Day 250: Matthew 28:18-20 – Part 2

I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth.  Go, then, to all peoples everywhere and make them my disciples: baptize them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and teach them to obey everything I have commanded you.

[This is the second of four reflections on this scripture where Jesus gives his disciples their final instructions before he ascends into heaven.]

After Jesus is crucified he returns and gives his disciples some final instructions.  He tells them to go and “disciple” people by baptizing and teaching them.  Today I’m going to look at his first instruction – to baptize people.

The first words that Jesus speaks in the Book of Matthew are at the time of his baptism.  Jesus began his ministry by being baptized in the Jordan River by John the Baptist.  John the Baptist was an outspoken prophet called for people to repent (change their ways) because the Kingdom of God was near.   He also called for people to be baptized as a sign of their intent to reform their lives.   John’s baptism, which involved the immersion of the physical body in water, was a symbol of the cleansing of the inner being in preparation for a fresh start.  Baptism at that time was about leaving the past behind, with all of its baggage, and starting a new life of obedience to God.  I already wrote quite a bit about John the Baptist and the practice of baptism on Day 103.

When you look at both this passage and the ministry of John the Baptist, it seems like maybe baptism is another practice that has been corrupted over the years by Christendom.

First, this scripture tells us that Jesus wanted his followers to baptize people.  I want to be a follower of Jesus, but how many people have I baptized?  None, of course, because I am not a pastor. I am not allowed to baptize people.  Only authorized pastors and priests are allowed to baptize people. The church prohibits me from doing what Jesus said I should do.  Back in John the Baptist day you were baptized into the Kingdom of God.  Today you get baptized into “the church”.  Baptism has become a church initiation rite and ordained clergy are the gatekeepers to the church.  Of course Jesus wasn’t big on religious gatekeepers. (See Day 198).  He was a “power to the people” kind of guy.  And anyone can baptize. It’s not like it requires any special skill to dunk somebody and say the words.

Second, because baptism is about being accepted into the church, it’s not really a symbol of repentance anymore.  Most denominations baptize you as an infant so you really don’t have much to repent about at that point in your life.  Further, you are sent into the world with no recollection of your baptism.  Some, like the Baptists, wait until you are about 12 or so.  In either case people are baptized before puberty and young adulthood were all of the real problems begin.  You are baptized in advance of your most sinful years.

Third, many adults think they are not “good enough” to come to church.  They feel ashamed.  They feel like the people in the church are all holy and they are too much of a hot mess to step into the building. Maybe if all of us ordinary disciples were allowed to get out there baptize people they would come to church, because baptism washes away all that shame.  The current situation is a vicious cycle.  People are too ashamed to come to church, but they have to come to church and (probably) have to be quizzed by a scary clergy-person before they can get cleansed. It’s kind of a roadblock.  It would be better if they could be baptized by someone who they know and trust.

And then, of course, there is the issue of re-baptism for all those people who, like me, screw up and need another baptism to wipe the slate clean because they were baptized as infants and have no recollection whatsoever of the first one.  And re-baptism is, of course, forbidden.  I already told the story about how I was re-baptized on Day 233.  My husband, who is a pastor, refused to do it but one day everything came together and we were both re-baptized when we were on vacation.

Today’s blog includes my husband John Hudson’s current thoughts on the issue of re-baptism. He’s a retired Methodist pastor who tried for years to convince me that I didn’t need to be re-baptized (to no avail).

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I read Susan’s blog about being baptized as an adult. Yes, I did tell her that the policy was that if you were baptized as a baby that was it. So it was a time until by the power and guidance of the Holy Spirit not only Susan but I received baptism as an adult. For me, now that I think of it, although I appreciate the blessing of baptism as a baby that happened by the act of my parents, it is clear that for me that was not an experiential event.  Even if it was said in a liturgy, “Remember your baptism” at a service, I did not have any conscious remembrance of that event. While at Granville UMC I presided over adult baptisms in Lake Michigan and there is quite a difference in the feel and experience. The baptized adult knows he or she has been baptized and can remember his or her baptism.

