Solidarity to Love and Liberate

Psalm 29:10-11 God sits enthroned above the flood; God sits enthroned as Creator for evermore. God shall give strength to God’s people; God shall give God’s people the blessing of peace.

Introduction

Coming off of abundant spontaneous good will and festivity of the Thanksgiving-to-New Years season can be a letdown, a big one. So, in the gray of January we find ourselves seemingly dropped off at the curb in the wind and ice of winter. Lights are still up for now…but they will slowly come down over the next few weeks. Brightly lit trees will go the way of compost. The beautiful candles of our Jewish siblings celebrating their sacred festival of lights have long been blown out. Presents have ceased to come in; Christmas cards, too…even the late ones… *clears throat. School’s looming return draws nigh, work summons us return, and the “normal” grind resumes.

(In fact, we all know that depression and self-harm surges during this time after the holiday season. If you’re feeling that dip, that dark cloud, that existential sadness, please know you, beloved, are not alone; please reach out and ask for help. The cheer might have died down, but love for you has not died down in the least.)

So, in the midst of packing up the remnants of celebration we need something to divert our attention. Some good news. We need something that transcends our limitedness of time and place, something that is independent of our calendar, something that is outside of us, something that can call us to look out, away from ourselves, and wonder…We need something or someone who stands with us even when it feels like everything has just left us…

Matthew 3:13-17

But John was obstinately preventing him saying, “I, I have the need to be baptized by you, and you, you come to me?” And answering, Jesus said to him, “You permit this moment, for in this way it is right for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then [John] permits him. And after being baptized, Jesus at once came up from the water and, behold, the heavens were being opened for him, and he saw the spirit of God descending as if it were a dove and coming upon him…[1]

Mt 3:14-16

Here, Matthew invites us to look upon Jesus’s baptism by John in the River Jordan. Matthew’s account focuses less on the scene surrounding the baptism, and more on the interaction between Jesus and God in this moment of solidarity with humankind.[2] Jesus traveled from Galilee to/toward (πρὸς) John who is waist deep in the Jordan baptizing people to wash them of their sin. In other words, Jesus doesn’t stumble upon John, his buddy, his relative, and think he’ll just pop into the Jordan real quick for a little visit and, heck, why not get baptized, too. This is an intentional journey, a divine intentional journey.

Thus why John is both surprised and resistant to Jesus showing up and getting baptized. Even though John opened up the idea of baptism to incorporate everyone (lay and leader alike),[3] he didn’t intend to open it up this much. This doesn’t make sense, Cuz, we both know you aren’t like the rest who come to me, you are the not-so-regular one! John’s resistance makes sense and is, from our perspective, theologically accurate: I, John, have the need to be baptized by you! John knows who Jesus is; but Jesus knows that his solidarity with humanity[4] necessitates participating in this moment, this event, this encounter with God in humility and dependence. This is why Jesus commands[5] John to allow it: it is necessary and right and good so to do.[6] For this righteousness that must be fulfilled is the very will of God—it is divine vindication of the oppressed, it is deliverance for the captives, it is salvation for the dying,[7] and it’s for God’s people.[8] The one who stands before John is the representative of the people.[9] Jesus is thoroughly of the people for the people; and this is part of the mission of divine love in the world born those many years ago in a meager cave among animals and shepherds.

But Matthew doesn’t stop with the solidarity of Jesus with humanity. There is one more move up his story-telling sleeve: Jesus is also the human in solidarity with God. As soon as Jesus came up from the water, the heavens tore open making way for the descent[10] of God’s spirit as if it were a dove. Once again, a dove is sent out over the waters to find a place to land, and it lands; this time, though, it lands not on some long unseen tree-branch rising from the departing waters, but on the long promised shoot from the stump of Jesse parting the waters.[11] And in this moment, God speaks, And behold a voice out of the heavens saying, “this is my beloved son, in him I am well-pleased.” Make no doubt about it, those who were merely bystanders partially wet, hanging out in the Jordan on that day, were ushered in as witnesses to Jesus’s divine sonship; everything that happens from this moment on, is as God’s mission[12] of love in the world.[13]

Conclusion

Just like on Christmas, we are invited again to come and see. This time our location is not a cave, but in the water; it is not among animals and shepherds but a host of other “regular” people ushered into the event. And we witness what was long hoped for all those years ago: God in solidarity with humanity, humanity in solidarity with God. We are beckoned to come and see and witness this great moment pointing to what will come when Jesus will (once again) stand in solidarity with the poor and oppressed, the captives and those sentenced to death.[14]

Remember, on Christmas Eve, I said:

“That night, as Mary labored, a new story was born and with it hope. That night, as Joseph sought the midwife, a new story was born and with it, peace. That night, when the shepherds arrived, a new story was born, and with it, joy. Because—on that night—Love showed up and changed everything forever.”[15]

In this moment, told to us by a voice located in ages past, we are reminded love didn’t just show up once; it kept showing up. God’s relentless mission of divine love in the world didn’t end when the curtains closed on Mary, Joseph, Jesus, and the shepherds and animals. It kept going, it kept growing, and now it stands in the River Jordan baptized by John to demonstrate that God’s righteousness is made full not only through incarnation but through deep, deep solidarity with humanity, and it won’t stop not even in the face of death.

