Scripture: Matthew 3: 1-17
Baptism and Dismissal
Baptism and Dismissal embrace the same idea: that the Christian mission is to preach the Gospel. Our Lord’s baptism initiated his own mission. Our own baptismal promises call us to the same undertaking. That is why every church service the words of a Dismissal, such as this. “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.”
The lectionary passage for the Baptism of Our Lord includes only the few verses from Matthew that cover the actual event of Jesus’ baptism. Today, we also read the earlier part of the story. John the Baptist foretold the coming of “one who is greater than I am, whose shoes I am not worthy to unlatch.” It makes no sense to read that prophesy during Advent. John the Baptist could not foretell the birth of Jesus, because Luke tells us that Mary and Elizabeth, were pregnant with Jesus and John at the same time. That was thirty years before Jesus’ baptism.
We know almost nothing about Jesus’ early life. Was he a carpenter, like Joseph? Maybe he was like the Orthodox Jewish men today who spend their lives studying Torah. Was he married? At some point he must have received an education. He could debate points of theology with the Pharisees; he was invited to read the Scripture scroll at his home synagogue in Nazareth. The answer to all these questions is, “We do not know.”
John the Baptist and Jesus
John the Baptist proclaimed a baptism of repentance for confession of sins. But Matthew is the only Gospel writers to address the problem, “Why did the sinless Jesus need to undergo John’s baptism of repentance for sins?” When Jesus came for baptism, John said, “No, I should not baptize you. It should be the other way round.” What he was really saying was, “You are the sinless Messiah. You do not need a baptism for the forgiveness of sins. You should baptize me; I am an ordinary sinful person, like everyone else.”
Jesus replied, “Let it be so; it is fitting to fulfil all righteousness.” Many scholars interpret this strange reply to mean that Jesus identified himself with ordinary people (sinners) despite his divine mission. I take a simpler view. It seems to be a way of saying, “Don’t argue; that’s the way it’s supposed to be.”
At the moment of Jesus’ baptism, the heavenly voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, in him I am well pleased.” Today’s reading from Hebrew Scripture is part of Isaiah 42. “Behold my chosen servant, in whom I delight. I have put my Spirit on him; he will bring justice to the nations.” I imagine that Matthew’s group of early Christians would have seen this as prophesying today’s Gospel account.
Significance of Jesus’ baptism
Christians have always wrestled with the significance of Jesus’ baptism. Was Jesus from God, as the Gospel writer John told it? “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God; the same was in the beginning with God …” Or was he just an ordinary man until his baptism? One group of early Christians, known as Adoptionists, believed that Jesus was “adopted” by God as his Son at the moment when the heavenly voice spoke. They also believed that his special status ended when he cried out, on the Cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Baptism and Dismissal, “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord”
Baptism was the start of Jesus’ public ministry. It is almost as if the words of the heavenly voice represented the Dismissal to his Baptism — that linkage of Baptism and Dismissal.
Our service ends each week with the following Dismissal: ‘Go in peace, to love and serve the Lord’. This is not, “Have a nice week.” It parallels an English translation of the dismissal of the Latin Mass “Ite, missa est” “Go, the mass is ended.” Former Pope Benedict wrote, “In antiquity, missa simply meant ‘dismissal’. In Christian usage, it gradually took on the deeper meaning of ‘mission’, expressing the missionary nature of the Church” [Sacramentum caritatis (2007)]. Mission is the holy calling of all who have been baptized – our public ministry, parallel to that of Jesus. It is why the Church remembers the Baptism of Our Lord every year.
The dove: symbol of peace, love, and innocence
Jesus’ baptism is so full of symbols that I could go on for hours. I won’t. But I do want to mention the dove. The Holy Spirit came upon Jesus “like a dove”. Doves symbolize peace, love, and innocence. Their extravagant courtship displays suggest that they are in love. Some cultures release a pair of doves at weddings, symbolizing lifelong love for the bridal couple. In the story of Noah’s Ark, Noah sent out a dove when the waters finally receded. It returned with an olive branch in its beak, to show that dry land had reappeared. It was a symbol of deliverance and of God’s forgiveness. John the Baptist preached a baptism of repentance. Jesus’ baptism asserted a new promise of God’s forgiveness.
Baptism: a new spiritual beginning
What about us? Every baptism marks a new beginning. The person promises to respect other people and the rest of God’s Creation.
Also, it is the start – or the verification – of a commitment to live as a disciple of Jesus. This is less obvious when we baptize infants, who cannot make the promises themselves. The early Church only baptized adults. Some Christian sects still require adult (believers’) baptism, for example Baptists, Disciples of Christ, and Anabaptists (Mennonites, Amish, and Hutterites).
Discipleship begins a new life and mission: it is both baptism and dismissal
Baptism marks a special moment in a Christian person’s life. The decision to become a disciple and (for adults) to leave an old life behind. Special ceremonies celebrate and mark all important new beginnings/endings in our lives. Graduations from high school, college or university. Retirement parties represent ‘graduation’ from the world of work. Marriage. The ceremony explicitly links the couple link to one another’s families; they begin a new life in the community. Those of us who immigrated to Canada had a citizenship ceremony to celebrate our commitment to our new country. Many cultures have special rituals associated with becoming an adult (e.g., the Jewish bar mitzvah). All these different types of new beginning carry in them the idea of hope for the future – that we will be faithful disciples, that we will have happy marriages, that we will be productive citizens, etc.
John the Baptist prophesied that the one coming after him would baptize not with water but with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Perhaps we could say that baptism should leave a person “all fired up”. The Apostles certainly did on Pentecost Day, when the Holy Spirit seemed to be like tongues of fire. They changed from frightened disciples who ran away at the Crucifixion. Instead, they became confident Apostles who spread the news of Jesus to the ends of the known world. The “baptism of fire” that they received at Pentecost was a new beginning.
Disciples are students, apostles are graduates
Jesus’ baptism marked a new beginning for him. Likewise, our baptismal liturgies at St George’s also make clear that baptism is a new beginning for the person who has decided to become a follower of Jesus. As we recall that baptism was the start of Jesus’ public ministry, it leads to a final, sobering thought. We often think that baptism makes us disciples of Jesus. It would be more accurate to think of ourselves as apostles, literally ‘those who are sent out’. Disciples are students, apostles are graduates. “Ite, missa est. Go into the world in peace. Your task as missionaries is to love and serve the Lord.”