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In the history of the early church adult baptism was the norm. Infant baptism came later as a way of ushering the new born into the community of the church without allowing free will and experience to operate. On top of that the story was that the newborn would go to hell if something did happen in those first months and years in times when child mortality rates were very high. It all became part of the institution and was carried on without question until the Radical Reformation and the Anabaptists, stood for adult baptism even for those who had been baptized as infants. Others who followed this tradition include the Amish, the Mennonites, and the Christian Church (the Disciples of Christ). There may be others as well.

2002_Rebaptism_John_1I no longer pastor a church but have always baptized infants as well as adults. It is a time of blessing and I pray that all baptisms lead to a full experience. As I have found out, there is not a sufficient recognition of that full experience, if and when it happens. I doubt that churches that promote infant baptism will change, but I think anyone who feels the need to be newly baptized including by immersion needs to have that option. Just for further thought, here are the words of Karl Barth, one of the great Reformed theologians of the 20th century on this subject:

“The real reason for the persistent adherence to infant baptism is quite simply the fact that without it the church would suddenly be in a remarkably embarrassing position. Every individual would then have to decide whether he wanted to be a Christian. But how many Christians would there be in that case? The whole concept of a national church (or national religion) would be shaken. That must not happen; and so one proposes argument upon argument for infant baptism and yet cannot speak convincingly because fundamentally he has a bad conscience. The introduction of adult baptism in itself would of course not reform the church which needs reforming. The adherence to infant baptism is only one — a very important one — of many symptoms that the church is not alive and bold, that it is afraid to walk on the water like Peter to meet the Lord, that it therefore does not seek a sure foundation but only deceptive props.”

As you can see, my husband’s opinion about baptism continues to evolve.  I think the entire church needs to take another look at this.  You see, the problem is that we don’t always live happily ever after, even after we “give our lives to Jesus”.  Things go wrong and sometimes we need a fresh start.  Sometimes more than once.  I remember in that movie “The Apostle” the Robert Duvall character needs to start over so he re-baptizes himself in a lake.  I’ve felt like that.  When everything falls out from under you and you are ready to begin again, re-baptism seems appropriate.  Whenever you really need to turn things around or initiate a new life phase.  Like when you start a new ministry, or are preparing for marriage, or when you emerge from a period of grieving, or when you become an empty nester, or when you give up an addiction, or when you turn 70 or 50 or even 30, or when you retire, or when you move to a new city, or when you’ve had a revelatory spiritual experience or something.  It seems like there could be more than one of these turning points in one’s life.

My current pastor works around this by saying that you should remember your baptism every time you take a shower, or every time you take a bath.  Every time you go into the water it can be a sign of a new life.  Just like Robert Duvall you can emerge from your daily shower renewed and ready for a fresh start.

Nevertheless I think there is a missed opportunity here for the Kingdom of God.  If Jesus says we should baptize, I think we should all be able to do it.  He never imposes any limitations.  The Bible doesn’t limit the number of baptisms.  There’s no shortage of water.  And when it comes to the philosophy of Jesus, he says we must forgive seventy times seven times.  I think he would probably say we should be allowed to get that many baptisms if that’s what it takes to keep us on track.  Seventy time seven baptisms.  And why would God object to re-baptism?  There’s no limit to God’s grace and mercy and the number of fresh starts that he is willing to give us.  So why do we set limits where God does not?

What does this scripture say to you?

Day 231: Matthew 26:18

Go to a certain man in the city and tell him: “The Teacher says, ‘My hour has come; my disciples and I will celebrate the Passover at your house.’”

This is the second time that Jesus tells his disciples to go and meet someone whom God has supposedly prepared for their arrival.