As soon as Jesus leaves the Jordan the divine mission of hope, of peace, of joy, and of love is on the move and nothing will ever be the same again.

Come and see the one baptized as you are, Beloved. Come and see a new story on the move. Come and see a better way to live.[16] Come and see divine love do the only thing it knows to do: love and liberate the captives, to love and stand with you and never ever forsake you.


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted.

[2] R. T. France The Gospel of Matthew The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Gen. Ed Joel B. Green. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007. 118. “But for Matthew the importance of the event is not in the baptism itself, but in the revelation which follows it, which culminates in the declaration that Jesus is God’s unique Son, a theological position which has been assumed in 2:15 but is now brought into the open.”

[3] Case-Winters Matthew, 51. “In extending this practice to everyone, John is in effect declaring that everyone stands in need of conversion, signaling their repentance and turning to God. Even the religious leaders stood in need of baptism.”

[4] Anna Case-Winters Matthew Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible Eds Amy Plantinga Pauw and William C. Placher. Louisville, KY: WJK, 2015. 50. “One way we might understand Jesus presenting himself for baptism is as a sign of his solidarity with sinners. In this context, ‘to fulfill all righteousness’ is to be with God’s people, stand in their place, share in their penitence, live their life, die their death.”

[5] ἂφες aorist active imperative 2nd person singular (verb). Jesus is telling John to let it happen.

[6] France, Matthew, 119. “The substance of Jesus’ reply is clear enough: John is to overcome his scruples and carry out the baptism requested. Whatever may be their ultimate relationship, this is the right course ‘for now,’ and Jesus will be, now as throughout the gospel, perfectly obedient to the will of God. But the explanation given does not spell out why this is ‘the right way for us to fulfill all that is required of us.’”

[7] Case-Winters Matthew, 50. “We might also inquire into the meaning of ‘righteousness.’ In the Hebrew Scriptures the term (tsedaqah) is not so much about sinless perfection as it is about right relationship and the fulfilling of covenant obligations. It is about the establishment of God’s will that justice should prevail everywhere. God’s righteousness is connected with ‘vindication,’ ‘deliverance,’ and ‘salvation’ (tsedaqah is alternately translated by these terms). God’s righteousness is seen in God’s special regard for those who are powerless or oppressed and stand in need of justice.”

[8] France, Matthew, 119. “The usage of dikaiosyně (which I have translated ‘what is required’) elsewhere in Matthew’s gospel indicates a basic meaning of the conduct which God expects of his people.”

[9] France, Matthew, 120. “The most obvious way in which Jesus’ baptism prepares for his mission is by indicating his solidarity with John’s call to repentance in view of the arrival of God’s kingship. By first identifying with John’s proclamation Jesus lays the foundation for his own mission to take on where John has left off. Further, as Jesus is baptized along with others at the Jordan, he is identified with all those who by accepting John’s baptism have declared their desire for a new beginning with God.”

[10] France, Matthew, 121. “Isa 63:19 (EVV 64:1) asks God to tear (LXX anoigō, as here) the heavens and come down to redeem his people. The opening of heaven is the prelude to the divine communication which follows and especially to the visible descent of the Spirit.”

[11] France, Matthew, 122.

[12] Case-Winters Matthew, 51. “Just as God’s Spirit was at work in Jesus’ conception (Matt. 1:18) and now in his baptism (3:16), so the Spirit will lead him throughout his ministry. The first stop is the wilderness into which Jesus is ‘led up by the Spirit.’”

[13] France, Matthew, 124. “[God] is declaring in richly allusive words that this man who has just been baptized by John is his own Son in whom he delights. From this point on Matthew’s readers have no excuse for failing to understand the significance of Jesus’ ministry, however long it may take the actors in the story to reach the same Christological conclusion (14:33; 16:16; 26:63-64). It will be this crucial revelation of who Jesus is which will immediately form the basis of the initial testing which Jesus is called to undergo in 4:1-11: ‘If you are the Son of God…’ (4:3, 6). And there, as in the account of the baptism, Jesus’ sonship will be revealed in his obedience to his Father’s will.”

[14] W. Travis McMaken Sign of the Gospel: Toward an Evangelical Doctrine of Infant Baptism after Karl Barth. Emerging Scholars. Minneapolis, MN: 2013. 227 “…Jesus’ submission to baptism by John was not only expression of solidarity with sinful humanity. It was also a substitutionary event wherein Jesus acted in the place of sinful humanity… In submitting to John’s baptism of repentance in view of impending eschatological judgment, Jesus Christ not only acted with but also as sinful humanity, displacing that humanity and enacting the repentance required of it. He was baptized in our place. But Jesus’ baptism was not merely the first step on a road that would lead to a substitutionary work on the cross’ rather, it was itself a substitutionary act that with his work on the cross constitutes Jesus Christ’s saving history….In a way, Jesus’ baptism by John and the following descent of Spirit is a prolepsis of the whole saving history of Jesus Christ—and perhaps especially of his death resurrection and sending of the Spirit—that stands at the beginning of his actively messianic ministry.”

