Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church

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Somewhere along the line in our moral development, we all learn, or, most of us learn, that we have to go a little light on how strictly we interpret rules and that we have to take responsibility for moral decisions on ourselves. That is to say, we have to learn that moral rules are not like recipes in cookbooks and that following them is not an infallible producer of good things the way that following a Betty Crocker recipe is a producer of moist cakes.

            This is something that we have to learn. Our first moral instruction is, as children, simply a matter of learning to follow and respect rules. That is important. Children, by learning the rules, learn what the ballpark is in which right and wrong are played out. They have to follow the rules, whether they understand them or not; it’s the only way to come to understanding. But once an adult, the person who only follows the rules and does so strictly is rightly criticized as narrow, legalistic, and wooden. He or she is not so much a moral person as a person who is moralistic.

            Mark Twain once wrote a short story illustrating what this sort of person is like and how she acts towards others. He told of two elderly maiden aunts who had charge of a niece of tender age. The aunts were morally rigid, strict Calvinists, and, under no circumstances, would they lie or tell any sort of untruth. Unfortunately, the niece is dying and there is nothing in medical science to change this. Rather than encouraging and comforting the girl by avoiding telling her the truth about her medical condition, they feel obliged to tell her about it in no uncertain terms, and even to remind her of it, thus crushing her and making her last days miserable. Twain’s point is that they were so concerned with their own moral purity that they failed to act compassionately, which is to say, morally, to their niece, causing her unbearable grief. Their rigidity was cruel, not moral.

            So, if we are to be moral, which is to say good to other people and to possess some sort of personal integrity ourselves, we need to take responsibility for our decisions and not hide behind the inflexibility of rules. We have to put ourselves into our relations with others. As the prophet Micah preached: “God has told you what is good O mortal; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God?” So to the straight road of rules must always be added the flexibility of kindness and humility if justice is ever to be achieved.

            However, if we have to learn that sort of flexibility about rules, sometimes it gets learned too well. For example, once we learn that we can override strict interpretations of rules for some greater good, we start assuming that we can always override them, and that, somehow, we above all others are privileged in figuring out what the greater good is. We therefore think we are privileged and are allowed to make exceptions for ourselves; we are allowed to give ourselves moral hall passes, as it were. Those of you who watched Saturday Night Live in the 1980s may well remember Dana Carvey’s character, The Church Lady, who, when interviewing anybody who was inclined to give him or herself such a pass, observed with arched eyebrow: “Aren’t we special!” For the proud and boastful the Church Lady hit the nail pretty much on the head. The history of political power is one continuous record of those who have thought themselves special and that the rules therefore don’t apply to them the way that they apply to other people. As Richard Nixon famously said: “It’s not illegal if the president does it.” Apparently, he was not the last of his ilk.

            But sometimes, it isn’t just the proud and boastful who do this. Sometimes, it is very good people who do it. However, rather than producing more good in the world, which they want to do, they produce more evil when they give themselves such passes in life. This actually happens in churches a lot, and it happens with ministers a lot. Ministers want to do good; they want to see the good in people and, therefore, they are inclined oftentimes to ignore strict process, which they see as impersonal. They try to manage the outcome themselves; they try to make things turn out a certain way. The most glaring example is what happened in the cover-ups of pederasty by priests in the Catholic church. To give them the very little due they deserve, the bishops involved in such cover-ups were often only trying to avoid destroying the lives and careers of men that they saw as good priests, and so they transferred them from parish to parish whenever there was trouble. Unfortunately, as everybody now knows, the lives of several innocent young men were destroyed because these bishops tried to make things turn out a certain way, when it was not really in their power to bend reality. They weren’t so much finding flexibility in the rules; they were actually breaking them and being unjust. But it isn’t just bishops and priests and ministers,; the laity do it, too. I can think of one very tragic example in a rather historic Presbyterian church where men and women elected to office had done a lot for that church, but thought that entitled them to give themselves a moral pass elsewhere. Thus, they began running roughshod over all the other elected officers. This, despite any the good things that they had done, in the end pretty much destroyed that congregation, and even cost those trustees their membership.

            I used to teach seminarians that the one great temptation that they need to resist and to overcome when they get into a parish is the temptation to manage outcomes. The temptation is one in which one, in trying to give somebody a break, fails to respect process and to manipulate it while trying to help. This is not at all an easy temptation to overcome for people who want to do good and who often have to deal with people who do deserve a break and who need somebody to look beneath the surface. Resisting this temptation is also not easy when you want to be a moral hero and see unseen goodness that others have not seen. But you can’t just bypass evidence, and you can’t just ignore procedure or good order. And, you do have to trust the other people who are involved in the process and who are called to do God’s will just as you are. In such cases, going around the rules is not actually as morally creative as many people think. It is actually a sin against the Holy Spirit itself, insofar as one assumes that one can do a better job of managing how the world will turn out than God does. And when that happens, one’s very ability to see goodness at all becomes corrupted.