On the first day of the Festival of Unleavened Bread the disciples came to Jesus and asked him, “Where do you want us to get the Passover meal ready for you?” “Go to a certain man in the city,” he said to them, “and tell him: ‘The Teacher says, My hour has come; my disciples and I will celebrate the Passover at your house.’”  The disciples did as Jesus had told them and prepared the Passover meal. (Matthew 26:17-19)

The first time was when he told the disciples to get the donkey that carried him into Jerusalem:

Go to the village there ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied up with her colt beside her. Untie them and bring them to me. And if anyone says anything, tell him, ‘The Master needs them’; and then he will let them go at once. (Matthew 21:2-3).

Later in the New Testament these kinds of supernaturally orchestrated interactions continue.  In Acts 10 there is a story about a Gentile named Cornelius was visited by an angel who told him to send his people to find Jesus’ disciple Peter.  Meanwhile, Peter had a vision about all kinds of animals coming down from heaven on a large sheet, both clean and unclean, which a voice from heaven told him to eat.  When Cornelius’ people arrived, the Holy Spirit told Peter to go with them, even though Peter, who was a Jew, was not allowed by his religion to visit or associate with Gentiles.  But Peter remembered the dream and so he stayed and ate and visited with Cornelius because he was confident that it was what God wanted.  The experience demonstrated God’s desire that the Jews and Gentiles were supposed to get together. They weren’t supposed to let the Law of Moses and Jewish tradition get in the way of love and relationship.

Also, there was a man named Ananias who had a vision where Jesus appeared and told him to seek out the apostle Paul and heal his blindness.  Ananias was afraid, because Paul was a known persecutor of Christians before his own converting experience on the road to Damascus, but Ananias was obedient.  He found Paul, prayed for him, and Paul was both healed and filled with the Holy Spirit.  How did Ananias know he wouldn’t be killed?  He didn’t.  It was a leap of faith.  He trusted the vision.

I wonder if the people that gave Jesus the donkey or the room for the Passover dinner had similar divine visitations before they were approached by the disciples.  I wonder if they were apprehensive about sharing their property with a stranger.  I wish the Bible gave more details.  I’m sure there are many thousands, if not millions, of good stories like these that remain untold.

I’ve had a few experiences like these were you feel like you are operating within a greater plan.  For example, when I turned by life over to God when I was about 30, I decided the first thing I needed to do was read the Bible all the way through and then maybe try to find a church.  But I started to feel like God was calling on me not to wait on the church part, so I reluctantly took the Sunday morning plunge.  Granville United Methodist was the second church I tried.  I liked the pastor, and when he preached he glowed.  Literally.  I would see him surrounded by a soft, white glow. I knew it was either a really good sign or a really bad one.  Turns out it was a good one.  We got married and have been super happy together for 26 years.

One of the first things I wanted to do after my conversion was to get baptized.  I had been through a lot in my young adulthood and I felt unclean.  My pastor husband said this wasn’t possible because I had been baptized as an infant and couldn’t be baptized again.  I felt this was really unfair and we argued about it.  Eventually we started developing a relationship with a United Pentecostal Church that we attended when we were on vacation in Michigan.  Those folks believe that everyone needs to be baptized “in the name of Jesus for the remission of sin” (as in the Book of Acts) and so my Methodist baptism “in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” (as in the Book of Matthew) didn’t count.  After while the pastor started saying, “I’m going to baptize you” every time he saw me.  Every time he said it I brought it up to my husband and he said it wasn’t necessary, but I kept saying it was necessary to ME.

One day while we were on vacation we had another argument about it and my husband said, “OK. Let’s stop by the church right now and if Pastor Haner is there then we will BOTH be baptized.”  We drove by and there was the pastor, standing out in front of the church waiting for us!!  And we were both baptized, or re-baptized, or whatever you call it.  A good old immersion baptism, but just a little sprinkle on the head.  It meant so much to me and it really changed my life for the better.  I will never forget that image of the pastor standing there in the front yard of his church looking around.  I started yelling, “There he is! There he is!  STOP THE CAR!”  It was amazing.  When we pulled up Pastor Haner simply said, “I knew you’d come.”

