The apostle Paul frequently refers to Christian believers as those “in Christ.” For instance, in his greeting to Christians in Ephesus, Paul calls his readers, “holy ones” and “faithful followers” in Christ Jesus. Rather than turn our conversation into a left-brain mini-lecture on the precise meaning of the New Testament Greek term, en Christo in Paul’s writings, I invite you to engage in an exercise of the imagination. Like the Scott Bakula character from the long-ago TV show, you suddenly find yourself “quantum leaped” into Christ Jesus.
Seated on the bank of a large loop of the Jordan River, the air feels warm and dry. A puffy sky island shades you from the sun. A slight breeze briefly shakes the leaves in the shrubbery across the stream. A dozen or so people wade in the water. In a simple loin cloth, you slide into the cool flow. The water’s chill balances nicely with the warm air as several strong splashing strides bring you to the prophet.
Tan and lean, barely covered by the typical homeless-guy’s camel-skin girdle, you trade words of disagreement with John the Baptizer, a genuine Near Eastern eccentric. You want his baptism; he feels unequal to the task. You win. The Baptizer positions himself to your side. He places his right-hand squarely in the center of your back, and whispers, “Lean back.”
Bracingly cold, light piercing the churning waters, then darkening as you sink deeply into the flow. The rush toward light and air. Standing again, the breeze chills as the water drips into the Jordan. Hands raised high, Hebrew prayers bubble up, snatches from the psalms take wing, and you lift your eyes to the heavens. God breaks in.
He rips apart the cloud and the golden sunlight pours upon you. As a dove, the Spirit lights on your shoulder, leaving surface scratches where claws try to find a perch. God speaks His thunder voice, “You are my beloved child; in you I am delighted.”
Did you hear what God says? God says, “You are my beloved,” not “You need to pray more.” God whispers, “You are my beloved,” not “I’m unhappy with you.” God thunders, “You are my beloved,” not “I’m disappointed by your foolish mistakes and misspent opportunities.” God speaks, “In you I am delighted,” not “You ungrateful swine.” God breathes into your ear, “I delight in you,” not “You are such a loser.” God roars before every witness in heaven, on earth, and under the earth, “In this one, I am well-pleased.”
God’s strong and sustained affirmation of all those in Christ has practical value. Here we are in the middle of a pandemic, struggling with a variety of challenging emotions. Did you ever wonder what sustained Jesus as He faced rejection and hostility? In Luke’s gospel, Jesus turns from His baptism and goes into the Judean wilderness for 40 days. How did He fill those endless hours without electronics, without companionship, without comfort food (or any food for that matter), and without the scheduled activities that structure daily life?
It seems reasonable in His wilderness retreat that He fired up the memories of His baptism, that He engaged memories of the smells, sights, sounds, and textures of that day. He tasted again the water as it coursed off His head and hair, felt the rough texture of the vegetation upon which He sat on the river bank, and relished the rupture of the cloud between Him and deep heavens that ushered in His experience of God.
As neurologists say, “What fires together wires together.” Jesus’ everyday focused meditations on His baptism and God experience fired and wired His brain with sustaining neurological connections that enabled Him to bring a positive perspective and the emotional energy to face some daunting enemies with courage and love.
As those in Christ, can’t we also engage our imaginations on His/our experience in the Jordan River? We could be present to sounds of streaming water, splashes from the baptized and baptizers, and their quiet conversations. We could feel the warm, dry air, the refreshment of the water flow, and the swelling of the chest with the joy and transport in God’s delight in us. Perhaps as we rehearse the event in our daily meditations, “What fires together wires together,” so we have buoyancy to face our challenging life circumstances.
When the apostle Paul, author of half the writings in the New Testament, writes to those “in Christ,” he writes to you. The affirmation God gave Jesus in the descent of the Spirit and the rumble of His voice, “You are my beloved child; in you I am well-pleased” reaches you because by faith in the gospel, you are in Christ. By divine shout and Spirit baptism, God celebrates you.