[15] https://laurenrelarkin.com/2022/12/24/love-changed-everything/

[16] Ref. to Helmut Gollwitzer’s sermon “Reason at Last, of Another Kind” from The Way to Life: Sermons in a time of World Crisis. Trans. David Cairns. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1981.

“Sign of the Gospel”

Sancta Colloquia Episode 303 ft. W. Travis McMaken

If you’ve ever wanted to know all things Baptism, I’ve got you covered. In this episode (and the next one), Dr. W. Travis McMaken joins me to talk about his book The Sign of the Gospel: Toward an Evangelical Doctrine of Infant Baptism after Karl Barth. I have to be honest and point out up front that this episode is (in my opinion) a bit different than my other episodes. It’s less casual and more formal due to the structure and flow of the questions I asked Dr. McMaken ahead of time. So, there’s a strong pedagogical feel to the episode. McMaken does the lion’s share of walking through the history of Baptism, from the early church to the Reformation, and, finally, landing squarely at the feet of one of the greats of the early to mid 20th century: Karl Barth. Thanks to McMaken’s depth of knowledge and experience as a professor, this episode is an excellent exposure to sacraments, sacramental theology, church history, and the implications our church life has for our political life. Understanding some of the traditions of Christianity can help us to revisit and review those traditions in a new light: baptism is exceptionally political. Those who say otherwise are pulling the wool over your eyes, keeping you from good activity on behalf of the oppressed and marginalized (maybe even from good work on behalf of yourself).

So, if you thought that Baptism is just that thing that happens at church where you watch and then go eat cake, you’d be a wee bit right but way more wrong. It’s the event of Baptism especially where Jesus Christ is preached, that moves not only the baptizand but also those who stand around the baptismal font (family, God-parents, fellow parishioners, etc) into their active role in the world. Baptism isn’t just about a few sprinkles of water (or about whether or not it should be “full immersion”), but about activating the person through the event of faith in the encounter with God to love their neighbor as themselves in the world. Baptism transcends the four walls of the church and the reception hall (housing that cake). The gathered community becomes the sent community; the church body gathered to hear Christ preached, who witness baptism (over and over again, because it’s not a singular historic event but one that repeats in the encounter with God in the event of faith) becomes the body of Christ in the world, thus, participating in the breakdown between the distinction between church and world. The work of the baptized, of those who have encountered God in the event of faith, become those whose actions, in the proclamation of Christ, become as divine action, especially as it pertains to radical acts of loving others materially, economically, politically, socially, with justice, peace, humility, and grace. There’s so much packed in this interview, that I’m breaking it into two parts—I really did not want to cut too much; when it comes to pedagogy, Dr. McMaken is excellent.

The episode will air in two parts. The second part will go live in two weeks (the link for that part will appear below the link for the first part in this post).

Intrigued? You should be. Listen here:

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W. Travis McMaken (@WTravisMcMaken), PhD, is Associate Professor of Religion and Assistant Dean of Humanities in the School of Humanities at Lindenwood University in St. Charles, MO. He is a Ruling Elder in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). McMaken’s writing engages primarily with 20th century theology (esp. Protestant theology, with specialization in Karl Barth, Helmut Gollwitzer, and T. F. Torrance) while working constructively on the subjects of sacramentology, ecclesiology, and political theology. His blog is: http://derevth.blogspot.com/. Also, you can find his work here at Lindenwood University:  https://www.lindenwood.edu/academics/academic-schools/school-of-humanities/our-programs/philosophy-and-religion/philosophy-and-religion-faculty/w-travis-mcmaken/

Recommended reading:

Susan K. Wood’s One Baptism: Ecumenical Dimensions of the Doctrine of Baptism (Liturgical Press, 2009).

Kathryn Tanner, God and Creation in Christian Theology (Fortress, 1988).

Recommended reading authored by Dr. W. Travis McMaken:

W. Travis McMaken, The Sign of the Gospel: Toward an Evangelical Doctrine of Infant Baptism after Karl Barth (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2013). 

W. Travis McMaken, Our God Loves Justice: An Introduction to Helmut Gollwitzer (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2017).

“So, You Want to Read Karl Barth?” http://derevth.blogspot.com/2007/06/so-you-want-to-read-karl-barth.html

“So, You Want to Read Helmut Gollwitzer?”  http://derevth.blogspot.com/2018/03/so-you-want-to-read-helmut-gollwitzer.html

McMaken’s Recording Mediums:

Youtube channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC-zJjJ64hu-f1OGp1fq43ZQ

McKrakenCast: https://wtravismcmaken.podbean.com/