I’m currently pretty slammed at work and home but wanted to share a couple of thoughts that have been banging around in my head.
I recently began re-reading the Gospel of Mark and read the following verses (Mark 1:4-8):
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “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. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
Those verses got me thinking about the powerful symbolism of baptism, particularly about its liberation symbolism.
When John began his ministry of baptism he confined his work to the river Jordan, which is where Jesus was baptized. The Jordan is a powerful symbol of Israel’s redemption from Egypt and the wilds of the wilderness, for as they crossed it they left those places behind and entered into their Promised Land. Perhaps baptism, taking place in that same river, is meant to convey to us our liberation from the slavery of our former state of mind and acceptance of our place in the promised land of God’s kingdom.
And to coincide with baptism’s symbolism of liberation, it is important that God’s love was demonstrated to Israel through their liberation. Just as the Jordan marked Israel’s liberation from bondage in Egypt, despite their failure to strictly adhere to the Law, so too does baptism mark our liberation from sin.
But what of those who claim that Christianity merely presents a solution to a problem it created? Why do we need forgiveness from sin if we do not believe sin exists?
I have written before about Satan and sin. I believe that our human nature is one of enmity and accusation. Genuine love is not something that comes naturally to most of us; instead, we must overcome our natural tendencies and consciously choose to love. However, I believe we are called to love, and to do so is to embrace the image of God and embody him. Sin is to miss that mark and fall short of that calling.
That is ultimately what it means to be Christian, I think. Marcus Borg, in The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith, put it this way:
Christian faith means loyalty to Jesus as Lord, and not to the seductive would-be lords of our lives, whether the nation, or affluence, or achievement, or family, or desire.
This is the central meaning of incarnation: Jesus is what can be seen of God embodied in a human life. He is the revelation, the incarnation, of God’s character and passion—of what God is like and of what God is most passionate about. He shows us the heart of God.
If Jesus’ consistent message of love shows us the heart of God, then to know God is to experience love. But in order to love we must first feel loved, and that is where the importance of baptism as liberation comes into play, for just as the Jordan represented Israel’s liberation from bondage and entrance into the Promised Land, our baptism becomes the symbol of our realization that God’s love liberates us from our mistakes and failings, enabling us to then love others as he loves us.
By striving to prove how much they deserve God’s love, legalists miss the whole point of the gospel, that it is a gift from God to people who don’t deserve it. The solution to sin is not to impose an ever-stricter code of behavior. It is to know God.