Baptized into God
by Isaac Villegas
January 11, 2014
“And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased’” (Matthew 3:13-17). You are my son, my daughter, the one whom I love, the one whom I am well pleased.
Who wouldn’t want to hear such words spoken about them, to them? For someone to announce to the world that you are loved, that you are beloved — for the world to know that you are the reason, the cause, for someone’s experience of pleasure, for someone to be pleased, that you are the source of joy, for someone.
This is what God does; this is who God is — this word of love, this experience of joy, of one pleasing another, of one affirming the other. At the river Jordan, we catch a glimpse of the Trinity, a glimpse into the inner life of God, the God who is a relationship, the relationship that is God: God the Spirit, hovering over God the Son, as God speaks a word of affirmation, of love, of delight.
This scene from the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel is one of the few places where we have all three persons of God, the Trinity, show up in the story. The scene is a window into the life of God — and not just a window, but a door as well, because it’s an invitation, the story is an invitation, for us, to find ourselves in the river with Jesus, to share in the baptism of Jesus.[i]
The baptism of Jesus is about us. It’s where we find our way into the story of Jesus, how we link our lives to his. When we see Jesus in the Jordan River, we see ourselves.[ii] As the apostle Paul writes again and again in Romans and Galatians and 1 Corinthians, we have been baptized into Jesus Christ, and “it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God” (Galatians 2:20). Through baptism, we are brought into Jesus, brought into his life, which is the life of God. Through baptism, we become part of God’s life in the world.[iii]
From beginning to end, the Bible is a story about what it means to be God’s presence in the world, to live in God’s life, to be God’s life in the world. The story starts in Genesis, with the first human beings who try to be God too soon, without having to learn what it means to be human first, without having to learn to be vulnerable, to be weak, to have a body that ties you to the earth, to dirt.
The sin of Adam and Eve is impatience, refusing to wait, refusing to be creatures bound by time, creatures who have to eat, to grow, to learn. Instead, they want to have it all, all at once, to be gods, immediately. What they want is good, but they want it too fast. That’s their sin.[iv] They haven’t learned how to desire, how to control their desires, how to live with their desires — when to say no, when to say yes, and which voices to listen to, which to ignore, how to discern.
They are immature creatures. Theirs is the sin of impatience, which is our sin as well — the desire to have it all, all at once, all at the same time, here and now: “Your way right away,” as the commercials for Burger King used to put it. To be God is to be a king, which means you can have what you want when you want it, a world full of servants to do your bidding, to satisfy your desires.
But, at the baptism of Jesus, we are offered another way, a different way into God’s life, and it begins with an announcement, a cosmic declaration, a heavenly word of affirmation. “And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’”
Jesus is loved before he does anything. Jesus doesn’t act out of impatience. He acts out of love; he lives from love. He doesn’t try to get his way right away. Instead he receives God’s love and lives in it, patiently following wherever God’s love directs his life. In Jesus we see God as love for life, God as affirmation of life — love as a movement, a calling, a mission, a life: Jesus.
Jesus is loved before he starts going around healing people, before he starts overturning the tables of injustice, before he offers peace, before he eats with tax collectors and sinners, before he forgives his enemies from the cross. From the beginning, God loves Jesus, and God wants the world to know that Jesus is the source of God’s joy, of God’s delight — that Jesus is God’s delight made flesh, that Jesus is God’s joy in the flesh, that Jesus is the ecstatic overflow of God in the world.
And God says all of this about us, about you. That’s what baptism means, our baptism. We are baptized into Jesus, into his life, into his body, into his flesh. We are there, in the Jordan, in the water, with Jesus, made part of Jesus — “the life I live in the flesh,” the apostle Paul says, “I live in the Son of God.”
The good news, then, is that in the story, at the baptism of Jesus, when we hear the voice from heaven, we learn to hear it as a word to each of us, as God’s word to us, to you and me, as an expression of God’s delight in us, of God’s pleasure with our lives. “And a voice from heaven said…” You are my daughter, my son, the one whom I love, the one whom I am well pleased.
That’s the word from God we hear today, from this Scripture — an announcement to the world that you are loved, that you are beloved; for the world to know that you are the cause of someone’s pleasure, the reason for someone to be pleased, that you are the source of joy, for someone. That you are not invisible, that you have caught someone’s eye, the eye of God.
The good news is that we don’t have to become someone else in order to be noticed, to be loved and liked. We don’t need to conquer and enslave, we don’t need to have power over others in order to be acknowledged, to be recognized, to be respected. Our life with God unlearns us of those visions of what it means to be God, those fantasies of worldly power projected into our imagination of who God is, and what it would mean for us to be gods.
We don’t need to lie to ourselves about who we are. We don’t need to lie to others. Because we are already God’s beloved, we are already a reason for God’s pleasure in the world; God’s delight in our lives.
We are created for this love, to get caught up in this love, this love of God, this God who is love, the God who is a relationship of eternal love, of one loving another.[v] That’s what it means for us to know God as trinity, as a relationship of loving persons, whose love overflows and catches us up into God through the waters of baptism. God doesn’t want to love us as if we were mere servants, lowly creatures, submissive animals. God wants to love us as friends, as equals, “as God loves God.”[vi] God wants us to be bound together in a mature love, of mutuality. “No longer do I call you servants,” Jesus says in John’s Gospel, “but I have called you friends” (John 15:15).[vii]
Baptism ushers us into this friendship with God, into the life of Christ, into the life of God — a new life, a new identity, we receive from God’s grace.[viii]
All of this is true. It’s the gospel.
