For several years now, private TV stations have been very successful in rediscovering an old topic: emigration. The stories of ordinary people trying to build a new life abroad are documented there. The enchanting images of white beaches, palm trees and otherworldly worlds do not fail to impress. It would be heavenly to live there, to get out of Germany, which is often so gray, to escape the constraints of society and the complicated bureaucracy and to start something new without any worries. As I said, this longing is old. If you visit the Emigration Museum in Hamburg, for example, you can see that the great promise of a new beginning has already moved many people. But if you look at the stories of the people who followed the promise, you can see that they often had very sad reasons for leaving. Many were basically refugees who, for political or economic reasons, dared to make a dramatic change and tried to start a new life in the USA or South America, for example, in a free country with the promise of wealth and possessions for those who prosperity was unattainable here in Europe.
If you take a closer look at today’s television programs, you can see that the new emigrants of our day are basically in a very similar situation. Most of them have just experienced a crisis in their life. They’ve lost their job, a relationship has broken up, or they feel at a dead end in their life. Instead of continuing to work through the familiar, she is now lured by the great promise. What would it be like to be able to start all over again, leave the old life behind and live as a new person in a place where no one knows me? But then the TV stories show that it’s not all that easy. As white as the beach and as beautiful as the palm trees are, the emigrants have a hard time. Because, of course, man himself has not changed along with his surroundings. The emigrants have a hard time struggling with the language, with new forms of bureaucracy, but above all with themselves. They have taken themselves and their difficulties with them to the new country. Emigration alone is no guarantee that you will not fail again in a new place.
If you look at the history of Christian baptism, you can see very similar ideas. Baptism carries within itself precisely this aspect of a new beginning: one stepped into the water as a sign of purification. The old man with his sins should be washed away. You started anew, dressed in a new, and therefore still white, robe. Especially in the first centuries, baptism was the sign of a turning point in life. Out of the world, which is often understood as sinful and depraved, people wanted to go into the realm of the church and thus into the realm of divine grace. From now on sin should have no more room. As the letter to the Ephesians says, man should be able to live as a new man (Eph 4:22). If you will, baptism was also an emigration, not to a new country but to a new state and also (as a full member) to a new community. But the baptized fared like the emigrants. As beautiful as the faith and the church community may have been, baptism alone did not eliminate the problems. Even after baptism, the human being remained himself. His weaknesses and also his susceptibility to evil, his inner struggles did not simply end. The New Testament is full of admonitions to those who have been baptized to show that their behavior is worthy of baptism. They also struggle with the reality of failure and sin in the church’s own community. The inner change of location alone does not guarantee a change for the better. The everyday fight for the good remains.
Therefore it can be useful to look at the baptism of Jesus. Because the understanding of baptism just described does not apply to Jesus. The people who came to John at that time hoped for the forgiveness of sins, grace from God and reintegration into the people of Israel from baptism. Jesus didn’t need all three. He is the Son of God from the beginning, a member of his people. He does not need conversion and cleansing from sins. At his baptism something else happens: the heavens open and a voice from heaven, the voice of God, reveals him to mankind as God’s beloved Son. In baptism, therefore, only becomes visible who Jesus was before. It is a place of proclamation, showing who and what the person who is baptized here is like. Baptism is not understood here ethically or sociologically (as a rite of initiation), but ontologically, that is, from the point of view of human being. In our baptism, this happens in a similar way, of course differently than with Jesus Christ. It should become clear who we are: Beloved children, approved and wanted by God, well created and loved at heart. And the more this reality comes to light later in life, the more it will affect our actions, thoughts and actions. The church is then the community in which this goodness and willingness of people is to be expressed in dealing with one another, in prayer and in praising God and in works of mercy. The feast of Jesus‘ baptism can remind me that I have been given this promise to be a beloved child, a hopeful fall, destined for good and, despite all my difficulties and failings, worthy and gifted of love.
Baptism doesn’t make everything else. But everything is given a positive sign, a reassurance, a purpose, a vocation and a goal. And in its good moments, being a Christian is also an inner place of beauty and coherence, where I can be happy and at home.