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A Way Without Violence

What does it mean that Jesus insists that John baptizes him for the forgiveness of sin to fulfill all proper righteousness?

by Russell Rathbun

Gospel Reading: Matthew 3:13 – 17

For Sunday, Jan. 9, 2011: Year A – Baptism of Our Lord

The Baptism of Jesus by John: Always problematic − well known, an iconic image, but always problematic. What does it mean when John says to Jesus on the occasion of our Lord submitting Himself to the Forerunner, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” John tried to prevent him, tried to pull him up off his knees, kind of scootch him back on to dry land, but Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”

Let it Be So Now

The first clause is like a prayer from some ancient spiritual practice. Let it be so now. Let it be so now. John’s sense of propriety, of the way things should be or would be has been turned upside down—he is perplexed and grasping for the order he had hoped to impose. But Jesus’ response is, Let it Be So Now. For it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness. Righteousness is fulfilled when the order is turned upside down and one does not move to right it, but breathes in, breathes out and prays, Let it Be So Now.

My People

My people come from Missouri, North and East of Kansas City. It is a middling place, a split or in-between place. Missouri was a split state in the Civil War. Over in St. Louis, they chose to put the headquarters of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, which works like a mainline protestant denomination on paper and lives its life outloud like American Evangelicals. It is a place where Pentecostals rub up against Methodists and trade unions hold Bible studies.

Well, my Grandpa Webb, who’s from there, told me of a night when he was at a Meetin’ (no more explanation than that; I assume it was a church service. He was a Baptist, but who knows it could have been a tent kind of thing. The way I always thought of it, it was a Sunday night service. The Sunday night service being a bit more casual and having a little more leeway for songs not in the hymnal and the Holy Spirit.)

Altar Call

My Grandpa Webb, used to tell me a story of one Sunday night when the text of the Baptism of Jesus was read from the Gospel of Matthew. He said Pastor Cecil got up and preached what he usually preached and then finally brought it around to the altar call (which among these sorts of traditions is how the service always ended) and he pointed his fat, shaking, sweaty finger out at those gathered and cried out. “You must submit yourself to the Savior, I beg of you, for the salvation of your own soul, come forward, kneel here before the savior and beg for his forgiveness.”

Well, my Grandpa Webb was sitting next to Rory, which he said he did from time to time, even though Rory was known to be a bad man and a drunk and a listener to roadhouse music. And like most Sunday nights Pastor Cecil was pointing that sausage finger right at Rory.

Forgive Me

Well Rory didn’t do much, but then just sort of started to stand up from the pew and then kind of fall back to it. He was looking beyond Pastor Cecil to the communion table, where, my Grandpa Webb said, “We all saw clear as day, Jesus the ‘God damn’ Christ! No fooling. Jesus, he comes from behind the communion table and everyone is quiet and in shock, their feet a little off the ground. Jesus comes down the aisle to the pew where my Grandpa Webb and Rory were sitting and he squishes in past everyone and my Grandpa until he gets to Rory and he kneels down on the creaking hardwood floor before Rory, bows his head and speaks. He speaks. “Rory, forgive me.”

“Me forgive you?” Rory says, “Have you been paying attention?” And my Grandpa Webb tells me next, Jesus says, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”

The Hardest Question

What does it mean that Jesus insists that John baptizes him for the forgiveness of sin to fulfill all proper righteousness?

Russell Rathbun is a preacher at House of Mercy in St. Paul, Minnesota, the author of Midrash on the Juanitos (Cathedral Hill Press, 2010) and the curator of The Hardest Question.


  1. Jameson Williams says:

    My first take on the question is that Jesus was concerned for those like JBap and the finger wagger in your grandfather’s story. It is for those of us that are the baptizers that he went into the water. Lest we think that we need not enter the water for our own encounters. He forces us to respond like JBap or reveal our own arrogance. Let it be so that I am forever humbled by the humility of the Lord Jesus.

  2. Mary Lynn Tobin says:

    Holy Smokes that is a great story and a wonderful way to enter the text. Thank you so much for posing the story through this parable. Now to think about the hardest question…

  3. Aimee Appell says:

    wowzers! I’m serving my first call in Missouri now, and our pianist’s last name is Webb (though she’s from down the Arkansas line), and she tells Grandpa Webb stories too! But this one is the best yet. Is it possible that Jesus knew all that would be done in His name, foresaw it in some way? It seems to fit with other sayings. Thank you for sharing this story, it has given me a totally different turn on the text, just when I needed it.

How do you read?