Your Name Is Beloved
Baptism of the Lord Sunday
The gospel of Mark has no story of the birth of Jesus. No shepherds, no angels, no magi, no manger. Instead, for Mark, the appearance of John the Baptist and the baptism of Jesus constitute the very first scene of his gospel. No preliminaries beyond his quotation of two passages from the Prophets, both of which he applies to John. Then it’s—boom!—here comes John and—boom!—here comes Jesus. Mark is known for his breathless, nonstop action, and he gets the ball rolling right from the start. Mark doesn’t mess around.
But it’s more than impatience that prompts Mark to place Jesus’s baptism at the very beginning of his story. He wants to highlight its importance. Just as John writes an overture to his gospel, in which he introduces the different themes he will sound throughout the story, and just as Matthew and Luke include birth narratives that reflect their specific theologies and understandings of the significance of Jesus, Mark uses this episode to indicate what he thinks is important about Jesus.
But what could that be? Jesus doesn’t do much in these verses, and he says nothing at all. Most of the narrative is centered on the figure of John the Baptist—his diet, what he was wearing, and his administering a “baptism of repentance” to those who came out to him from Jerusalem and the countryside of Judea. He has more lines in these scenes than Jesus—it would be hard not to have more than zero—and, although he speaks of one more powerful than he who is coming (whom we know to be Jesus, although he doesn’t mention any names), John is clearly the center of attention. All Jesus really does is show up at the Jordan, undergo baptism at the hand of John, and come up out of the water.
Mark states all this quite matter-of-factly, but subsequent writers had a real problem with the idea that Jesus would submit to John’s baptism, which Mark clearly describes as “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (v. 4). That didn’t sit well with Matthew, who shows John protesting, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” (Matt 3:14). Jesus practically has to twist John’s arm to get him to baptize him. Similarly, John’s gospel records John the Baptist declaring Jesus to be “the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29), and saying of Jesus, “He must increase, and I must decrease” (John 3:30). All four gospels show John acknowledging Jesus’s superiority. Even in Mark, John says, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals” (v. 7).
That the gospel writers felt the need to take such great pains to demonstrate Jesus’s superiority to John, making sure to point out that John himself acknowledged Jesus as the “more powerful” one, indicates that in the latter decades of the first century some controversy still existed. John’s disciples continued to claim that he, not Jesus, was the one to follow. They undoubtedly backed up their argument by referring to the well-established tradition that John had baptized Jesus, saying quite credibly that the one who baptizes has more authority than the one who is baptized. Even Mark and the other gospel writers could not avoid the uncomfortable fact that Jesus had indeed submitted to John’s baptism. It was obviously well-known, so they couldn’t just deny it or leave it out of the story. But they could and did spin it in such a way as to emphasize Jesus’s superiority despite the arguments of John’s followers.
Controversies such as this one loom much larger at the beginning of a movement, when adherents’ tender faith is more susceptible to outside arguments. The gospel writers clearly felt that the claims of John’s followers represented a threat to certain Christians whose faith was fragile, so they went out of their way to declare what we all now believe to be the truth: that John the Baptist was an important figure, but only in his role as forerunner to Jesus.
Two thousand years later, it doesn’t seem such a dangerous idea to suggest that Jesus may very well have started out as one of John the Baptist’s disciples. Many historical Jesus scholars hold this view. They note that, according to Mark, it is only after John’s arrest and imprisonment that Jesus strikes out on his own with his proclamation of the kingdom of God. For me, this is a helpful idea, because it makes me think there may have been an evolution in Jesus’s thinking over time.
Many of us who grew up going to church and Sunday School sort of absorbed the notion that Jesus sprang onto the world stage as a fully-formed divine figure. The infant in the manger was the Second Person of the Trinity, completely invested from birth with all of God’s omnipotence and omniscience. If you had given the baby a pad of paper and a ballpoint pen, he could have written out the quadratic equation or drawn up plans for the large hadron collider.
But I don’t think that’s how it worked. If the doctrine of Incarnation is true—if Jesus was God-made-flesh, a fully human figure—then one of the implications is that he had limitations. He had to learn to walk and talk the same way we all did—by imitating his parents, babbling incoherently, and falling down a lot. He had to be taught how to get along with others, how to share, how to read and write and pray. I don’t think it is impious at all to imagine Jesus making mistakes on his math homework, or misspelling words, or having trouble learning to ride his bike without training wheels. On the contrary, I find it comforting to think that Jesus went through the same kinds of things I did and do. It gives me confidence that he understands what it’s like to be human, and that therefore it’s okay for me to be human. I like to think of Jesus’s pencils having worn erasers.
So it’s fine with me to think that Jesus may have started out following John the Baptist, and only over time found his thinking moving in a different direction from his mentor’s. I think it’s okay for him to have needed that formative time with John to hash out what the kingdom of God really meant and how he would go about proclaiming and enacting it.
