January 13, 2019, Baptizing Adam – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
To listen to this sermon, click here: Z0000116
The story of Jesus’ baptism is familiar to all of us, I think. We’ve read it, and heard it read, many times – it’s the gospel reading every year on the first Sunday after the Epiphany. We’ve seen paintings trying to portray it. It is this wondrous moment of revelation at the inauguration of Jesus’ ministry on earth. At Jesus’ baptism the whole Trinity shows up: God the Father, speaking his words of love and delight from the heavens; the Holy Spirit, taking the appearance of a dove, pure and luminous, as she comes down in blessing; and Jesus, the Son, Very Man and Very God, standing before John in the waters of the Jordan River. This is possibly THE most powerful and dramatic theophany, God showing up for all to see, in the whole Bible.
And that whole wonderful event raised a huge question. Why on earth did Jesus come to John to be baptized when we know he was entirely without sin? John himself knew there was something strange about it. He protested when Jesus stepped down to the water’s edge, saying “No, no, no, it’s me that need to be baptised by you, not the other way around!” John sounds a lot like Peter, who was absolutely horrified when he realized that Jesus was about to wash his feet. “No, Lord, you will never wash my feet!” But Jesus insists, “Let it be so now,” he tells John. “Trust me. This is how it has to be.”
But why? What does it mean for the one and only sinless Man to receive the baptism of John, which is a baptism of repentance? To begin to understand, we need to understand why anybody gets baptized, whether you are a grown-up or a newborn baby. Baptism has more than just one purpose and significance, and I’m not going to try to be comprehensive this morning. I want to talk about one of the most well-known explanations for the purpose of Baptism, the one everyone has filed away in their memory banks (especially if you were raised Catholic) – and that is that it is for the healing of our Original Sin. The thinking goes like this: we know that everyone does things that are wrong, things that are offensive to the will and character of God. But more than that, the doctrine of Original Sin tells us that we are sinners from the get-go. We are born sinners, sinful from the moment of our birth. And so we need to be baptized, even when we are babies.
And what does that really mean? Or is it even true? It is very hard – pretty much impossible, I’d say – to look at a tiny baby, fragile and helpless, and believe that he or she is a sinner. But there are people who hold firmly to that belief. They say that Original Sin, that dreadful inheritance that we all have from our first parents, means that no matter how pure and innocent a little newborn baby looks, he is actually born a sinner – by which they mean that somehow, in some sense, he is already able to do bad things. If you think about it, that’s what’s behind some of of the words in our Christmas carols, like, “The little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.” The implication is that clearly a sinless baby wouldn’t do “bad” things like cry. All the things a normal baby does that make it hard to be a parent – crying, and stinky diapers, and all that stuff – is somehow part of being sinful creatures. So of course, if Jesus was God, he couldn’t have been that kind of a baby.
But, if Jesus was a real human baby, which he was, of course he did plenty of crying. And he kept Mary and Joseph up at night, pacing back and forth and wondering what on earth was wrong with this child. And he had horrible dirty diapers, and colic, and everything messy and difficult that is involved in being human. Because he is human.
The confusion here with the whole concept of Original Sin, is first of all that we tend to think that sin is all about doing bad things. For many people, sinning means breaking rules. But the sin that we inherit from our human father Adam isn’t essentially about breaking rules. We all do bad things, once we are old enough to choose our own actions, there’s no denying that. But we can’t blame that on Adam. We are, every one of us, responsible for what we do. We are answerable to God for our sins, just as we pray together in confession every week: for what we have done, and for what we have left undone; for not loving God with our whole heart; for not loving others as ourselves. We all sin; we all do what is wrong; we all offend against the will and character of God.
But that is not our inheritance from Adam. We can’t blame any of our rebelliousness or unkindness or self-indulgence on poor Adam. It’s all on us. The whole concept we call Original Sin, if by that we mean our human inheritance, doesn’t mean we just can’t help being bad, no matter what we do, no matter how young we are. And yet, we do truly have an inheritance from Adam. As human beings we have a legacy that is just as inescapable as the genes our parents handed down to us that determine our eye color or our tendency towards addiction or our susceptibility to certain diseases. Our inescapable inheritance from Adam is death. From the moment of our conception we are headed towards death. Paul wrote: “Because Adam sinned, all died.” – not “because Adam sinned, all couldn’t help doing bad things”, but because Adam sinned, every human being is born on a path that leads toward death.
