Jesus then appeared, arriving at the Jordan River from Galilee. He wanted John to baptize him. John objected, “I’m the one who needs to be baptized, not you!”But Jesus insisted. “Do it. God’s work, putting things right all these centuries, is coming together right now in this baptism.” So John did it. The moment Jesus came up out of the baptismal waters, the skies opened up and he saw God’s Spirit—it looked like a dove—descending and landing on him. And along with the Spirit, a voice: “This is my Son, chosen and marked by my love, delight of my life.” Matthew 3:13-17, The MessageThe waters of baptism are subversive waters.
To subvert something is to overthrow it, but by indirect means. Subversion isn't a frontal assault; it's a stealth campaign. The prefix, sub, means "from below" and -vert comes from the Latin for "to turn." So to subvert something is to turn it from below; in other words, to turn it upside down.
The waters of baptism are subversive waters. If we dive into today’s text a little, we can see it. We can sense just how revolutionary baptism can be. To see it, we need to take note where Jesus’ baptism takes place – in the wilderness. Not in the city. Not in the center of power, but in the desert – the fringes of society. It’s where the social protesters and agitators led their followers in the first century – into the wilderness. John the Baptizer’s choice to gather his followers and preach in the wilderness means that he is stirring up some protest. The story carries an upside-down symbolism. By giving up their old ways and getting dunked in the Jordan river, John’s followers declare that God’s true power is emerging on the margins of the society.
And then here comes Jesus. Jesus joins the protest on the banks of the Jordan in the wilderness.
When I read Matthew’s version of Jesus’ baptism, I can’t help but to think of the connection of three words:
The word repent, which literally means “to turn around.”
The word baptize , which means “to submerge”; to plunge under.
The word subvert, which means “to turn upside down.
To read John and Jesus’ revolutionary story correctly, we need to prepare for these three actions: we turn around; plunge into our own waters, chilly and cold; and we prepare to turn the world upside down. Let’s think about each of these a little bit more.
Repent comes from a Greek word that indicates a change of mind-set. When we repent, we adopt a new mindset that causes us to turn around and go in the other direction. Turning around creates a new way of relating to the world. Both John and Jesus opened their public ministries with this word: “Repent. Change your hearts and minds. The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” At the wilderness waters of the Jordan, Jesus affirms repentance as part of the revolution.
The traditional understanding of “repent”, we are told, means to turn away from personal sin. I’m wondering, in this case, if repent means to turn away from political and religious systems that exclude and dominate others. If John the Baptist were here today, he might say something like this: “Your country has allied itself with God’s enemy. Your political system, regardless of your political party, has allied itself with God’s enemy. Your religious system has allied itself with God’s enemy. But I have good news. A new nation is close at hand. God has just inaugurated a new nation that’s not part of your current government; it’s not part of your religious system; it’s not controlled by your political parties. This nation will have a Ruler, and that Ruler will be the child of Almighty God. To be part of this new nation, all of your affiliations with the present world system must be completely severed. You must leave them behind. Come down here into this water, repent. Turn away from your ties with this world order.”
I think Matthew’s Gospel was written for early Christians who needed encouragement to keep the revolution going. Christians were viewed as radical outcasts . . . dangerous people who turned on the existing government. They claimed to be part of a new nation, not bound by geographical boundaries and geo-political governments or theocracies, but by their baptismal identity in Christ. You can see how this would be threatening. The Roman Empire won’t be able to tame this revolution for another 300 years through some subversion of their own.
When we become followers of Jesus, we make the choice to walk down a different road than what most of those around us are walking. For those on the wilderness banks of the Jordan River, being part of the God movement called the Kingdom of Heaven means turning away from a current world order that rules through war, fear, taxation and manipulation. When Jesus lets John baptize him, it is an attempt to overthrow the dominance of the current religious and political system. It’s not a revolution with weapons and warfare. It’s a change of hearts and minds. It’s an insurgency of inclusive love that begins with repentance. It’s a public declaration by people who want to turn away from the old order so that God to do something new.
In the 21st century, the real question may be, "Does Baptism mean anything at all?" For many people, baptism is neither powerful nor significant. It can feel like a worn initiation ritual of a bygone era, or an antiseptic event that’s been streamlined for the sake of convenience. When we baptize our babies, we don’t often think about how we are inducting them into a revolution of love.
As I mentioned earlier, the word baptize literally means to submerge. In some ways, baptism is a death warrant. For Jesus and John, it was a literal death warrant. Submersion in the waters of baptism was an act of defiance that put old-order authorities on notice. Christians later talked about baptism as a way to put the old self to death so that a new self could emerge. We sometimes call death the great equalizer. Death comes to everyone, regardless of social status, race, gender, or life circumstance. Baptism was viewed much the same way. Everyone is equal in the waters of baptism. Racism, classism, sexism, ageism and homophobia are signs of the old ways that needs to die away. Those destructive behaviors need to be submerged and drowned in order for a new way of living to emerge.
Baptism breaks down the social walls standing between us. It can be seen as an act of civil disobedience. Baptism submerges us into a community that is broader than any nation state or religious system, uniting us with a message of inclusion, justice, and compassion.
Subversion is another kind of “turning” – not turning away but turning upside down. I’m guessing that many of us are not comfortable with this idea. Most Christians rarely consider themselves subversive.
The spiritual, “Wade in the Water,” reminds me of the subversive, world-flipping message of the gospel. Some say that the song was written as a signal to runaway slaves. Wade in the water means, “Use the river so the hounds can’t trace you. Tonight is the moment for flight; move swiftly; the reaction will be fierce.” Now that’s a subversive way to help people!
Based on the reflections of Walter Rhett from the blog BlackHistory360, I want to offer another interpretation. Rhett says that runway slaves did not need a reminder to wade in the water to throw off their scent. They already knew that well. The spiritual, “Wade in the Water,” sings about how to practice faith. Part of the real subversion of the song is that enslaved Americans took the religion of slaveholder. They made Christianity their own and reinterpreted it. Make no mistake, Wade in the Water is about freedom, but it’s about inner freedom as much as it is about legal or physical freedom. Enslaved Americans could wade into the water to find that unassailable place that could not be controlled by any human master. In the spiritual, if you want to find yourself, the first step is to walk into troubled waters. You meet hardships with courage and steady faith. Gather now and get ready so that you will delivered by the gifts of grace that spring forth in dark times. So “Wade in the Water” is more than instructions for running away, which only a small number of border state slaves were able to do. It is a dramatic story of God’s ability to restore and redeem.
As the new church year begins, we here at CCC are going to wade into some troubled waters. Over the next few weeks, we are going to think about race and culture, class and power and privilege. We are going to prepare ourselves to continue to promote social righteousness. We are going to think about how the troubled waters swirling around us touch our hopes and fears and keep us from becoming a beloved community. We are going to explore what it means to be converted, to be subverted, to grow in the practice of our church covenants – especially our Anti-Racism covenant. The road toward a multi-cultural church goes through anti-racism awareness. Period. That’s our Jordan River, you could say. The road to multicultural community must pass through awareness of all the sources of privilege that lock injustice in place. That is the Jordan we stand before. We are invited to wade in the water, to claim the very real death struggle between old values that keep God in heaven and the world as it is.
The waters of baptism are subversive waters.This liberating gospel compels us into the world, confronting issues of race and gender, worship and spirituality, witness and mission, sin and salvation--scary stuff. Instead of distracting ourselves by turning inward on each other ,often ignoring the hurt rampant around us, we can rise up and to carry out Jesus' revolution. Repentance. Baptism. Subversion. Revolution. In other words, let’s be the change we want to see.