            Now, I go through all these observations about how we deal with rules for a simple reason, namely that they may help us better understand a very puzzling feature about the story of Jesus’ baptism at the hands of John the Baptist. I think many people are often puzzled by this story.  I know I have been. Everybody wonders if baptism is for the forgiveness of sins, and if Jesus is supposed to be sinless, then why is he baptized by John? Part of the answer comes in recognizing that John’s baptism was not the same thing as Christian baptism, which is the removal of sin by our incorporation into Christ; our sinful-self dies with him, and his righteousness becomes ours by faith. John’s baptism was strictly symbolic, not sacramental. But that distinction is only part of the answer. This is evident from John’s own reaction and puzzlement. To be sure, John recognizes the distinction between his baptism and Christian baptism when he points out, “I baptize with water for repentance but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me...He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” Still, when Jesus appears at the River Jordan, we are told John tried to avoid baptizing him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”

            Yet, Jesus insists. He gives a reason for doing so. He says: “Let it be so now; for it is proper in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” What does he mean? Well, two things.

            First, he means that he has no intention of cutting corners, or making of an exception of himself. Everybody who makes of him or herself an exception has the belief that they are special, and that, therefore, they don’t need to go through all the steps–that the steps are for ordinary people. Here, Jesus may be unique simply in the fact that he doesn’t make himself an exception. This is also a matter of humbly obeying God himself. John’s baptism, even if it was not the sacrament that was to come later, still was an act commanded of God to begin turning the world around; Jesus, in submitting to John’s baptism, was humble enough to submit himself to his Father’s will.

            It isn’t just a matter of following the spiritual rules, as it were, either. It isn’t a matter of Jesus going through the motions for the sake of form alone. He found something good and right in loving and doing what God has commanded. It was a matter of giving himself totally to God’s will and finding delight in it. In that, he sets an important example of how we are to treat the things of God.

            Second, his saying that he does this in order to fulfill all righteousness also shows his solidarity with the human race. Again, he is not doing this just for the sake of appearances. Rather, if this is the path that humans need to tread to restore God’s image in themselves, then Jesus, whose mission it is to show them how to restore it, needs to tread the same path. No, even more than that. He needs to show them what the path is; he needs to show them what it means to live like this. He can’t pretend, either. Had he done things any differently, had he made an exception of himself, had he merely pretended, then they might well ask themselves why they should tread that path and not make of themselves an exception? Perhaps, the most important thing in the story of Jesus’ baptism is simply the fact that he went through with it, for that is what we need to take away from it. Small wonder that the Holy Spirit descended upon him and the voice of the Father proclaimed, “This is my Son with whom I well pleased. Listen to him.” Indeed. Who else has the words of eternal life? Who else can show us the way? Who else is the pioneer of our faith?

            In Jesus’ submitting himself to God’s will for human beings, Jesus thus showed exactly what it means for us to live out our lives as God’s people. For what he shows is that it is not enough simply to have good intentions, or to follow the right rules, either, as if there were a magic token that would get us what we want. What he shows as important is that we have to commit ourselves and take responsibility upon ourselves all the way.  He shows that we need to commit ourselves humbly to God’s will and to accept God’s gifts, even if we think we don’t need them. We actually do need them. He shows that it is just as important, at the same time, to stand with the rest of the human race. Making an exception of yourself does none of these things.

            Apply this now to how we treat our own baptisms. We, of course, have submitted to them, or least our parents submitted us to them at some distant point. But submission needs to be a daily event. So, we need to ask ourselves, how often have our baptisms been the beginning of a path of holiness, a matter of not making an exception of ourselves? How often have we seen our baptism as a matter of solidarity with the people of God? Judging from experience, an awful lot of people seem to believe that once they are baptized, or once they have had a child baptized, that they are given an exemption from being a part of God’s people, of laughing with them, of crying with them, of struggling with them, of being generous amongst them, and above all, of worshiping with them. They treat baptism like a magic token, and they assume that it gives them a pass on the process of dying more and more to self, and living more and more to Christ, which is what John Calvin described the process of becoming holy as. Indeed, they seem to assume that it allows them to live more and more unto self.

            But those people are not here, and there is little point in criticizing them. You are here, and in being here you are acting on your baptism. So, in being here, understand from this story of Jesus’ baptism what exactly it is you are doing here and why you are here: you are here in order to fulfill all righteousness. You are here to give yourselves to God, and you are here to be one with God’s people. You are here in order that God himself may descend upon you, and say of this church, which is Christ’s body, “This is my Son, with whom I am well pleased. Listen to it.”