Matthew 3:13-17 (MSG)
13-14 Jesus then appeared, arriving at the Jordan River from Galilee. He wanted John to baptize him. John objected, “I’m the one who needs to be baptized, not you!”
15 But Jesus insisted. “Do it. God’s work, putting things right all these centuries, is coming together right now in this baptism.” So John did it.
16-17 The moment Jesus came up out of the baptismal waters, the skies opened up and he saw God’s Spirit—it looked like a dove—descending and landing on him. And along with the Spirit, a voice: “This is my Son, chosen and marked by my love, delight of my life.”
Why was Jesus baptised? Great question.
John the Baptiser is clear about the meaning of the baptism he offers: it’s a baptism for repentance. Most teachings I’ve heard remind us that Jesus was sinless but he went through the purging experience of baptism to emphasise the importance of that ritual to those of us who would follow Him. However, I’m taking a punt on the notion that maybe Jesus had some repenting to do.
I loathe the anonymous inventor of the word “repent”; our translation of the word metanoia. Repent began its life in the 14th century and carried connotations of regret, but my Religious Education teacher in school went to great pains to explain that metanoia was a really positive thing. Metanoia, as you have no doubt learned from more learned sources, is a total change in mind-set, a turning around to a new way of perceiving a situation, one’s life, or even reality itself. I’ll admit that often such a conversion goes hand-in-hand with a regretful sense that one has wasted one’s time or caused damage by their old way of doing things, but does metanoia always have to have a moral failure at its heart? Can it be a conversion from good, to better? An enlightening that grows progressively brighter?
What do we even believe baptism to be if we think it’s only about washing away sins? Could I suggest it’s a symbolic activity God prescribed that helps us touch a mystery so beautiful and mind-blowing that we shouldn’t be easily able to conceptualise it – much less reduce to a financial transaction in the Bank of Sin? John the Baptiser didn’t say anything about sin! He called people to repent (for want of a better word). Not repentance from sins necessarily, just repentance. In Matthew 3:6 it mentions that the people confessed their sins as they were baptised, and that was an important part of their baptism, but maybe Jesus’ baptism shows that sin-regret is not the whole story.
Yes, one of the most wonderful parts of the ritual of baptism is seeing a literal washing that symbolises sanctification. I remember singing “What can wash away my sin” as a child while a man played a guitar and his wife held up laminated A3 lyrics sheets that were written in carefully coloured lettering to illustrate the red blood washing the black sin til it was white as snow. I could laugh now at the heavy-handed message, but there is nothing more powerful in the story of our reality than the fact that God can and will defeat evil. Baptism is about turning away from sin, but, without denying this, I think it’s important to remember that it’s about more than this.
You see, metanoia might also mean resetting or starting out in a new direction. Repentance colours are not always red, white and black and, actually, stains aren’t always bad. When you cook food there’s a lot of washing that follows, but the utensils haven’t been stained. They’ve been put to use and they bear the marks of that, but we wash them and get ready for something different that’s coming down the line. It’s a turn around that doesn’t necessitate sackcloth and ashes, and beating of one’s breast. This turning means setting the holy past down and picking up a Godly but terrifying future. Is there a possibility that Jesus’ baptism was about starting a new phase in his life? He was God but he was also a boy carpenter becoming the man who would feel the pain of every tortured soul he encountered, who would rarely find rest from those who needed his help, who would love every human he met completely and be misunderstood by them just as completely. He didn’t need to say sorry, but maybe he needed to have everything in his heart and soul shifted into place for the journey ahead by the love of his Father.
Can baptism, or the symbolic meaning of baptism, or even just the story of Jesus’ baptism, teach us something about new starts and changes in direction all of which are overseen by a Loving Father who is, at the very least, as much pleased with us as he is concerned about our sin. His pleasure in you is the only thing that will catalyse metanoia in the moments that require a total conversion of your intentions, your thoughts and your will as you take the life-long pilgrimage to become who he has called you to be.
Emma Rothwell currently divides her time between the Church of Ireland Dioceses of Meath & Kildare where she is the Diocesan Youth and Children’s Officer and Wilson’s Hospital School where she is the School Chaplain.