The hard part is learning to believe it — to believe that God delights in our lives. For that, we need each other to bear witness to this love, to this companionship — to help us believe that we are not servants, but friends, and if friends of God, then we are also bound up in friendships with one another, of mutuality, of care and respect, relationships that honor one another.
As a church, we have been entrusted with this work, God’s work — a holy calling, the mission of the divine — the work of showing one another that we are occasions for joy, that God delights in each of us. [ix]
[i] Eugene Rogers, After the Spirit: A Constructive Pneumatology from Resources outside the Modern West (Eerdmans, 2005), p. 11-12: “Interactions among the Persons recorded in the New Testament give glimpses of the intratrinitarian life as it dilates—delays and opens up—to include human beings within it. These interactions occur at the annunciation, baptism, temptation, and crucifixion of Jesus, and at the institution of the Lord’s Supper… Such glimpses occur as part of a human practice of reflecting upon scripture by which the Persons may begin to comprehend or embrace human beings—that is, catch them up into a divine life that increases in mystery even as it enfolds them.”
[ii] Rogers, After the Spirit, p. 13: “At baptism human beings are in the process of moving to the inside of the trinitarian life.”
[iii] Rogers, After the Spirit, p. 142: “In the life of Jesus, God becomes human; in the life of the baptized, human beings become God. Because by the Holy Spirit God was conceived in the womb of Mary and became human, Christianity can be a human religion, divinization can have a history that runs through baptism. Because the Holy Spirit conceived Christ in a body that human beings might become divine, religion can be salvific, baptism can initiate deification.”
[iv] Rogers, After the Spirit, p. 170-171: “Adam disobeys by overreaching—by wanting too soon and too independently to elevate himself… Adam’s sin is attempting to take by force what God would give in time… It is a failure that Christ specifically reverses when he counts divinity not a thing to be grasped.”
[v] Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies, 4.38.4, 4.20.7, 4.20.5: “we have not been made gods from the beginning, but at first merely human beings, then at length gods… For the glory of God is a living human being; and the life of the human being consists in beholding God… The Spirit is truly preparing the human being in the Son.” Also see Eugene Rogers, After the Spirit, p. 147-148: “it is by the Spirit that God is characteristically open rather than enclosed, a God who not only gives and receives what God has, but keeps giving and receiving, not only gives and receives once and for all, but gives and receives as an everlasting life, not only gives to one and receives from one, but can give also to another and receive also from another. That is, the other ontological claim about God in the New Testament — that ‘God is love’ (1 John 4:16) — follows from the first, that God is the Holy Spirit. Thus it is characteristic — not necessary, but deeply characteristic — for God to give also to human beings, for God to receive also from human beings. It is characteristic of the love of the Father and the Son that their love is not static but can incorporate others into the life without distortion — can incorporate others into that life as a manifestation, as an application, of what they do with the Spirit. The whole incorporation of the human being into the trinitarian life is therefore appropriated to the Spirit.”
[vi] Rowan Williams, “The Body’s Grace,” p. 59 in Our Selves, Our Souls and Bodies, ed. by Charles C. Hefling (Cowley, 1996): “We are created so that we may be caught up in this, so that we may grow into wholehearted love of God by learning that God loves us as God loves God.”
[vii] Herbert McCabe, God Matters (Continuum, 1987), p. 98: “The Father can only love the Son because only in the Son does he find an equal to love. He can be kind and considerate to his creatures as such, he can shower gifts and blessings upon them, but in so far as they are simply his creatures he cannot give himself, abandon himself to them in love. That is why any Unitarian theory, or an Arian theory that diminishes the divinity of Christ, leaves us as our only image of God that of the supreme boss. It leaves us, in the end, with a kind of master/slave relationship between God and his creatures. In a sense it leaves us with an infantile God who has not grown up enough to have learnt to lose himself in love. Such a God may be a kind and indulgent boss, but he remains a master of slaves—even if they are well-treated slaves. I think that modern atheism since Nietzsche is a rejection of the idea that the deepest truth about mankind is that we are slaves. If, however, with traditional Christianity, we take the Trinity seriously, we too have to reject the idea. For the Christian tradition, the deepest truth about people is that they are loved. But that is only possible because we have been taken up into the love that God has for his Son; God loves us because we are in Christ and share his Spirit. We have been taken up to share in the life of love between equals which is the Godhead. We were buried, therefore, with Christ by baptism into death, so that, as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life; not just newness of human life but the new life which is sharing in divinity.”
[viii] Athanasius of Alexandria, On the Incarnation of the Word, ch. 54: “The Word became human that human beings might become divine.” Augustine of Hippo, Sermon 128, “In natali Domini”: “God was made human that human beings might be made divine.” Augustine of Hippo, In ep. I Joan. 2:14: “Always, as a human being loves, so that one is. Do you love the earth? Then you are earth. Do you love God? Then—do I dare say it—you are God. I dare not say it of myself; let us hear the scriptures: ‘I have said, Ye are gods’ [Psalm 82].”
[ix] Rowan Williams, “The Body’s Grace,” p. 59: “The whole story of creation, incarnation, and our incorporation into the fellowship of Christ’s body tells us that God desires us, as if we were God. We are created so that we may grow into the wholehearted love of God by learning that God loves us as God loves God. The life of the Christian community has as its rationale the task of teaching us to so order our relations that human beings may see themselves as desired, as the occasion of joy.”