Washing Up

SJF • Epiphany 1c 2007 • Tobias Haller BSG
John said, I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming... He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
We ordinarily think of washing as something to be done after the completion of a particularly dirty job. If you’ve been working in the garden, hands in the dirt, you will want to wash as soon as you are finished — and you’ll be careful not to track dirt into the house, too! And we take special care after even messier jobs like working on a car engine or a piece of equipment, or doing a painting or varnishing job — I’m sure many of us know how difficult it is to get motor grease or house-paint off of your hands, and how many repeated washings it takes to get the stains finally cleared away.

Washing often marks the end of a task, the completion of something — as even Pontius Pilate observed, washing your hands of something is a way of saying you need have nothing more to do with it — it is water under the bridge and down the drain.

And so it is that baptism — which is a kind of washing — is undertaken to denote this same kind of ending. We baptize to wash away sin — both the original sin we inherit as part of our human reality, and any actual sin we have committed prior to our baptism. As with many an ordinary washing, we wash away the past, and the dirtier the past activity has been the more urgently we need to wash.

I’m sure all of us here have seen the signs in the lavatories of restaurants, intended to remind the employees of the health code: Employees must wash hands before returning to work. Note that this washing not only addresses the past, but looks to the future. It isn’t only about what you have just done — about which the less said the better — but about what you aregoing to do — not just about endings, but more about beginnings. And it is this other side of washing that I want to emphasize today: that it is not just about the dirty work that has gone before, but about the new tasks that lie ahead.

For this is the other side to baptism, the side that looks to the future. The washing in baptism is not just to mark the end of something — the old sins that are washed away. In fact, the main emphasis in the washing of baptism isn’t the past, but the future — the new beginning — the initiation into a new life to be lived as a baptized person, a member of the body of Christ, a new citizen of the heavenly country. This washing, which Christ himself undergoes before he begins his own earthly ministry, is primarily the mark of the initiation of a new chapter, a new work, a new life.

The difference between these two kinds of baptism are summed up in what John says about his own, and about the one that the Messiah will bring. John baptizes with water to wash away sin — and that’s that. He is continuing the mainstream Jewish practice — literally in the main stream! — the tradition of ritual bathing to wash away ritual impurities in a symbolic act — to wash away the various impurities that could and did come about through contact with things the Jewish law defined as unclean: mold or mildew, disease, blood and other bodily fluids, a dead body, or non-kosher food. Many pious Jews in those days were constantly heading for the bathhouse or the river to undergo a ritual cleansing from ritual uncleanness.

The twist that John the Baptist introduces — and he is not the first to do so — is to call on people of all sorts and conditions to undergo a symbolic washing not just for ritual faults of the body, but for the moral uncleanness of the heart: to undergo abaptism of repentance for the moral sins that really are more important and deadly than the merely ritual faults of touching something unclean. One of the reasons the Pharisees become so offended at this is their feeling that they have been so conscientious about avoiding ritual uncleanness that they don’t need to wash! They’ve come to see the ritual matters as most important, almost a protective against sin — and in the process, as Jesus would later note, neglected the weightier matters of the Law: justice and mercy and faith.

John also affirms that the Messiah will go him one better. The Messiah will not simply bring a baptism like John’s, to wash away old impurities and sins, but a new baptism in the power of the Holy Spirit and a cleansing fire that will make people into a whole new being — not just a fresh start in the same old way, but a new life in a whole new way.

But then, as we commemorate today, John gets — well, I won’t call it a “surprise” because he is expecting it — but he gets to experience what he had predicted. “The sinless one to Jordan came” and there before John’s eyes is the very one he had said would come. And this is the turning point of history: and it marks the change in the fundamental nature of baptism. For Jesus is without uncleanness or sin: there is nothing to wash away, nothing at all. It is, in his case, only about new life, the new beginnings, about that which lies ahead. In this sense, it is more like the washing that a surgical team does before an operation. It is the preparation for a new task, not the cleanup after an old one.

The baptism of Jesus marks this new beginning for the world: that baptism is about new life, a life filled with the Holy Spirit and the fire of faith, and initiation into thebodyof Christ himself, the church. And this is another way in which baptism is like the washing that a surgical team does before an operation. The team is focused intently on preparation for the task ahead — the delicate operation in which they are about to participate together. The members of that surgical team may have come from any number of other tasks before they gathered at the OR. But whatever they were engaged in before, they are all now preparing for a joint task that lies ahead, in which each of them — surgeons, nurses, technicians, assistants, anesthesiologists — will take up their particular part.

This reflects the nature of the church itself — in which we all have been washed in a baptismal initiation and preparation, and all are called to work together in the mission of the church, yet each has a task to fulfill: whether teaching, or building, or witnessing; whether working to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, or comforting the sick; whether preaching or serving, singing or reading, fixing a parish lunch or painting a parish hall — all of us have been washed in preparation for service, initiated and commissioned as ministers to take on our various ministries that join and mesh into the one great task of God’s mission: to restore all people to unity with God and with each other in Christ. And today we will add one more member to this task force, one more very young member to the team — who may at first be capable only of small things and simple tasks — but who will with God’s power and grace grow in love and service as the years pass.

So may we, all of us, commissioned and inducted and initiated in Christ’s service through our baptism, take upon ourselves the serious tasks to which God has called us, united in the mission of the church, that we may,at the end of our lifes’ journey, in the quiet at the end of the long day’s work, hear the voice of the one who spoke from heaven, assuring each of us, “with you I am well pleased.” +