Solidarity with Sinners

This Sunday the Church celebrates the baptism of Christ. We will hear Mark’s account of Jesus coming to the Jordan with all the other sinners to undergo a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (1:9-11). And so his public ministry begins.

This account of Jesus’ baptism seems to have proved rather challenging for the early church in light of the fact that the other evangelists tell it differently. One issue appears to have been why would Jesus—the sinless one—need to undergo a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Another issue is how John and Jesus are related to each other if Jesus lets John baptize him. Therefore, in Matthew’s account John the Baptist tries to prevent Jesus from being baptized, and says that Jesus should be baptizing him. Jesus responds, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness” (3:15). In Luke’s account (3:21), Jesus is baptized, but it doesn’t specifically say that John administers the baptism.  By the time we get to John’s Gospel, there is no mention of Jesus being baptized at all.

I sense that what we see in these different accounts is the early church’s struggle with what it means to be holy. The early church was tempted to think that holiness is about separation from sinners, and therefore they struggled with how to connect Jesus with John’s baptism of repentance. For Jesus holiness was all about being in solidarity with sinners. Therefore, what more powerful way to inaugurate his ministry than to come down to the Jordan and be baptized with all the other sinners.

The church still struggles with what it means to be holy. It wasn’t all that long ago that The Episcopal Church didn’t welcome divorced persons to the Lord’s Table. My ordaining bishop once told me that in the 1970s he visited one of his parishes on Sunday and removed a notice from the church bulletin board that made it clear divorced persons weren’t welcome.

If we are honest, we all have our own “purity codes,” which reveal the people from whom we steer clear. Some of us avoid the uneducated. Others avoid racists. Most of us keep away from panhandlers, addicts, and those whose behavior is off-puting. What would it look like for us to move toward rather than away from such people? How would this change us? Moving towards such people might well benefit them in some way, but what we will most likely discover is how much it changes us. You see it is generally the case that what most troubles us about someone else is something we can’t accept about ourselves. Therefore, our inability to embrace our own flawed humanity means that we project that rejection on others. As we move towards others whom we find it difficult to embrace, we discover that by the grace of God we come to embrace the unacceptable parts of ourselves.

As we celebrate the Baptism of Christ this Sunday, let us discover that our own baptism is about our profound solidarity with all other sinners and that our mission is to move towards all people for their sake and ours.