So I guess that’s what it takes for the Kingdom of God to advance.   You have to be in tune with what’s going on in your heart, and then you have to be willing to take a leap of faith.  You just need to trust your gut and give it a shot.  Even if it’s a little unorthodox.  Even if it involves bending the rules of the church.  As with everything else in life you need to trust your instincts – and nothing ventured, nothing gained.

What does this scripture say to you?

Day 103: Matthew 11:11

I assure you that John the Baptist is greater than any man who has ever lived.  But he who is least in the Kingdom of heaven is greater than John.

[A crowd has gathered to hear what Jesus has to say about John the Baptist, who has been arrested by King Herod.]

John the Baptist – one of the most beloved characters in Christianity.  After all, who doesn’t love baptisms – all those cute babies dressed in fluffy white outfits while the pastor drips a little water on their heads.  Who is cuter – the one who smiles or the one who cries?  And then there is the great John the Baptist controversy – were those “locusts” he ate bugs or tree pods?  Did John the Baptist really eat bugs?  Another lively Christian debate.

What do we know about John the Baptist?

  • John the Baptist preached repentance.  He wanted people to change their ways to prepare for the Kingdom of Heaven.  He wanted them to get serious about obeying Jewish law.

At that time John the Baptist came to the desert of Judea and started preaching. “Turn away from your sins,” he said, “because the Kingdom of heaven is near!”  (Matthew 3:1-2).

  • John dressed and ate like a wild man.

John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair; he wore a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. (Matthew 3:4).

  •  John was popular guy. He gained famed for baptizing people for remission of sin.  This was the ritual cleansing component of his ministry. Baptism enabled them to give up their burden of sin and start over again.

People came to him from Jerusalem, from the whole province of Judea, and from all over the country near the Jordan River. They confessed their sins, and he baptized them in the Jordan. (Matthew 3:5-6).

  • John didn’t like the Pharisees and the religious authorities of the day.  Nope, not one little bit.  And he wasn’t shy about letting them know how he felt.  Indeed, he was a bit of a loose cannon. He called them snakes and threatened them with metaphorical axes (Matthew 3:7-10).

When John saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming to him to be baptized, he said to them, “You snakes—who told you that you could escape from the punishment God is about to send? Do those things that will show that you have turned from your sins. And don’t think you can escape punishment by saying that Abraham is your ancestor. I tell you that God can take these rocks and make descendants for Abraham! The ax is ready to cut down the trees at the roots; every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown in the fire.

  • John confronted not only religious authorities, but political ones as well.   His public condemnation of King Herod’s incestuous marriage was the reason he was arrested and later executed. (Matthew 14:3-5).

For Herod had earlier ordered John’s arrest, and he had him tied up and put in prison. He had done this because of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife. For some time John the Baptist had told Herod, “It isn’t right for you to be married to Herodias!”

  • John believed that he was the ‘messenger’ who was tasked with preparing the way for “the one” who was prophesied by Isaiah (See Day 101).  He believed he was preparing the way for Jesus or someone like him (Matthew 3:11-12).

I baptize you with water to show that you have repented, but the one who will come after me will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. He is much greater than I am; and I am not good enough even to carry his sandals. He has his winnowing shovel with him to thresh out all the grain. He will gather his wheat into his barn, but he will burn the chaff in a fire that never goes out.”

The History of Baptism

Some form of ritual purification or cleansing, is a common practice of all major world religions.  It is usually required before the worship of their deity.

