by Rachel Sensenig, pastor of Circle of Hope in South Philly
This season is all about epiphany: the manifestation of God in the world. We’re rediscovering the mystery and miracle of how God became human to join in our struggle and to bring us into the freedom of joy of Beloved connection.
Did someone ever meet you in your struggle and carry the load with you? The question of solidarity brings me back to the 1992 Olympics when Derek Redman tore his hamstring in the 400 meter race, and his Dad came out of the stands and pushed past security to help his son finish the race. Have you seen this video? Derek’s dad saw his son in excruciating pain, and he couldn’t stay in the bleachers, so he ran out onto the track to be with him. I cry every time I watch the video and see Derek bury his head in his Dad’s neck; he is so sad that this happened after so much preparation, he’s in so much pain, and his Dad is there with him to help carry them to the finish line together.
Jesus’s baptism is kind of like that for me.
When John the Baptist first recognizes Jesus, he says “Look! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” The greek word that the Bible writers use for “takes away” signifies one who takes up, or bears, or carries our sin upon himself. The Jews around John would have understood the gravity of this claim in terms of the paschal lamb – the atonement, the sacrifice, the sign of our forgiveness and restored relationship with God. Jesus was here to carry what’s too heavy for us to bear alone. I feel that. Frederich Buechner wrote: “A Christian is someone who points at Christ and says, ‘I can’t prove a thing, but there’s something about his eyes, and his voice. Something about the way he carries his head, his hands, the way he carries his cross. And the way he carries me.”
John and Jesus were both baptizing people, but John immediately sees his place in service to Jesus, as the one who carries HIM. More people started going to Jesus to be baptized, and John’s disciples felt threatened and got competitive about this! John had to tell them to relax – that this is how it’s supposed to be. John explained that we’re just here to point to him, the one who can bring about the real change in people’s hearts through the Holy Spirit! John’s baptism was a symbol of preparation, but Jesus is the one who can take away sins forever, because he can bear them upon himself. John uses a wedding metaphor to describe his relationship with Jesus: he’s the groom, I’m just the best man, and my job is to help Jesus marry all of humanity.
So it’s very surprising to John when Jesus comes ASKING to BE baptized by John. John is incredulous and resists at first because he knows that Jesus is already clean, through and through; the spotless and pure lamb of God. But Jesus insists that he needs to be baptized in order to fulfill all righteousness.
What is that “righteousness” that Jesus is talking about? I believe it’s related to solidarity: God asking to be so close to us that he fully enters the waters of our struggle. God’s righteousness is not held above us; instead it’s the opposite: a humble joining, like Derek Redman’s dad, bearing our trouble and asking us to do the same for each other. None of us have to measure up and be right all the time, or have all the answers, our faith in Jesus can give us grace to each other in our struggles.
Baptism of The Lord Jesus, painting by Gloria Ssali
This really takes the competition and ego out of the spiritual journey, doesn’t it? The pressure to get it right and only hang out with other “right” people?? If God himself comes in this kind of humility, saying “please baptize me,” and gets in our messy waters, well then, how can we not have that kind of movement toward one another? How could we stand in distanced judgement from one another, when Jesus himself isn’t doing that with any of us?
My friends in and from Central America keep teaching me about the power and possibility of solidarity. Archbishop Oscar Romero died serving communion to folks in El Salvador who were caught in the conflict between the military government and the rebels who were trying to overthrow it. The poor of the world, who are the majority but most invisible, are often caught in the crossfire of greedy political and economic powers. Romero demonstrated that Jesus sees us there and meets us in solidarity, leading us to bear one another’s pain instead of repeating the cycle of violence. Many Christians in this part of the world followed in this posture of mutual giving and receiving, honoring one another’s faith and celebrating difference. Instead of distanced contributions (even though Romero’s death made them temporarily famous) they were invited to enter into a process of bearing with one another in faith, which Jon Sobrino and Juan Hernandez Pico describe as solidarity in Theology of Christian Solidarity. Solidarity is different from uniformity, or plurality, in that we are in it together with the one who bears the sins of the whole world. So we don’t have to blame or distance or fight one another for our liberation – it is given to us by Christ, a revolution of the heart that’s expressed by bearing with one another in faith.
The key seems to be in taking this posture of humility from Jesus. We receive wisdom and connection by knowing our own spiritual need and asking for help. Vulnerability! It’s counterintuitive for many of us in the United States – especially white Americans – but this is the invitation from God, and probably why Jesus starts his most famous sermon with the words “blessed are the poor in spirit; the kingdom of heaven belongs to them.” He’s saying the most blessed people in the world are the ones who know they need God…the ones who do not rely on their own answers or capacity or resources as much as they look to the Spirit to God to fill and inform and carry them.
There’s a very curious thing, an ironic and mysterious thing that happens there in that place of humility and recognition of our need. My friends in recovery call it “the gift of desperation.” When we move toward one another without defense, knowing we need each other, we open ourselves up to surprising abundance of grace and love and Spirit.
The early church was embarrassed by Jesus’s vulnerability in baptism, but it’s in this most vulnerable moment that God announces from heaven “This is my Beloved child, in whom I am well pleased.” God is not embarrassed by our vulnerability. In fact, She meets us there with lavish attention and affection. I want to give you three examples in this text that show how humility opens us to spiritual abundance:
First, John says that “out of Jesus’s fullness we have all received grace upon grace.” The early church might have been embarrassed by Jesus’s penitent look in baptism, but John sees the fullness of God in being face-to-face with Jesus. John sees Jesus’s power to unleash more grace upon us than we were already born with (I love his implication of the fact that we are Beloved by God and washed in grace from the beginning of time!) Many folks want to see God victorious over the powers of the world right now, not bowed down under the water, and I get that. But there is something about solidarity that allows us to receive grace.
Secondly, John records that all this baptizing was happening because there was “plenty of water.” Now I know this statement is probably about the practical capacity of the Jordan River and its tributaries in the Mediterranean region at the time, but there’s a core spiritual truth not to miss: there is still plenty of water for our repentance and renewal and spiritual cleansing. There is still plenty of opportunity for our coming to Christ and one another in humility, to be forgiven and restored in community, if we can come in this posture of asking like Jesus.
Finally, John said that “God gives the Spirit without limit.” That phrase “without limit” takes the concept of abundance to the next level. It takes it into the realm of how we actually have no idea what could happen through our solidarity with God and others. The economy of the Holy Spirit does not operate according to the economy of the world. Jesus said the Spirit is like the wind: you can’t tell where it’s coming from and where it’s going. You can only surrender yourself to the flow. We don’t know the boundaries of God’s love and grace and liberating presence because there is none. Maybe that’s why the apostle John ended this book of the Bible with the words: Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written. God gives the Spirit without limit.
So maybe we open ourselves up to new spiritual abundance this year by recognizing our need for God and each other, and asking questions humbly, and moving toward one another to understand. There is great abundance in our common need for redemption and connection. And Jesus has it for us – he bears our sin, our pain, and all we can’t carry – in some small way like Derek Redman’s dad took him to the finish line. Let’s keep pointing toward Him, like John did, and getting in the waters of solidarity with each other, just like Jesus is here in the water with us.