This week, Robert Marchand set a world record for cycling 14 miles in an hour — at the age of 105. I was intrigued, so I read more about Marchand. Born in France, in 1911, he survived two world wars. He held many jobs in his life. He was a firefighter, a truck driver in Venezuela, and a lumberjack in Canada. For much of his life, he had no time for sports. It was not until age 68 that he took up cycling seriously, completing a succession of long-distance rides and setting a number of records. According to his coach and friend, Gerard Mistler, the secret of Marchand’s success is simple: “He eats fruits and vegetables, doesn’t smoke, drinks wine only on occasion, goes to bed at 9 p.m. and exercises every day.” It seems to me that there’s another factor at work here. I find it remarkable that at an age when he was well past his peak physical stamina, he entered in to a new life oriented around challenging his body and celebrating its capabilities.
Jesus, too, took up a new life well into adulthood. His baptism marked the beginning of his public ministry at age 30. Over the centuries, theologians have struggled to make sense of Jesus’ baptism. We can hear the discomfort in Matthew’s account. John protests when Jesus wades into the river beside him. John’s baptism is one of repentance, of turning again toward God. Why does Jesus—who reveals God uniquely to the world—need repentance?
A light bulb went off for me when I read a commentary by Warren Carter, who points out the significance of where Jesus was baptized. The Jordan River. The Jordan River is, as Carter puts it, “the river that the people of Israel, God’s children, crossed [when they reached the promised land]. They entered into a new communal life to be shaped by God’s will instead of oppressive Egyptian power and punitive wilderness wanderings.” So we have to try not to read this text through the lens of our modern, individualistic sense of identity. Instead, let’s recall the communal way in which ancient people constructed their identities. Jesus is baptized by John, at the Jordan, in order to make it clear that this is a threshold moment for the community of God’s people as a whole. Once again, they are crossing over from slavery into freedom. They are entering into a new life, a new identity. The heavens are opening to them, collectively, and declaring them God’s beloved children.
Jesus’ Baptism is a moment that defines the church as much as it defines Jesus. Robert Saler writes:
The baptismal text begins a pattern in Jesus’ ministry that I’m not sure is taken with enough seriousness: Jesus continually empowering the church for service rather than limiting that power to himself…. Throughout all four Gospels we see the remarkable insistence on the part of Jesus that the power to heal the world… is something that…Jesus intends to share with the church, and to multiplying effect.
The confirmation class has been studying church history. Before 300 CE, the Roman Empire persecuted Christians for saying, “Jesus is Lord—not the emperor.” “Jesus is the son of God, with a divine birth story—not the emperor.” In saying this they declared that they would honor the authority of one who serves, rather than the one who exploits; one who shares the power to heal, rather than one whose power sickens and kills the people. And of course, when the Roman Empire couldn’t silence the church, they took it over. The name of the Prince of Peace was invoked to justify crusades and inquisitions and colonization, and well, you know the story. But what I wonder is this…just how significant is this moment in history for the church? It seems to me that the church, having been kicked out of the center of American life, finally has a genuine opportunity to disentangle ourselves from empire. Just as our ancestors did, we stand at the Jordan, with Jesus, and we turn again toward God. Egypt is behind us and a land of promise is before us. Collectively we share in the baptism of Christ. Collectively we embody a power that can heal the world.
This past week, a few of us met with partners in our neighborhood—University Baptist, Hope and Grace Lutheran—and we envisioned what it might look like to develop a coalition of sanctuary churches. How will we define sanctuary? we asked each other. Each of our congregations has a strong tradition of welcoming the stranger, of advocating for persons marginalized in our society. We exist to be communities of safety and refuge, who stand in solidarity with those fighting for justice. Even as our definition of “sanctuary” may be expansive, there are specific questions on the table about whether we might work together to protect undocumented immigrants.
I’ll be honest, it’s clear that the issue of sanctuary reveals some deep divides in what we believe and how we feel called to act. I see the civil disobedience involved in providing sanctuary as a necessary step in living our faith and loving our neighbors. As ISAIAH Immigration organizer, Catalina Morales said, “When people know that someone is undocumented, their humanity is taken away. So there are a million things that could happen to someone who is undocumented because they’re not seen as a human being. And part of declaring a sanctuary, and why it’s so crucial for this to happen in a congregation is because you’re saying, ‘No, this person is a child of God.’”
I believe that sometimes, we must break unjust and inhumane laws in order to create the political will and spiritual energy required to reform them. And I am willing to accept the consequences of these kinds of actions. But I know that not everyone is comfortable with the point of view I just articulated. I respect that not everyone sees this issue the way I do. So we need to have some tough conversations. We have to take time to do some deep listening and careful discernment. I do feel anxious, stirred up inside, about how this will all turn out. But I also trust in the collective wisdom of our community and in the spirit that is leading us.
Recently, the Christian Century magazine published a set of reflections by transgender Christians, in which they responded to the question, “How do you hold together your trans identity and your life of faith?” Episcopal Priest Carla Robinson wrote about Baptism.
When I came out as trans to my supervising pastor, I lost a position, an income, a vocation, my peers, friends, a church home, my reason for living, and almost my faith. I fell into a darkness that felt like something out of the Psalms: the depths, the pit, bowls of tears, the wilderness. It felt like death. But God never let go. I came again into the light of day, ready to start my new life, even as I knew that I would never be separated from my old life. I would have to find a way to make sense of the two. I didn’t have to go far to find that way. I found it in Jesus. At the heart of the gospel is Christ’s death and resurrection. In baptism a person becomes a part of Jesus’ death and resurrection. I began to look at my transition as a baptismal story. I began to use the language of death and resurrection to talk about my life. Being trans and passing through transition helped me understand that death and resurrection is the way Christians move through the world. It is the pattern of our lives.
Baptism is a spiritual, emotional and bodily risk. It is a gift we can receive or refuse. It is a new life with continuity to the old life even as it transcends its boundaries. Some baptisms are a clear crossroads, a river we forge once and for all. But many baptisms are a journey, a process, a life-changing commitment made through days and years of struggle with the core questions of our faith: What does it mean for our communal life to be shaped by God’s will? How are we called to live the pattern of death and resurrection? Will we repent, turn again toward God?