  • Bahá’í wash their hands and faces before the recitation of prayers
  • Buddhists cleanse in a special basin when they visit Buddhist temples.  Ritual purification is also part of their tea ceremonies.
  • Hindus do a lot of ritual purification, including full body bathing in holy rivers like the Ganges. This kind of purification is generally done before any festival and it is also practiced after someone dies.  Hindus touch and sip water while reciting prayers.  Water is sprinkled over people before they are married.  A lesser-known practice is ritual bathing substances other than water like milk, honey, ghee, or rosewater before the installation of religious or political leaders.
  • One of the ritual purification rituals of the Native Americans is the use of a sauna, known as a sweatlodge, as preparation for various ceremonies.  They also believe that smudge sticks have a purifying effect.  Some tribes use water daily for ritual cleansing, while other reserve this as a preparation for special events.
  • Muslims use water purification as a preparation for prayer.  Some groups require cleansing before holding the Qur’an.  They are also allowed to do “dry ablution” with sand or earth if water isn’t available.
  • In Shinto, ritual purification must be performed at a waterfall or other running water.  Clothing is worn during the purification process.

The baptism performed by John had its roots in Jewish practice:

Baptism has similarities to Tvilah, a Jewish purification ritual of immersing in water, which is required for, among other things, conversion to Judaism, but which differs in being repeatable, while baptism is to be performed only once. John the Baptist, who is considered a forerunner to Christianity, used baptism as the central sacrament of his messianic movement. Christians consider Jesus to have instituted the sacrament of baptism, though whether Jesus intended to institute a continuing, organized church is a matter of dispute among scholars. (From Wikipedia).

The pastor of my church says that you should remember your baptism every time you shower.  Let’s face it.  Taking a good bath or shower can definitely be a spiritual experience.  It feels really good and gets you in that relaxed prayerful mindset.  I have had many good revelations while soaking in the tub.

The Greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven?

Now that we have some background, let’s get back to the scripture.  For both John and Jesus, the main thing wasn’t what they were doing.  The main thing wasn’t baptism or healing or preaching or gathering disciples.  The main thing wasn’t the water or the ritual cleansing. The main thing was to promote the Kingdom of Heaven/Kingdom of God.  It was their passion, that God’s reign should be established on the earth.  Jesus refers to “the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven” later in Matthew 18:4 when he says, The greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven is the one who humbles himself and becomes like this child.

I think Jesus is saying that the Kingdom of Heaven will be so wonderful that even the greatest person on earth can’t really imagine its glories.  It will be a whole new ballgame.  We know from Isaiah Chapter 65 that it will be a very peaceful place, where lions and lambs lie down together, and John wasn’t exactly a peaceful kind of guy.  He was pretty confrontational.   Maybe when people get to heaven all their rough edges get smoothed out when they experience immersion in the glorious presence of God.  Maybe at death we are baptized into God himself and transformed by his glory.  The ultimate baptism.

Jesus says that John is great, but he doesn’t want his followers to make the mistake of turning John into an idol or a god. He wants them to remember that John is just a man. I think Jesus is telling them, “Keep your eyes on the prize, folks.  We’ve got a long way to go.  It’s not about me or John.  It’s about God’s kingdom unfolding here on earth.  It’s about God.”

With Jesus, it was always about God.  But he really liked and respected John.  He says John is the greatest man who ever lived.  Jesus may have said that John would be one of the least in the Kingdom of Heaven, but here on earth John surely had a premier place heart of Jesus because they both wanted the same thing. They were both 100% sold out for their God.

John the Baptist in the Bible – a raw, angry, crude, driven, scary prophet who was beheaded for his ideals.

John the Baptist in Church – comical bug-eating, baby-loving baptizer and Jesus promoter.  Comical sidekick and announcer, like Guillermo on Jimmy Kimmel or Ed McMahon on Johnny Carson.

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My husband John with his beloved John the Baptist puppet.

I’m ending this one with a picture of my husband with the John the Baptist puppet that he created and used every year during Advent.  Larger than life, a little comical, a bit scary, definitely crude.  I used to think it was weird, but now I think maybe he got it just about right.

What does this scripture say to you?

DAY 1: Matthew 3:5

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. ~ Lao Tzu

DAY 1: Matthew 3:5

Let it be so for now. For in this way we shall do all that God requires.

