Jesus' baptism as protest ritual: A sermon based on the work of the Christianity Seminar
By Alexis James Waggoner
Director or Marketing and Digital Education, Westar Institute
This piece is based on a sermon given in my role as Minister with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), which I perform in addition to my work at Westar. I endeavored to use Westar scholarship to inform and engage the congregation, inviting them into a new, historically-grounded, way of understanding baptism. Westar scholars and Seminars provide insight into topics and issues that can easily be translated for application to the life of the church.
Why was Jesus baptized? In light of the work Westar scholars have done on this topic recently, I posed this question to my congregation. But before we can begin to understand the answer to this question — at least in a Congregational context — I think we have to step back and ask, “Why are we baptized?”
There’s not necessarily a right or wrong answer, but I can come up with a couple common reasons: It’s part of entering the community of faith; it’s part of the process of “salvation” (however we understand that!); I’ve also heard it described as an outward demonstration of an inward experience. But often the answer those of us who have been baptized might fall back on is, we did it because Jesus did it; we follow his example.
So then we’ve come full circle and are back at our original question: why was Jesus baptized?? When looking through the lens of Jesus’ life, the reasons explored above fall flat.
Entering a community of faith? He already had - he was a Jewish man at this point, he would have already been presented at the temple. Part of salvation? However we would define or describe salvation I don’t think Jesus “needed” it, or would’ve understood it the way we do. It was an outward demonstration, of course, but of what?
Taking off 21st Century glasses
And here is where the work of the Christianity seminar helped me illuminate things for my congregation. Because as with so many things in the scriptures, we have to take off our 21st century glasses and try, as faithfully as we can, to go back in time. When we do, we find that the author of Mark is concerned with Jews who are living under Roman occupation, even under persecution. Mark does away with the birth narrative and kind of just jumps in right with the story of Jesus’ baptism — starting off with Jesus’ actions. You can see how this would be helpful for a community experiencing persecution to remember the “good news” of Jesus’ life — in the face of opposition of wars and rulers and enemies.
Then there are the titles. Mark labels Jesus as “Christ” and “Son of God” — for people in that time these titles are not interesting. What’s interesting is who they’re applied to. These titles meant “god’s anointed” and were commonly used for rulers at the time. But “god’s annointed-s” didn’t usually come from seemingly nowhere, into the water, into the desert, and then on to an itinerant lifestyle of ministry. These titles are a way of both foreshadowing Jesus’ nature, and also the author’s way of getting kind of a jab in at the rulers of the day.
Background of bathing
Another bit that might help us better understand what Jesus was up to in this baptism story is to note that “baptism” is a transliteration. It’s not the translation or interpretation of what was going on. In his work, Westar scholar Hal Taussig has pointed out that a more consistent title would be, “John the bather.” And if we dig a bit, here again we find that ritual bathing was not unusual at that time, but it’s the meaning it took on, that speaks to us today.
Most of us are probably familiar with the idea of Roman baths - a communal experience where yes, you got physically clean, but it was also about being with others, telling stories, sharing sadnesses. And people wouldn’t have had to necessarily go to an “official” bath house - archaeologists have discovered neighborhood and communal bathing pools between houses, shared spaces. As Taussig said in his presentation to the Christianity Seminar during Westar’s Fall Meeting, "In these settings, often the being together itself provided a sort of cleansing in the bathers lives” beyond just being physically clean.
Bathings in faith practice
And as you might imagine, something that was so important to the life of the community got brought over into the life of faith as well. Before John and Jesus, and our own questions of what we now call “baptism," the Jewish faith community, and others, were using these bathing rituals as part of committing to their way of living. Both non-Israel women and men bathed when they joined the community of Israel, as a way of washing away their past and acknowledging their new community with its own commitments and beliefs.
It’s likely that John is living into this bathing tradition — providing a variation of both communal and faith-based bathing practices. But remember the Israelite backstory: not only was this text written to people who were experiencing persecution, Jesus existed among people going through Roman occupation, humiliation, oppression.
The work of the Christianity Seminar on this topic asks, then: Could John be bathing or baptizing — operating — on another level here? Could he be urging the people of Jerusalem to recommit to their set-apartness? To come together as a community, to participate in a ritual, again? To wash themselves of any complacency or complicit-ness aimed at the Romans? To find themselves at the Jordan — the river that had been so important to their ancestors — in renewed commitment both to their community and to their faith?
Back to the question
If we understand this action as we’ve discussed here, as outlined by Taussig and others in the Christianity Seminar — as a ritual, as something communal and something faith-based, and with this new level added on as a commitment to a covenant with God and community — then this action is inherently problematic for the ruling powers.
A group of people are re-committing themselves to a set-apart way of being. To being a people of God, not a people of Rome. If this is what John was up to, and the people of Jerusalem were up to, I think it’s reasonable to say that this is what Jesus was up to.
Jesus was participating in a communal ritual that was at once commonplace and every day. A practice likely inherited from the very Roman forces that occupied and oppressed the Jewish people! And yet, like so much in Jesus’ life, it’s getting flipped around. It’s also an act of resistance against Roman rule, as it demonstrated a commitment to the Kin-dom of God, and service of God’s people.
So: are we following Jesus’ example?
This is the question I asked my people. We and if we get baptized, I think it’s fair to say, in the Christian church, that we do so because we are following Jesus' example. But what, then, does that mean?
I’m not talking about just what the act of baptism itself means, or the symbolism of dying to our old selves and rising with new life. I’m talking about what we actually do, now, in our lives as a way of living out what Jesus was up to when he went into the river with John.
To understand this example, we have to revisit the two components of what was going on in the ritual bathings we’ve come to call Baptism. First: Baptism is communal. Second: Baptism is counter-cultural. When we say we’re following Jesus’ example by getting baptized, it doesn’t just mean we’re imitating him by getting plunged into the water. It also means we’re taking on these ritual elements as part of our lives.
Baptism is Communal
We are baptized as part of a community, and all the beauty and the life and the mess that comes with that. And we have to figure out what our roles are in this community — it looks different for everyone. But if we’re taking Jesus’ baptism as an example, we have to admit that it doesn’t mean staying in your comfort zone, doing things the way you’ve always done them.
Jesus came out from his home, to the edges of the desert, to a wild baptizer (or bather!), to participate in this ritual as a member of the community. Which reminds us that even, and especially, in those moments when the life of faith calls us into uncharted territory, we are part of a community.
Baptism is Counter-cultural
We are baptized into a counter-cultural way of being in the world. Taussig’s work reminds us how the Jewish community of Jesus’ day was taking a Roman tradition and flipping it on its head. They were participating in this communal ritual and infusing it with their own meaning, using it to signify their original commitment - or even re-commitment - to the life of faith, literally and figuratively washing off any “dust” of associations with the powers that be.
If we’re looking for meaning in baptism, we have to continually ask ourselves: what dust of complicit-ness or complacency do we need to wash away? Where do we need to identify as people who live differently, and let our other identities take a back seat? What systems or structures or powers do we need to turn on their heads in our lives?
I love the way that the author of Mark starts off his story about Jesus’ life, by just picking up right here, at the baptism narrative without any pre-able. The author uses baptism as the start of the story — as the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Thanks to the work of Westar and the Christianity seminar, I was able to help my church see that the act of baptism isn’t an end in itself, it’s the beginning of our commitment to live differently — a commitment that we must continually re-vist and renew.