Sermon on Mark 1:4-11 offered to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Manhattan, Kansas on the occasion of my goddaughter’s baptism. To view the scene from Amadeus, click here.
Every once in a while, a scene in a movie perfectly encapsulates the rest of the film. In Amadeus, it is a scene that illustrates how Mozart’s outsized talent completely dwarfed that of his contemporaries. For those who haven’t seen it, Amadeus is the Milos Forman film that chronicles the deadly rivalry between Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Antonio Salieri. Though the story is largely fictional (Salieri and Mozart were actually friendly), it accurately depicts Mozart’s incredible talent and demonstrates how his work in many ways represented a new musical language.
During the scene in question, Salieri and several other courtiers have been summoned by the emperor, who wants to commission an opera from the young Mozart. Salieri, who is the court composer, tells his employer that he has written a “March of Welcome” in Mozart’s honor. As the talented young composer enters the room, the emperor doggedly stumbles through Salieri’s pleasant, but otherwise unremarkable piece on the piano. After negotiating the commission, the emperor reminds Mozart not to forget the manuscript for Salieri’s “Welcome March.” Mozart demurs, claiming that he has already memorized the piece. Incredulous, the emperor insists that the composer prove himself. Of course, Mozart proceeds to play the piece flawlessly. It is what he does next, however, that sets the tone for the rest of the film. Mozart improvises a variation on Salieri’s piece that is compelling, memorable, and brilliant. It incorporates the themes of the original piece but transforms them into something completely new. In one scene, the movie illustrates that Mozart was not just talented, but transcendent. In one scene, Amadeus reveals that Mozart was not just making music; he was changing what music could be.
The lectionary this morning gives us a similar scene from the gospel according to Mark. It was only a few weeks ago that we heard about John the Baptist’s ministry by the banks of the Jordan. This morning, we return to our old friend, who is still up to his old tricks: wearing camel hair, eating bugs, and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Once again, we hear John predict that one more powerful than he is coming after him. This morning, however, we hear about how that promise is fulfilled when Jesus of Nazareth is baptized. The baptism of Jesus is one of the few events that is attested to by all the gospel writers, and all of them imply that it is enormously important. As Jesus is baptized by John in the Jordan, we get a sense that the gospel writers see this moment as turning point in the life of Jesus and the life of the communities to which they wrote.
In spite of the weight that the gospel writers and the Church give to the baptism of the Lord, it is a little difficult to discern why it is so significant. Even though the evangelists treat it like a major biographical touchstone in the life of Jesus, it doesn’t seem to have much to do with the rest of his ministry. In fact, the fact that Jesus was baptized by John never comes up again. Even when John reappears in the gospel narratives, his baptismal relationship with Jesus is not addressed. If the baptism of John is as important as the evangelists imply it is, it stands to reason that they would mention it more than once. Instead, the baptism of Jesus by John is a non sequitur; it feels more like a piece of trivia than anything else. Not only that, it’s hard to know why Jesus was baptized in the first place. As we all know, John’s baptism was for the forgiveness of sins. But if Jesus was sinless, as the Church claims, being baptized seems a little redundant. Matthew, of course, attempts to deal with this problem by describing that byzantine exchange between John and Jesus: “You should be baptizing me,” “It is necessary for us to fulfill all righteousness,” “No, after you, I insist,” etc. While this exchange acknowledges the tension, it doesn’t do much to resolve it. And so we’re left in a bit of an awkward place: the evangelists and the Church insist that the baptism of the Lord is crucially important to our understanding of who Jesus is, even though it seems to have minimal impact on the rest of his life and work.
Part of the reason for this is that our image of the baptism of Jesus tends to be very static: Jesus rising from the water, the Spirit descending beatifically as a dove, and the voice of the Lord resonating from heaven. It is a scene almost tailor-made for a Caravaggio painting, one that can be hung in a museum and forgotten. But if we look at the language that Mark uses to describe the baptism of Jesus, it is anything but static. Mark is notoriously straightforward, even abrupt, and we get a sense of that in this passage. Jesus arrives at the banks of the Jordan and there is no polite exchange between John and Jesus; Jesus comes from Nazareth and is baptized during the course of one sentence. As he emerges from the water, the heavens are literally torn open when the Spirit descends. It’s a dynamic, violent image, one that recalls Isaiah’s plea that God would tear open the heavens and come down. It is an image, in other words, that points to something utterly new. And indeed, Mark tells us that the life and ministry of Jesus represent a complete departure from what has come before. Just a few verses after the passage we read today, Mark tells us that Jesus also begins preaching repentance. While Jesus drew on the same themes as John the Baptist, his proclamation of repentance is fundamentally different from that of the one who baptized him. John the Baptist preached repentance as a way for sins to be forgiven; Jesus preaches repentance as a way to live as a citizen of God’s kingdom. For Jesus, repentance is less about being sorry for one’s sins and more about living a transformed life. Through his baptism in the Jordan, Jesus inaugurates a new way of being, one that is shaped by the reality of God’s presence among us. Just as Mozart changed the way people thought about music through one improvisation, Jesus changes the way we understand repentance, sin, and grace through his baptism. This event at the Jordan is less a significant moment in the life of Jesus and more the announcement that this world has been and will be transformed by the grace made known to us in Jesus Christ.
In just a moment, we will baptize Kason and Eirnin into Christ’s one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. Our hearts will melt as one Fr. Funston welcomes a new member to his parish, while another Fr. Funston baptizes his granddaughter. Babies will coo and cry, parents will beam, and if history is any indication, godparents will fight back tears. It will be a beautiful moment, one that will be captured on our cameras and in our memories. But we must not be distracted by the loveliness of this moment. Just as Jesus’ baptism is about far more than his immersion in the Jordan, Eirnin’s baptism, Kason’s baptism, our baptism is about more than the moment someone pours water over our head in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. As we baptize Kason and Eirnin today, we are affirming that something new is happening in their lives and the lives of their families, that they are citizens of God’s kingdom, that God is empowering them to live transformed lives of grace and love. Baptism is not an isolated event, a piece of trivia that gets added to our biography; baptism is the acknowledgement that our lives have been and can be fundamentally changed through what God has done for us in Jesus Christ, a celebration that God is changing what the world can be.