– Some of you know that I live very close by the seminary in Alexandria where I studied to become a priest. They have Eucharists everyday at their chapel and it’s not unusual that they ask their alumni, once ordained, to come to lead a service and to preach. I did that for them several times over the years, but one day, a request a little bit unusual came to me. I was asked to lead a liturgy in Spanish because the students wanted to learn. Now, I know a little bit of Spanish. I studied it in high school – that was a long time ago but I thought, why not? I am not great at that but what is the worst that can happen? It’s just a small service with students like I used to be, they’re not going to judge me if it’s not perfect.
The thing I didn’t know is that on that particular day, they had on campus a guest who came to give a lecture, and they wished to honor during the celebration. For that reason, I was told 10mn before the start of the service, a few faculty members were going to attend so they can do the acknowledgment of the guest during the offertory. And so, this is what happened: As I entered the chapel, all vested and ready as much I could be to celebrate and to preach, I realized that in the two first rows in the Chapel were actually seated, not just a small group of friendly students, but most of my former teachers, and, among them – Former Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori – who is, by the way, completely fluent in Spanish.
No to tell you that I felt it would be a “humbling experience” would not even begin to cover it. It was already something to have to preach to my former teachers and to the Presiding Bishop, but on top of that, in my broken Spanish? With my French accent? I started to break in cold sweats – but there was nothing I could do right? I could not run away, although, trust me, I wished I could have crawled under a rock.
So, of course, when I read about John in the wilderness seeing Jesus coming from afar and then Jesus telling him he’s not there to teach him, to give him instructions, or even to have a random conversation, but he is actually asking John to minister to him, to baptize him, well…although (let me be clear) I don’t identify with John at all, I can certainly relate to what he was feeling: “Me? Baptizing you? It is I who need to be baptized by you”. Because of course, having John baptizing Jesus, it didn’t make any sense – it’s a little like me preaching to a bunch of people with a Phd in theology and fluent in a language I just have basic notions of. You don’t feel honored or even humbled when something like that happens to you, what you feel is embarrassment and even maybe shame and fear.
And yet – this is the way it all started. John had to baptize Jesus so “all righteousness would be fulfilled”.
What does it mean? The question is not even “why did Jesus need to be baptized” but why did Jesus ask John? Embarrassed him this way? Why did Jesus asked of John to do something so unexpected / counter-intuitive?
As I thought about it for today, I found 4 levels of explanation
First part: 2 first points. We covered last week during our forum that Matthew is the Gospel “of the church”. Matthew is writing “foundational text” to build up a community. I think it meant something for the early Christian community that John whould baptize Jesus…and I love to have that before Annual Meeting and election of new vestry members next week…It says how leaderships looks like in the church.
1 – Good leadership comes from people who are not interested in power. And it’s hard for us to think about that when of course in the corporate world and politics it’s almost every time greedy or at least ambitious people who lead. In the church, good leaders are those who, like John, are aware of their limitations, don’t cling to their ministry when somebody they think is more able than them show up, feel and express the need to be fed / ministered to as well. Know they are also in need of healing, attention, help. Yet, they are also willing to fulfill their duties as needed, when asked to.
But then, leadership in the church looks also like Jesus: Let others be in charge so they can experience serving, even if there would be a faster or more efficient way to act, empowers disciples to do new things or to carry on their ministry, step back when needed.
In both case, neither John nor Jesus are interested in power or control. Don’t feel the need to be right or to be the center of attention. What they do, they do it to serve, and to make God known (and in the story, God shows up!). I was joking this week that often in the church it’s the one who doesn’t want to do it who is the more qualified to do it: They acknowledge their limitations, are aware of the responsibilities and are not interested in being the center of attention. They do what they are called to do to serve – with great humility.
Isn’t it interesting to realize that both John – who serves, ministers – and Jesus – the one who is ministered to – both do that out of a great humility? Isn’t it what “all righteousness” is all about? Humility is ministering and in being ministered to.
2 – As it turns out, this Gospel is probably more about ministering to one another than about leadership. What it tells you is that in the church, ministering is mutual. We minister to one another. The minister (=priest) is not the one in charge of ministering to everyone, the minister (=priest) reminds us that as baptized people, we all share in Jesus’s priesthood (BCP p.308), and we are called to minister to one another – to be to one another a witness of Christ’s love. I remind you that, in case of emergency, any baptized Christian can baptize someone (BCP p.313). More generally,we pray for one another, we help each other, sometimes it’s not more complicated than showing up, giving a phone call.
We all need help, we all need to be strengthen in our faith, prayed for, talk about the things we deal with. We are not strong by relying on ourselves, we are made strong and firm in our faith by our community but also by those around us: family, friends, but also counselors, doctors, teachers…John baptized in the desert b/c he believed that God wasn’t necessarily stuck in the Temple. God was among people and in the wild. People can minister to us in countless ways, even non believers. Nature can minister to us too. Julian of Norwich: “God is in everything that is good” (I would add: “and right and joyful” as in our Eucharistic Prayer A).
We need to show up for one another as of course Jesus showed up for people and as John showed up for Jesus – even if he didn’t feel that qualified. We all need each other. God became flesh to learn what it is to be human. As long as we are in this life, nobody has it all figured out.
2nd part: 2 last points / explanation why JB “had” to baptize Jesus less about the church and more “spiritual” (Tell us something about God)…Bear with me.
3 – Why did Jesus ask John to baptize him? Did he want to make a point / show an example / say something about the church – as we may believe when we read Matthew? Maybe. It says something about leadership and about ministry, which we have just covered. But more deeply, I think the reason why Jesus ask John to baptize him it’s b/c Jesus could not help himself. That’s just who he is.
I recently watched on Netflix the movie “The two Popes” about Pope Benedictus and Pope Francis and we see the rising of Francis in the Vatican, and a lot of the comical aspect of the movie is to show how Pope Francis is humble, humble in a way that embarrass the rest of the clergy. For example, we see taht Francis (when still an archbishop) does not want the fancy car to visit Rome, he just rides the bus. But he does not do it to make a statement, he is just happy to see people and to chat with the bus driver. Well, I think it’s a little bit the same with Jesus. He goes where the crowd is, he goes meet his cousin, he let him do his thing – even if John starts to be embarrassed. Jesus does not think twice about what he is doing, he is not making a well rehearsed statement, even if it says something. Jesus asks John to baptize him b/c he is so humble. It’s just natural for him to behave that way.
To come close to God, we have to be very humble, not because God wants to humiliate us, to make us feel little, but b/c God is very humble too. In the very simple things. And that’s where God reveals God’s glory. The language of the psalm is not so much a language of conquest and power, strength, it is the language of awe. God broke into the world in humility. A baby and now a young man coming without armor / naked in a river to be cleansed.
Isaiah describes the gentleness of the Messiah. God is not here to break us. Trials in life may break us, but Jesus came literally to raise us up.
4 – Last, something to chew on: Maybe Jesus asks John to minister to him b/c, in a mysterious way, we are called to “minister to God” and maybe that’s what Christian life is all about. We often think of baptism as this day we accept God into our life, and God becomes part of our story. Baptism is this day when we become part of God’s story, when we receive God into our heart, when God receives us into God’s heart. If we are made in God’s image, God wants as much as anyone of us to be loved – even more than us, since there is only perfect love in God.
How do we show love to God in our everyday lives? How do we give back to God by being our best selves? Living a life of service full of goodness, generosity and joy? That’s our life as baptized people: circle back the love we receive from God. That’s what Jesus calls “all righteousness”.