The tiniest, most beautiful and perfect infant, is born under that shadow. Every parent knows that painfully well, I think. I remember lying awake, when my children were newborn, listening to them breathe in the cradle beside the bed, so fearfully small and helpless; and reaching out to touch them now and then as if I could keep the shadow of death away from them by my presence. That is the inheritance of our father Adam, that we are marked by death long before we have any understanding of our duties or our behavior.
Repentance, then, the repentance that John’s baptism was all about, isn’t primarily about being sorry. It’s about changing course. It’s about turning away from the powerful inevitability of death, and turning towards the only one who offers us an alternative – the alternative of life. And then, that’s where obedience comes in, and behavior, and confession, because turning towards God and towards life means a transformation of who we are and how we live. Turning our lives toward God is like choosing to undergo the most unthinkably radical surgery, by which God changes the very DNA of death that inhabits every cell of our body. And just like having heart surgery means changing the way we eat, and exercise, and avoiding stress, the surgery of repentance means an infinitely more radical change of lifestyle.
Sometimes people think of baptism as standing before the Judge to confess our wickedness and get all those black marks off our record. But it is much more like coming to the Physician who has discovered the complete and total cure for our terminal cancer, and becoming his patient.
And so, we come right back around to our original question. Why would the Physician, the One who owns the cure for all death, the One who is, in fact, Life itself; why would he come and stand in line at the treatment center with all the terminally ill patients? “I’m the one who needs healing,” John protested, “not you.” The answer is in the DNA of all human beings. When the Son of God chose to be conceived in the womb of the Virgin Mary, and born as a little baby boy, he took on our humanity completely. And that means, he took on a body that was headed on a straight path to death, and he suffered everything that that entails – he felt pain, and hunger, and sorrow. He got sick. He experienced weakness, and exhaustion. He even experienced temptation. But he came to John at the river, along with all the other desperate, doomed souls, and he showed them the way of life by walking it himself, every step of the way. And the first step was baptism: publicly, in the sight of all the people, turning his back on death and his face toward God.
Jesus was NOT baptized because he was being humble and pretending to be a sinner like everybody else. He was baptized because turning toward the God who gives life is the only way to find it. And then he also walked the way of a perfectly transformed life – a life of health, choosing in everything to do the will of his Father. Not because he didn’t have to deal with Adam’s pesky Original Sin hanging around his neck. We sometimes think, “Of course Jesus didn’t sin, he was the one and only good person.” But the reality is that he chose, by being born human, to be born with the inevitable cancer of death that infects every human being. And then he chose to undergo the whole painful treatment along with us.
And this is why Jesus is called the second Adam. We are all born in these fragile, mortal bodies because our first parents chose to rebel against God. But now, because Jesus took on a fragile mortal body and brought it through the whole course of treatment from birth to death, and beyond death, there is a way of Life available to every human being. As surely as it is true that every newborn baby is subject to weakness and pain and death, just as surely it is true that there is a way of Life available to every human being.
By being baptized, Jesus was declaring publicly, in the presence of the whole Godhead and of all the people gathered at the River, that even though he was God, he had come to take on our full humanity, so that the moment he was born he was marked for death, just as surely as we are marked for death. But he was also setting his feet on a course that would undo our legacy of death, and that would ensure that death would never again have the last word.
Imagine the joy of living in a world where cancer is completely curable. That is almost beyond my power to imagine. But yesterday, at Scott’s funeral, even in the face of death itself we proclaimed our faith that we live in a world where death itself doesn’t have the last word. “By a man came death,” Paul wrote. And we know by our own painful experience the reality of the inheritance we have from our father Adam. But Paul doesn’t stop there: “But in the same way, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For just as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.” I’m not sure we always fully realize how huge a promise that is: not that now good people get to go to heaven, but now we have access to life in abundance just as surely as we all find ourselves subject to death – or even more surely. “if many died through one man’s trespass,” Paul wrote, “much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many.” That is something to meditate on.
God the Father, in his great love for the world he made, sent the Son to heal the blight of death that Adam chose for us. The first step was the universe-shattering moment when the Holy seed was quickened in the womb of the Virgin Mary, because the infinite, eternal, perfect God had taken on mortality and frailty and a human lifespan. So, when Jesus stepped into the waters of the Jordan River, it was his public declaration that he had come in human flesh as the second Adam, in order to undo the curse of the first Adam. The heavens opened, and the Spirit came down in blessing in the appearance of a dove. And the voice of the Father spoke from the heavens, saying, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I delight.” Because the undoing of Adam’s terrible inheritance had begun.