I have always found it problematic that Jesus was baptised by John, when John’s baptism was one of repentance and confession as a preparation for the coming of Jesus. Yet, the one whose sandals John was unfit to untie insists that he was baptised. When John, rightly asked Jesus, in Matthews account of the baptism, “I need to be baptised by you, and do you come to me?” (Mt 3:14; NRSV). Jesus’ response was, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness.” (Mt 3:15; NRSV) Why must this be done and why does it fulfil all righteousness.
Luke does not contain the detail that is in Matthew and Mark concerning the details of John the Baptist or the reasons for John’s baptism. John doesn’t even refer to the event of Jesus’ baptism, only the sign of declaration about the identity of Jesus. Luke, like John it appears, is not concerned about whom and why of John the Baptist, he is only concerned with whom Jesus is. Luke, perhaps, makes a telling point about why Jesus subjected himself to baptism, stating that the baptism took place, “when all the people were baptised.” (Lk 3:21; NRSV)
Jesus is baptised as a sign that, even though he is God, he is, and shares in, everything that it means to be human. This is what it means to fulfil all righteousness. God’s plan, in Jesus, is not to be a God who is remote from humans, separate from sinfulness, but is connected with, relates to, lives amongst and is indeed one of, even though he is without sin.
Jesus came to save sinners, but he identifies himself with sinners, firstly through the incarnation of his conception and birth, and now through baptism. Jesus is expressing in action his own prayer for his disciples that, although he is not of this world, he is in the world, so his disciples, in him, are not of this world, but will remain in the world. (Jn 17)
This is the uniqueness and, with political incorrectness I argue, the superiority of Christian theology: God knows what it means to be truly human because he has experienced it. No other religion can make that claim. Christian theology and spirituality does not seek to be set free from humanity. Rather it affirms humanity, it is good enough for God, and seeks to set humanity free from the sinful nature that is obstructing its full expression and destroying it.
I suspect there is another aspect to this righteousness that is fulfilled in Jesus participating in the baptism of John. It is a completely new direction in the saving work of God, so far, in history. Up until this point, theologians have discerned that God could not reside, could not be in the presence of sin. He threw Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden because of their desire to be like God. God drowned the earth in a great flood to remove those who were evil. The journey through the wilderness was full of holes opening in the earth, plagues of snakes and plagues of disease, because of the sinfulness of his people. The psalmist, in the golden age ofIsrael, speaks of God turning his back, of clouds covering the presence, of God not listening, because of the sin of his people.
But something new takes place in the incarnation of the Word in Jesus of Nazareth. God seems to be acknowledging that he is going to dwell amongst his people even though their humanity is corrupted by sin. The baptism of Jesus affirms God’s presence amongst a sinful people. Jesus shares in the baptism of repentance and forgiveness of sins, even though he is without sin, God in Christ aligns himself with sinful people. Righteousness is fulfilled. People are made right with God not by being right, but by being with God, in God’s presence. And it is God’s initiative. God comes to be amongst his people, not an expectation that people find their way to God.
The consequence of this thinking is that God is not only present here, in this church when we meet, God is out there, in the world. We have developed a weird kind of missional thinking that expects people to come to us, because this is where God is, this is where they will find God. The reality of the witness of Jesus’ incarnation and baptism is that God is in the world. Our task is to be finding ways to be connecting with those outside the church and helping them to identify where God is at work in their lives and point them to the presence of God and a response to God.
The other challenge of this fulfilled righteousness is that, as Jesus was not of this world but in the world, because of him his disciples are also, and will remain, in the world even though they are no longer of the world. The challenge is how we remain faithful to Jesus and that call.
I think it demands a faithful witness of being truly human, but this demands that we discern the difference between what we think is human and what is sin. It acknowledges that the world is not perfect. The world is found wanting in justice and mercy and walking humbly with God and there will be behaviour that makes us cringe. We are not to pretend that we are any better than those around us. Rather we are to remember our own sinfulness, we are to remember our own ultimate sinfulness of our rejection of God, and understand that that is where others are in their lives now. What it definitely encourages us to do is to find ways in which we are being faithful and witnessing to and reflecting that while we are in the world.
The challenge of the incarnation and again in the baptism of Jesus, despite all that is wrong, God connects intimately and identifiably with a humanity that is sinful. The task before us is to find ways we can connect individually and corporately with those who are not yet able to identify and express a relationship with God who is in their midst.
One of the reasons the church is struggling to be as strong as it was remembered to be in the past is because we removed ourselves from the world to the safety of church services in church buildings. We need to learn again how to be in the world connecting with those around us.