Today is the celebration of Christ’s baptism. And yesterday in the church calendar was Epiphany, remembering the three wise men from the east who journeyed to offer gifts and see the Messiah. It’s the time in the church year when we celebrate Jesus bursting onto the scene of the world’s drama – making himself known to his Jewish community and to the wider Gentile world.
In the gospel of Mark Jesus’ first appearance is at his baptism. And as Anabaptist Mennonites we reflect on Jesus’ baptism from our own particular perspective. The term Anabaptist means re-baptiser and was originally a term of derision used to dismiss folks who were baptizing one another in violation of laws mandating infant baptism. Even today the word that Dutch Mennonites use for themselves isn’t first Mennonites or Anabaptists but doopsgezinde – the baptism-minded people.
We encounter some doopsgezinde – some folks inclined to baptism in our passage from Acts 19. Paul meets believers in Ephesus who hadn’t received the holy spirit but had only heard of John’s baptism of repentance. Upon learning this Paul preaches to them about the baptism in the Holy Spirit that Jesus brings – and laid hands on them and they started prophesying and speaking in tongues.
Early Anabaptist leaders spoke of an third type of baptism. Like Paul they affirmed the baptism by the Holy Spirit, the gift of God’s grace that fills us. And like John they practiced water baptism as a sign that a person has repented, received forgiveness, renounced evil and joined with the community of the church. But they also taught about the baptism by blood – an experience of suffering and persecution where a believer offers their life to follow Christ, even to death.
This theology of a three-fold baptism is pretty intense but it emerged out of intense disagreements between Christians in the 16th century Reformation. One point of contention was over the nature of sin. Anabaptists maintained that children are not born depraved, but are born good and made in the image of God. Baptism was then a sign for those who needed to repent and could choose willingly to join the community of faith therefore they argued it should only be practiced among adults. Baptizing infants to protect them from God’s wrath wasn’t necessary – because God makes children good and they are already a part of God’s salvation in Christ was the early Anabaptist argument.1
How we understand things at the beginning shapes how we imagine what might happen later. The seeds for the story are planted at its start. And to see humans and children as beloved and good from the beginning, if prone to tragedy and violence, changes how we tell our story.
To know God and God’s world as good from the beginning gives us hope for the world we live in today. All of God’s creation begins with belovedness. It begins with God’s spirit of love hovering like a bird and God’s creative word of love speaking everything into being.
One translator begins the old story like this: “When God began to create heaven and earth, and the earth then was welter and waste and darkness over the deep and God’s breath hovering over the waters, God said, “Let there be light.” And there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good.” (Gen 1:1-3).2
God’s blessing echoes over all creation – and over us humans as part of God’s dearly beloved creation. God’s fierce love holds the world and God’s voice goes out into all creation as Psalm 29 so vividly describes it: “The Lord’s voice is over the waters, the God of glory thunders…the Lord’s voice hews flames of fire and makes the wilderness shake…in God’s palace all says glory!”
If the story of creation begins in glorious goodness, the story of Jesus also begins with divine blessing. While the gospels of Luke and Matthew begin with accounts of Jesus’ birth; in the gospel of Mark Jesus enters the picture as an adult. Mark gets right to the action – Jesus goes from his hometown of Nazareth in Galilee to be baptized by John in the Jordan.
And even though we are told that all sorts of people were making the trek out to the wilderness to be baptized by John – somehow Jesus’ baptism is a very intimate and personal moment. The crowds are nowhere to be seen and even John fades out of the picture.
The heavens are torn apart and the Spirit descends on Jesus like a dove. A voice comes from heaven, the same voice that spoke all of creation into being, and this voice of Love speaks now over Jesus, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.”
Jesus begins his ministry with God’s declaration of belovedness over his life. Before Jesus sets his sights on his ministry of healing and preaching – he looks upward and glimpses heavenly love. Before Jesus hears the requests of the needy and the questions of the learned – he hears the voice of God calling him “my beloved Son.” Before Jesus has done a single thing except make the journey to be baptized, God declares that God is pleased with Jesus.