What is more problematic for us as Christians is the idea that Jesus underwent a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. To say that Jesus was a fallible, limited human being is not to say he was sinful, that he needed to repent or be forgiven. That was clearly a large part of the discomfort the gospel writers felt in regard to the baptism. Why, if he was sinless, did he submit to a baptism of repentance?
It’s a thorny question, but a way of looking at it that I have found helpful is to consider John’s preaching from a corporate rather than an individual perspective. John was calling the people of God to repentance and a renewal of the covenant with God. In undergoing the baptism of repentance, Jesus was standing in solidarity with his people. He may have had no need to repent himself, but he knew that without repentance his people as a whole would never realize God’s vision for them and for the world, so he took part in a symbolic act of corporate repentance.
Even if this is true, and John’s baptism was understood in a corporate sense, Jesus’s baptism was unique in at least one way. For no one else is it recorded that, after his baptism, the heavens are torn apart and the Spirit descends on him like a dove. To no one else does a heavenly voice proclaim, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (v. 11). Jesus is utterly unique.
Or is he? Of course, he is the only begotten Son of God, the firstborn of all creation, God from God, Light from Light, and all that. He is far beyond any of us in his holiness, wisdom, power, and goodness. He and no one else is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
But . . . he is not God’s only Beloved. I am, too. So are you. Your name is Beloved.
As I said earlier, the Incarnation means that Jesus was like us. The converse of that is that we are like Jesus. Not in his sinlessness or divinity or capacity to save, certainly, but in our relationship with God, we share in his identity as the Beloved. The Apostle Paul talks in terms of adoption—he tells the Galatians that Jesus came “in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God”(Gal 4:5–7).
I think that’s what it means when John says Jesus will baptize us with the Holy Spirit. At our baptism we become incorporated into Christ in some mysterious way that allows us to share in his relationship with God. We become adopted siblings of Jesus and heirs of God, and the Holy Spirit grants us the privilege to call God by the special name Jesus used, Abba, the intimate, loving, caring Father. The water of baptism washes away our sin and drowns the old selfish person we had been, and we rise up out of the water sharing Jesus’s resurrection life. Paul again, this time in his letter to the Romans: “We have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom 6:4).
One of the greatest needs we have as human beings is to be accepted, for someone to say to us, “You are fine just the way you are. You don’t need to change, you don’t need to try to impress me, you don’t need to do anything. I love you and accept you.”
This is not the same thing as fitting in, by the way. I don’t know about you, but when I was a teenager, one of the worst things that could happen to you was to be ostracized. Mocked. Laughed at. Made to realize in no uncertain terms that you were not welcome at the cool kids’ table. For more sensitive souls, that can be an excruciating experience.
The great temptation in that situation is to try to “fit in.” This means conforming to the expectations and standards of the in-crowd, even when you recognize the emptiness and inanity of most of those standards. It means shaving off parts of yourself that don’t fit the mold. It often means denying your God-given beauty, intelligence, and uniqueness in order to gain someone else’s approval. Of course, that kind of temptation doesn’t end with our adolescence. Even in the adult world—the workplace, the political sphere, the marketplace, perhaps sometimes even in the church—we are urged in subtle and not-so-subtle ways to conform. Fit in. Fall in line.
Fitting in this way is a pale imitation—a mockery, really—of true acceptance. Conformity says, “We will accept you if. . . . “ Conditional approval says, “I accept you because. . . .” The acceptance we know as agape love, however, says, “I accept you, period.” Notice what the voice from heaven tells Jesus after his baptism: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Why was God pleased with Jesus? In Mark’s narrative, we have just met him, and the only action he has taken has been to go to the Jordan and get baptized. Not much there to go on, if we understand God’s acceptance as the “if” or “because” variety.
No, God is well pleased with Jesus, period. He is God’s Son, the Beloved, and he is accepted and loved without any ifs, ands, or becauses. God doesn’t need a reason for delighting in Jesus.
As we read further in the gospel of Mark, we find Jesus offering the same kind of acceptance and agape to those he encounters. He heals without judgment. He eats with tax collectors and sinners. He touches lepers. He comes not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. He says to everyone he meets, “You are accepted. Period. You are God’s beloved, and with you God is well pleased.”
How many of us need to hear that message again today? How many of the people we encounter every day need to hear those words of grace: I accept you. God accepts you. You are forgiven, and there is nothing in the world . . . the galaxy . . . the universe that can take God’s unconditional favor away from you. Who and what you are right now—this very moment—is beautiful in God’s sight. No strings, no riders, no exclusionary clauses. Your name is Beloved.
How would our world be different if we each took that message to heart ourselves, and then had the grace and courage to speak it to others? I imagine it would shake the world to its very foundations.
So let's get out there and shake ... and keep on shaking.