. Everything Jesus does is about bringing people closer to God. God is inviting us to stand in the water together. In the waters of creation, recreated in the waters of Baptism, we are reminded that God did not create us to be originally sinful.
On the contrary, we were made in God’s good image. Sin is not at the heart of our being. Even in our most malformed moments, we are the body of Christ. Therefore, when God looks upon us, even the disaffiliated community of Christians called Methodists, God calls us beloved and blessed.
Jesus is about restoration, healing, and wholeness. Our brokenness can be mended. The dirt on our souls can be cleaned. By accepting the invitation to embrace a life of watery-infused, creation-inspired fullness, we can live holy lives, even on days with severe ups and downs.
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