“Baptism: The Beginning of the Journey”
Ash Wednesday 2021
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? 2By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it? 3Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.
5For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. 6We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. 7For whoever has died is freed from sin. 8But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. 9We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. 10The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. 11So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. (NRSV)
As the traditional symbol of Ash Wednesday, ashes represent the dust from which the author of Genesis says that God created humankind. Thus, does a pastor or priest say, “From dust you have come, and to dust you shall return” as she or he dips a finger into that fine, black powder and makes the sign of the cross on a worshiper’s forehead.
We are impermanent creatures. Indeed, in the grand scheme of things, we sentient beings are a fleeting presence. “For a thousand years in [God’s] sight are like yesterday when it is past,” says the psalmist. (Psalm 90:4) So, as we prepare ourselves for the journey to Easter, ashes remind us that the road ahead necessarily takes us through the very real death of Friday.
During Lent we also take seriously the reality of sin. And while each of us has our individual transgressions, more concerning are the ways that we participate in the systemic sins of families, communities, and institutions. I say more concerning because the systemic sins of humankind are often things we don’t readily or fully acknowledge, like racism. Other systemic sins like greed and the glorification of violence aren’t just things we struggle to acknowledge; they become things we actually spin into noble traits. Even people who claim to be following Jesus are often quick to call personal excess “blessing,” even when that excess means poverty for someone else. Even people who claim to be following Jesus will call the spoils of brutal power “manifest destiny,” and sometimes “divine right,” even when such spoils mean exploitation of other peoples or the environment.
Those delusions become so intoxicating and addicting that it can be profoundly difficult to extricate ourselves from the grasp of sin. That’s why Paul uses the image of being “enslaved to sin.” Our brokenness can own us, consume us. And it can all-too-easily destroy others through us.
On this Ash Wednesday, you’re not in the sanctuary for me or someone else to look you in the eye and remind you that as surely as you are beloved by God, you will not survive this life. But in the Christian tradition, ashes aren’t the only symbol that speaks of the reality of death. So, this year we begin Lent not by wearing the dust of our impermanence on our foreheads, but with confession and the waters of baptism. Confession and sacrament immerse us in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. “Do you not know,” says Paul, “that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore, we have been buried with him by baptism into death.”
The synoptic gospels tell the story of Jesus’ baptism by John. John’s gospel seems to imply Jesus’ baptism but doesn’t make it explicit. It may be that the writer of the fourth gospel, like many other people, has trouble making sense of the fact of Jesus’ baptism. Why, the question goes, does Jesus submit to John’s baptism? Doesn’t John offer a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins?”
Yes, John’s baptism was one of repentance and forgiveness. It seems to me, though, that to focus on whether or not Jesus had a personal need for such a baptism, misses the point. Through the Incarnation, God enters more than the body of one person. God willingly enters the human condition.
I have to think that Jesus knows that as a human being and as a Jewish male in the first century, he is more than an individual. He’s part of a demographic, part of a long-running story. And as a human being, he accepts not only responsibility for his individual speech and actions, he also accepts his place in the surrounding religious, political, and economic culture which has been, which is, and which will continue to be hurtful to other human beings and to the earth.
I’d be willing to bet the farm that if I asked a Jewish woman in the year 30CE how she expected to be treated by Jewish men in general, she would shake her head and give a less-than-complementary assessment of the way men treated women. That’s why Jesus’ interactions with the Samaritan woman at the well, with Mary Magdalene, with the sisters Mary and Martha, and even with his own mother are not Hallmark channel moments, but radically prophetic acts that both defy and transform human relationships, and therefore human culture.
In surrendering to baptism, Jesus does more than John can even be aware of because Jesus’ baptism has to do with more than washing away sins. In his baptism, God Incarnate takes a great leap in the process of becoming, intentionally and thoroughly, human. Jesus’ journey toward Friday and Sunday begins in earnest at his baptism. His life is the original Lenten journey.
As we remember our own baptisms, I invite and encourage all of us to look at the sacrament as something we do not just for ourselves, but something we do in community. In baptism, and in reaffirming baptism, we commit and recommit ourselves to becoming fully human in the way that Jesus is human. We acknowledge that we are eternally, irrevocably loved by God. We’re sons and daughters of God. We’re sisters and brothers of Jesus. We’re fellow travelers with him on the road to Bethlehem, Nazareth, Capernaum, Samaria, Jerusalem, Golgotha, Emmaus, and beyond.
Through baptism, we are, as Paul says, united with Jesus in his life, death, and resurrection. In baptism, we are claimed by God, equipped by the Holy Spirit, and sent forth to be signs of God’s gracious and loving purposes in and for all Creation.
With fresh joy and gratitude, may you claim God’s promise in baptism. And with renewed conviction and hope, may you follow Jesus, God’s Christ, in a Lenten journey toward your own full humanity and toward our shared resurrection life.