This post is part of a series reflecting on my Pilgrimage to the Holy Land. The Pilgrimage was a guided experience called “The Footsteps of Jesus” – every Friday, I’ll be posting a “Footsteps Friday” reflection (see index here). I look forward to your sharing your thoughts and comments.
On Pilgrimage, you trace steps that millions have trod before. The stretch of the Jordan river traditionally associated with Jesus’ baptism has enticed pilgrims for centuries. The ruins of ancient Byzantine churches dot the landscape as you draw close to the river.
To accommodate the crowds of pilgrims, both Israel and Jordan have built spacious visitor centers on either side of the river. One does not simply walk to the water and have a peaceful reflection on the Baptism of Christ. Instead, your group waits in a great pavilion with shaded shelter houses and benches (and, of course, a gift shop) while you jockey for your turn in one of the two baptism stations down by the river. We arrived early and didn’t have to wait long, but as our group enjoyed our time at the river, we watched large tour buses disgorge pilgrims from Russia, Asia, and Latin America. Generally everyone was polite, for they were all there for a purpose: to experience God’s presence in a fresh way.
Many members of our group chose to rededicate their baptism by being immersed in the Jordan. I’m old-school Presbyterian in theology, so I didn’t feel a need or desire to be go down into the water. However, not wanting to detract from my friends’ experience, I stood back a respectful distance. And there on the esplanade, I spotted a familiar face.
It was Father Werner, a older Franciscan priest from Cologne Germany. A few days earlier, I met Father Werner and some other German pilgrims while wandering the streets of Jerusalem. I was taken by his earnestness as he strolled the streets, taking in the sights, his expression serious yet congenial. We had enjoyed a brief, but happy conversation in Jerusalem. I was delighted to see him again.
I greeted Father Werner, refreshing his memory of our prior meeting. His eyes widening in joyful recognition, he gripped me in a powerful side hug; he towered over me by at least half a foot, and his arm was far stronger than I anticipated. Together we gazed at the river. “There is power here,” Father Werner intoned with gravitas, “You can feel it.” He tapped me on the chest and whispered with intensity, “Feel it in your heart.”
And there was my kairos moment. I did feel the power, though it was not intrinsic to the place, for God’s power is everywhere. The power was in the faith – the faith of this throng of saints who gathered, trusting in Christ, following in His footsteps.
I imagine that in some ways this is just how it was when John was baptizing – the crowds gathering, each person angling for their turn, their position in line, their opportunity to go down into the waters. I suspect that it wasn’t a serene quiet retreat by the river, but a chaotic fair of pilgrims and seekers and sightseers come to see the holy man by the waters. Some were poseurs, making an outward show. Others, had a sincere heart transformation. What mattered was not so much the water and the washing, but the inward reality of penitence, faith, and commitment.
Our pilgrimage leader, Bob Rognlien, brought all this together as he taught. He contrasted the ritual mikveh baths and their emphasis on external purity with the baptism offered by John and his emphasis on purity of heart and mind. John’s baptism was an invitation to receive a grace we don’t deserve.
When Jesus arrived, John recognized him as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world – the one who should baptize John, rather than the other way around. But Jesus insisted on being baptized to “fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15).
Bob reminded us that “righteousness” is a relational word – it’s about being in right relationship with God and others. Jesus, in framing baptism this way, teaches us that baptism isn’t an event, it’s a way of life. This teaching is confirmed as Jesus comes up out of the water and the heavens are opened and the Holy Spirit comes down and rests on Jesus and remains on Jesus. (John 1:32). In the Old Testament, the Holy Spirit came to the prophets and judges, but it only came for a brief season. Now, the Holy Spirit remained on Jesus. This is new. This is exciting. Righteousness is fulfilled; the relationship is confirmed; the Spirit abides. Further confirming the relationship is the voice of God the Father, declaring Jesus’ true identity: “This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:17)
As Bob tied all these elements together, he pressed the point home: “In our union with Christ, the Father also says this over us. This is our identity too: ‘You are my beloved son; you are my beloved daughter.’ This is the word for us.”
Do you realize who you are? You are beloved. You are cherished. Jesus fulfilled all righteousness; Jesus bestows the Holy Spirit to abide with His followers; in Jesus, we are heirs of the Father.
There is power here. You can feel it. Feel it in your heart. The power of the place was not because of the geographic location, but because of the faith – the faith that in Jesus, we are men and women made new. And you can experience that power wherever you are.
How are you experiencing the power of faith in your life?
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