I have recently begun teaching a class around Alexander Shaia’s book, The Hidden Power of the Gospels. Shaia contends that the four gospels of the New Testament are there because the early Christian church found that they functioned in an important way in terms of living the Christian spiritual journey. While he acknowledges the value of modern biblical scholarship and the light that work has shed on all the biblical writings, he invites us to set that aside to some degree and instead to focus on how each of the gospels relates to our spiritual path.
In a recent session on the Gospel of Matthew, I found myself struck by Shaia’s interpretation of the baptism of Jesus. He points out that Matthew locates John’s baptismal ministry at the Jordan River, the place where the people of Israel crossed over from their years of wandering in the wilderness to arrive in the promised land. John, who is described as having come out of the wilderness to begin his ministry, effectively invites people who receive his baptism to return to the wilderness again. This point is made clear in Jesus’ own baptism, after which he is “led by the Spirit” into the wilderness. We are to follow Jesus’ example: to leave our comfortable and known lives and enter into an unknown wilderness that ultimately brings us to a new beginning, to a new life lived in God through Christ.
But this journey out of the known and familiar, out of our habitual patterns, is difficult. We are promised new life when we begin the journey, but we cannot see it immediately. And just as Jesus encountered temptation in the wilderness, so we are tempted to doubt that new life really is possible for us.
For Shaia, what sustains Jesus against his own wilderness temptations – and what will sustain us as well – is the truth contained in the voice that Jesus hears when he emerges from the baptismal waters: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:17). Jesus knows that he is beloved by God, and this knowledge gives him power as he enters the wilderness of uncertainty and temptation. It also will give us power in our own wildernesses – if we are really and truly able to believe it.
Sadly, the Christian tradition has often sent a different message. The various churches have too many times given people the impression that God’s love must somehow be earned, and then told them that they are not possibly good enough to earn or deserve it. But as Matthew’s Gospel makes clear, this is not the baptismal message. In baptism, we are invited to enter the wilderness and leave the comfortable and the familiar behind. We are invited to walk away from the destructive patterns to which our egos so closely cling in order to find true life and true meaning. The only way this journey is possible is when we know the safety of the beloved. Then, we are able to have the confidence that, indeed, this journey is possible with God. In the knowledge of this love, we are truly made free to become the people God dreams us to be.