I realize that not all kids in the world hear the words that they are loved. Not all young adults embarking on their life journey have a caretaker that says they are proud of them. Maybe there have been heartbreaking moments in your life when you longed to hear words of affirmation and love but you instead received silence or judgment. We all need words of blessing spoken over us in order to grow and thrive.
Jesus hears that he is beloved of God right at the beginning of his ministry. And right after this holy space where the separating barrier between heaven and earth breaks down, things immediately get tough for Jesus.
The same spirit of God that descended on Jesus in the Jordan River, next drives him into the wilderness where wild beasts and the great tempter roam. John, who just baptized Jesus, is arrested and then killed. People flock to Jesus begging for freedom from sickness and hunger, poverty and oppression. And the shadow of death weighs heavy on Jesus as he confronts the powers of injustice with the love of God. And when Jesus is killed on a cross, the very curtain of the temple in Jerusalem is torn. Just as the heavens tore apart with divine love to bless Jesus at his baptism at the beginning of his ministry, at the end of his life we also glimpse the love of God in Jesus, a love that overcomes even death.
We too have moments when the fabric of our lives rips open, revealing the divine. They might not happen very often for us. But we can choose to hang on to these memories.
I imagine that Jesus as ministered his few short years he carried with him the memory of the feeling of John’s rough hands dipping him into the murky Jordan. I imagine that for the rest of his life Jesus could close his eyes and glimpse a vision of heaven and see God’s spirit that hovered over him in that initial moment of baptismal belovedness.
While none of us are the Messiah, we are all God’s children. Each you in all your giftedness and brokenness and quirkiness is beloved of God. And all of us as a community are invited into the Beloved Community that God is building.
We practice baptism not only to respond to the work of the Spirit in our lives, prompting us to repent from sin, accept forgiveness and follow Christ but we also commit ourselves to the community that is the church. And one of the gifts that the church offers is to retell again and again the story that God’s world was made in love, is held in love, and that each person is made in the image of God and is Beloved of God.
Belovedness is where the story begins and belovedness is where the story ends.
When I go home to Kansas for Christmas one of my favorite things to eat are peppernuts. They are traditional Christmas cookie where I’m from. They are a pretty rich cookie dough, loaded with spices – anise, pepper, cinnamon, clove, nutmeg. You roll out the dough into logs, freeze it, and then slice the cookies into little rounds the size of nickels, baking them on a cookie sheet. They don’t take long to bake and require lots of monitoring and quality control taste-testing. Inevitably, a few of these small cookies will get stuck to one another on the cookie sheet.
On my mom’s side of the family we play a little game with these stuck-together peppernuts. You find a pair of little peppernuts that are stuck together – and then you find another person. You each break off one cookie and eat it. And then you have to sleep and the next morning – you win if you are the first person to say, “Good morning fer liebchen” to the other person. Which means something to the effect of “good morning my beloved.”
It’s a goofy way of sharing love and care to one another that involves eating cookies and yelling good morning fer liebchen at family members early in the morning or sometimes even even a whole year later if that’s the next time you see a family member.
In today’s gospel text of Jesus’ baptism I imagine God tearing open the heavens as if two peppernuts were being broken apart and saying to Jesus,
“Good morning my fer liebchen – my beloved son. I’m so proud of you.”
In these weeks after Christmas as we celebrate the gift that Christ is to the world and to our lives – hold onto those moments when you have glimpsed the mystery and love of the Divine.
Hold onto your own baptism as a tangible memory – a sign and marker of what God’s love has done for you and of your own commitment to follow Jesus.
The world began beloved, each one of us began beloved, Jesus Christ began his ministry blessed as God’s beloved Son, and by the power of Spirit each of us can participate in the Beloved Community.
- See Chapter VIII “Baptism” in Anabaptism in Outline: Selected Primary Sources, ed. Walter Klaasen (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1981), 162-189. Article 11 “Baptism” in The Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective also describes the three-fold baptism. ↩︎
- Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2004), 17.