I grew up in the country and we were not connected to a city water supply. We had a well. My mother was always concerned that our well might run dry, so I learned about water conservation long before it was considered environmentally responsible. We never wasted water. But even though water was tight, we never went to church without taking a bath the night before, nor would we ever go on a trip without a trip to the old claw foot tub. To this day I’m not sure that I could go to church without taking a shower first. There’s something about immersing yourself and getting cleaned up that makes me feel prepared for any special event. It’s a spiritual thing.

According to the Book of Matthew, Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Shortly after that he was visited by some “men who studied the stars” and brought him gifts. Unfortunately they also prophesied to King Herod that Jesus was the future ruler of the Jews, which prompted Herod to kill off all the little baby boys in Bethlehem. Jesus’s family fled to Egypt, returning only after being assured of Herod’s death. Then there is a story about Jesus when he was 12, but after that, there’s a big gap in the story of Jesus. This gap is referred to as the “unknown years of Jesus” (also called his “silent years”, “lost years”, or “missing years”). There are all sorts of legends about these years, including visits to India, Britain, and elsewhere.

The unknown years end in Matthew with the story of Jesus’ baptism when he was about 30 years of age:

“At that time Jesus arrived from Galilee and came to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him. But John tried to make him change his mind. “I ought to be baptized by you,” John said, “and yet you have come to me!” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so for now. For in this way we shall do all that God requires.” So John agreed. As soon as Jesus was baptized, he came up out of the water. Then heaven was opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God coming down like a dove and lighting on him. Then a voice said from heaven, “This is my own dear Son, with whom I am pleased.” (Matthew 3:13-17).

John the Baptist was an outspoken prophet who called for people to repent (change their ways) because the Kingdom of God was near.   He also called for people to be baptized as a sign of their intent to reform their lives.   John’s baptism, which involved the immersion of the physical body in water, was a symbol of the cleansing of the inner being in preparation for a fresh start. Originally baptism was about leaving the past behind, with all of its baggage, and starting a new life of obedience to God. So Jesus apparently set out on a pilgrimage of at least 20 miles to find John and be baptized. Or maybe he was just wandering around and stumbled into John. We really don’t know about how Jesus found out about John. Either way they found each other at the Jordan.

One thing we know from this text is that both Jesus and John were in direct communication with God. John apparently recognized that Jesus was a holy man because he suggested that Jesus should be baptizing him, not the other way around. Jesus stated his intention to live his life in full obedience to God, doing “all” (not just some of the things) that God requires. Jesus says he knows what God requires; this means he has an intimate, personal relationship with God. The first words that Jesus speaks are a declaration of his intent to be obedient to God.

We also know that his first act after the “unknown years” is an act of humility. He submits himself to John to be baptized in an act of cooperation. He says “we shall do all that God requires”. In this instance, it requires two people in cooperation with each other to do the will of God. Jesus “receives” his baptism from another person, as opposed to baptizing himself. It is a public affirmation of John’s ministry of baptism, which was a symbolic act that was new and unfamiliar at that time.

Jesus doesn’t take over John’s ministry. He doesn’t say, “Thanks, but I’m here now so you’re not needed anymore.” He doesn’t criticize John or his ministry or give him any advice on how to do things better. He just submits. It’s a profound act of humility, submitting himself first to God, but also to John.

Jesus doesn’t act like a king. He comes quietly and without an entourage, waving flags, or brass bands. He comes in submission, not in power. The only demonstration of power in this story is the response from God after the baptism when “heaven was opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God coming down like a dove and lighting on him. Then a voice said from heaven, ‘This is my own dear Son, with whom I am pleased.’”

How’s that for affirmation!! Here in this story Jesus sets the standard that baptism is the way that our Christian journey should begin – immersed in God, born again, starting over, open to anything, fully committed, forgetting the past, partnering with other people, doing the will of God.

Every journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, and Jesus will begin this journey of triumphs and perils that lie ahead clean, refresh, and revived. Good to go.

What does this scripture say to you?