Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
January 13, 2013
The Baptism of the Lord
Tabula Rasa. Before I offer the definition of this phrase, let me first say that I am a bit of a word nerd. Actually, I’m more than just a bit. I love words. I love language. They don’t just become part of my vocabulary list, they become intricately associated with the events in which I learned them. They become a part of my memories. That’s why I remember tabula rasa.
I was taking a class on psychology at St. Thomas Aquinas Junior College, the school I attended for a couple of years before I transferred to a state university. The class was taught by Father Nolan, who was one of the dearest, most wonderful persons I’d met at the time. He introduced me to ideas of social witness, social justice, spiritual formation and tabula rasa.
Tabula Rasa is the idea of, for lack of a better way to phrase it, a blank slate. It is the theory that the mind starts off originally as a blank slate. It’s also the idea of something still in a pristine state. Untouched, unmarred by experience, life, anything.
We were discussing tabula rasa in psychology class because we were dealing with the concept of nature versus nurture in relation to personalities and character traits. If my memory serves, at one time the universally accepted idea was that when we come into this world we are blank slates. Our minds are waiting to be written on. Our personalities are just waiting to be formed. Perhaps in today’s vernacular we should refer to this as we are born as new Ipads or Android tablets just waiting for apps to be added.
But as knowledge of the human brain and development grew, the idea of humans as originally blank slates lost momentum. Having watched my own two kids from birth to now, I can tell you they were born with distinct and unique personalities. They were born with character traits that remain with them to this day, and probably will for the rest of their lives. I’m sure my parents would say the same about my siblings and myself.
But we are also shaped and formed by what happens to us. Our experiences, good and bad, help to create who we are. I have been formed by what has wounded me, and how I’ve learned and healed from those wounds. I’ve been formed by all the good that has happened to me. And the character traits I came into the world with, such as my impatience, those have formed me too.
In other words, my identity, who I am and how I see myself, has been intimately shaped and created by the traits that I came into this world with and by the life I’ve lived, the people I’ve met and loved, the experiences that I’ve had, and the faith journey that I’ve walked. All of us are unique combinations of nature and nurture. I think that even applies, and some might be shocked by my saying so, to Jesus.
Luke’s telling of Jesus' baptism is not completely different from Mark and Matthew’s witnesses. Certainly there are common elements. But it’s not the same either. In Luke, the Holy Spirit descends like a dove as in other versions, but the voice of God that speaks to Jesus while he is praying is heard by him alone.
“You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
A parent speaking words of love and tenderness to a child. “You are my Son, the Beloved.”
One of the questions that we often have about Jesus’ baptism is why did he have to be baptized in the first place? Why was this important? And it must be important, because every gospel recounts some version of this event in Jesus’ life.
If we baptize as an expression of salvation and forgiveness of sins, does this mean that Jesus was sinful and needed baptism? For some folks that’s really hard to get past. Jesus could not have needed baptism for the same reasons we need baptism.
Is it Jesus’ way of initiating the ritual of believer’s baptism? If so, what does that say for our tradition which baptizes infants? I realize that many of us in this congregation, with the strong influence of other traditions, may remember our own baptisms. Not being raised Presbyterian, I certainly do. But my children were baptized as babies. And I agree with the theological justification for doing that. God’s grace comes to us whether we are aware of it or not. It doesn’t require our affirmation to be present in our lives.
Baptism also symbolizes our dying and rising with Christ. It is about new life and resurrection. We die to the self and are raised into Christ. In the early church new believers were baptized on Easter, emphasizing the new life that they now live into. Again, why would Jesus need to do that?
Perhaps this is just a case of Jesus setting an example for us and nothing else. It is something that his followers need to do, so we need to do it too.
Yet what else does baptism mean? When we are baptized we are baptized into a community of faith. In our tradition, we don’t endorse private baptisms. It’s not something that happens outside of the faith community, outside of worship. We are baptized into the body of Christ in the world. We are baptized into the family of faith – in a particular setting and into the larger faith family. It’s not just the parents or the godparents or the believer who makes promises at baptism. It’s all of us. When we participate in a baptism, we all promise to love and support and nurture the one who is baptized. We all promise to help this person grow in their life of faith. We all promise to encourage this person in this new identity.
There’s that word again. Identity. I think that perhaps this may be a fundamental reason for Jesus’ baptism. It was a moment of identity formation.
Earlier I said that I believe Jesus was also a unique combination of nature and nurture. I know that sounds strange, but think about it. We proclaim that Jesus is both divine and human. I don’t believe that Jesus was born in a state of tabula rasa. He was not just a blank slate to be written on. Luke’s story of his birth makes it very clear that he was born with divine purpose. He was God incarnate. But if we accept that Jesus, God with us, was also human, doesn’t that suggest that he too learned and grew and was shaped by the experiences of his life? He was both by nature the incarnation and in nurture a human being. Luke is the only gospel that gives us any stories about his childhood. But they stop at age 12. So in those years he must have been growing, emotionally and spiritually as well as physically. He must have been learning. He must have been experiencing a variety of situations and people. It’s often speculated that he would have had the opportunity to meet a variety of people, because he would have had access to the traveling merchants and traders on the Silk Route. Whatever the circumstances of those years we don’t know about, Jesus must have been about the business of becoming the man who came to the Jordan to be baptized by John. And in his baptism, he is shaped in his identity.
I think that Jesus in his baptism, in the descending of the dove and his hearing God’s affirmation of him, experiences a moment of profound identity formation. Jesus is God’s Son, the Beloved. His identity as the Messiah is confirmed. And yes, I think Jesus needed that. Not because he might not have been the Messiah otherwise, but because of what he must now do. After this comes testing in the wilderness, and then a public ministry that will move from crowds wanting him to heal them to crowds calling for his death. It will be a ministry of love and compassion, healing and hope, as well as confrontation and finally betrayal.
So Jesus needed that baptism, not because it changed him, but because it confirmed even more profoundly who he already was. It further shaped his identity as the Son of God, as the Beloved.
Isn’t that what baptism does for us? It shapes our identity and sets us on a path of discipleship. It isn’t magic. It doesn’t transform us from one thing into something entirely different. It doesn’t initiate us into an exclusive club or make us superior to others. It reminds us that we are connected intimately to God and to one another. Baptism deeply confirms our identity as children of God. The more we remember this, the more we can see others and ourselves as God sees us. We are beloved. We are beloved. Let all God’s children say, “Amen.”