This week we are dealing with several things: Baptism, ordination/installation, and it happens to be MLK weekend. I will be attempting to pull all of those into the sermon this weekend, but first, I wanted to share a thought on baptism that won’t be making it into the sermon.
This week’s scripture is Mark’s version of the Baptism of Christ. I have always thought there is an interesting question about this story that most of us gloss over—where did this practice of baptism come from? It has all sorts of meanings in the Christian tradition, but clearly, the practice that John the Baptist is overseeing predates the church. What was John doing?
We assume that it is the same thing that happens in the Christian Church—washing away sin, reception into the community, dying and rising with Christ, etc. But all of those things are later theological concepts. Reza Aslan points to an Essene practice that makes sense given the descriptions of John and Jesus’ baptism.
Aslan talks about the corruption in the religious system in Jerusalem, and the Essene belief that real religious practice had to be divorced from the corrupt religious system. As a result, the Essenes moved away from Jerusalem and many became ascetics and wild preachers/prophets—not unlike the description we have of John the Baptist.
Since the Essenes were sick of the corruption of the religious and political systems of Israel, they wanted to wipe the slate clean and start over. One of the ways they symbolically enacted this fresh start was to go back to where the Israelites started in the Holy Land—the other side of the Jordan River—and cross the river again as a symbol of starting over. Not only was it about cleansing sins, but it was quite literally saying we need a fresh start—a do-over.
I love the theological ramifications of this. Baptism is a fresh start, a do-over, a new beginning. I also love what this means in the context of infant baptism—each child is a fresh start for us all! As we start a new year, many people see this as an opportunity for a new beginning, or a time for new resolutions. It seems like a very fitting time for us to be talking about baptism.
Finally, in a very real way, the church has a fresh start this Sunday. We will be ordaining and installing new elders and deacons. Now, don’t take the analogy too far here—the last elders and deacons weren’t corrupt—they were all wonderful! But, this is a new start for our community with new leaders. This means we will have new opportunities and new ways for all of us to be a part of the ministry of this congregation. I am certainly excited to see where they will be leading us next.