For most of my childhood and youth, there were three pets in my house. Or, perhaps more accurately, for most of my childhood and youth, there were three pets that permitted the rest of us to dwell in their domain. One dog and two cats. The dog’s name was Jiggers. He was part Toy Terrier and part Pekingese. One of the cats was Siamese. Her name was Wing Wong. The other cat, Muffy, was a tabby.
Jiggers. Muffy. and Wing Wong. It still feels very natural to me to say their names.
The three animals got along pretty well. In fact, they would even sample one another’s food periodically. But every once in a while, if Jiggers the dog became a bit too aggressive in his playtime with the cats, one of the cats would turn toward him and hiss. Whenever that happened, Jiggers, the mighty dog, the fearsome hound, would turn around and run away with his tail between his legs.
No matter how many times it happened, that moment would always fascinate me. It seemed humorously and ridiculously out of order. Dogs were supposed to scare cats. It wasn’t supposed to be the other way around.
We tend to pay particular attention in those moments, don’t we—those moments in which things are out of order? When a cat chases a dog out of a room, we chuckle at the role reversal. When a young child puts her hands on her hips and corrects a parent—“Mommie, you shouldn’t be saying that bad word”—we find humor in the transfer of authority. When a student corrects a teacher’s mistake—“Uh, Mrs. Smith, the correct answer is 14 not 16”—the entire class enjoys the sudden pedagogical shift. We tend to pay uncommonly close attention during those moments in which things and relationships seem to be out of order.
Perhaps that is why the story of Jesus’ baptism has always captured my attention in a very particular fashion. Perhaps I’m intrigued by the story because it places before us a situation that is clearly out of order. Jesus, the Son of God, the incarnation of God’s very heart, comes to John (commonly known as John the Baptist) in order to be baptized in the river Jordan.
According to the Gospel of Matthew’s description of the event (which has always been my favorite description, even though it is not a part of this year’s lectionary), John himself senses that Jesus’ presence before him is out of order. After all, the baptism that John offered was a baptism of repentance, meaning that people would come to him for baptism only when they were ready to turn away from their sin. Why would Jesus, God’s messiah, God’s chosen one, connect himself to such a blatantly human practice?
It is interesting that, in Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 3:13-17), we are told that John would have prevented Jesus from being baptized: “No, Jesus, this is wrong. This is out of order. This isn’t how it should be. You are God’s Messiah. You are God’s Christ. YOU should be baptizing ME, not the other way around.”
Jesus’ response is significant. “John, let it be this way. Let it be out of order. Because my baptism will fulfill all righteousness.”
What does Jesus mean by that, do you think? “My baptism will fulfill all righteousness.”
In Matthew’s Gospel, righteousness normally means accomplishing the will of God. Therefore, when Jesus says that his baptism will fulfill all righteousness, he may very well be telling John that his baptism will accomplish or bring to fruition God’s perfect will. And why would it be God’s will for Jesus to be baptized? Perhaps because, by allowing himself to be baptized, Jesus creates a public solidarity and oneness with the very people he came into the world to save. By allowing himself to be baptized, in other words, Jesus is making clear to John and the people that he is willing to enter the very same water that they are occupying. He is willing to connect himself to human sin through the water of baptism.
Is God pleased with this moment of baptism? Apparently so. I say that because, during the baptism, something happens. Something supernatural. Something revelatory. Jesus discerns that the heavens have opened. Jesus discerns that God’s Holy Spirit has descended upon him and anointed him. And Jesus discerns the voice of God, whispering a parental word of affirmation: “This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased.”
I wonder how many parents have thought the same kind of thing during the baptism of their son or daughter? “This is my beloved child with whom I am well pleased.”
It is an out of order moment. John the Baptist knows that. But according to Jesus, it is God’s will for him to subordinate himself to the water of John’s ministry. “John let it be this way, let it be out of order. Because my baptism will fulfill all righteousness. My baptism will accomplish the will of God. My baptism will make tangible the incarnational solidarity with the Divine that my ministry represents.”
I invite you to consider a possibility. Consider the possibility that we, like John the Baptist, actually have the wherewithal to baptize Jesus all over again. This, of course, is not an effort on my part to minimize or distort the foundational baptism that only Jesus can offer. But perhaps the baptism that we experience in Christ is first received from him and then offered back to him in response.
As people who carry on with the ministry of John, preparing the way for Jesus’ coming and heralding his arrival, perhaps we, like John, actually have the spiritual capacity to offer back to Jesus the ministry of baptism. Only, instead of baptizing Jesus with water as John did, perhaps we have the opportunity to baptize Jesus with the outpouring of our ministry and our discipleship.
Nineteen years ago, I officiated at my very first adult baptism. The one baptized was a 67-year-old woman who had been a woman of faith for many years. Somehow, however, she had missed the sacrament of baptism. Her parents had not pursued baptism for her when she was an infant, and, although she had come to a rich and vibrant faith in Christ, she had simply put off the sacrament. In fact she had put it off for so long that people stopped asking her about it. But it never stopped troubling her that she had not experienced the baptismal water.
And so, at the age of 67, Lottie Cavanaugh came under the water of baptism, and I had the honor of officiating.
Following that worship service, I asked Lottie what she was going to do now that she was a baptized believer. This was her response: “Jesus baptized me with his grace,” she said, “and now I’m going to baptize him right back.”
“Lottie, I’m not sure what you mean by that. What do you mean you’re going to ‘baptize Jesus right back?’”
“That’s how I look at it,” she said. “It’s like this: I look at my life as a pitcher of water. And what I’m telling you is that I want to pour that pitcher all over Jesus so that he can be drenched with my outpoured life.”
Lottie was a bit of a poet—and perhaps a bit of a sacramental theologian.
If I truly believed that I have the wherewithal to baptize the Lord Jesus afresh with the spiritual water of my outpoured love and compassion and mercy, I wonder how it would impact the way I treat people. I wonder how it would change the way I looked upon my possessions and my financial resources. I wonder how it would affect the way I worship and commune with other believers. I wonder how it would deepen the way I live out my discipleship.
It seems out of order, doesn’t it, that we would have the opportunity to baptize Jesus (the very One who baptizes us in grace)? And yet, as John discovered, such an “out of order” experience may very well be a portion of the fulfillment of all righteousness.