Baptism: Jesus and us

Week of Sunday January 10 - Baptism of Jesus
Luke 3:15-22

15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16John answered all of them by saying, ‘I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’

18 So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people. 19But Herod the ruler, who had been rebuked by him because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the evil things that Herod had done, 20added to them all by shutting up John in prison.

21 Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’ 

23 Jesus was about thirty years old when he began his work. He was the son (as was thought) of Joseph son of Heli, 24son of Matthat, son of Levi, son of Melchi, son of Jannai, son of Joseph, 25son of Mattathias, son of Amos, son of Nahum, son of Esli, son of Naggai, 26son of Maath, son of Mattathias, son of Semein, son of Josech, son of Joda, 27son of Joanan, son of Rhesa, son of Zerubbabel, son of Shealtiel, son of Neri, 28son of Melchi, son of Addi, son of Cosam, son of Elmadam, son of Er, 29son of Joshua, son of Eliezer, son of Jorim, son of Matthat, son of Levi, 30son of Simeon, son of Judah, son of Joseph, son of Jonam, son of Eliakim, 31son of Melea, son of Menna, son of Mattatha, son of Nathan, son of David,32son of Jesse, son of Obed, son of Boaz, son of Sala, son of Nahshon,33son of Amminadab, son of Admin, son of Arni, son of Hezron, son of Perez, son of Judah, 34son of Jacob, son of Isaac, son of Abraham, son of Terah, son of Nahor, 35son of Serug, son of Reu, son of Peleg, son of Eber, son of Shelah, 36son of Cainan, son of Arphaxad, son of Shem, son of Noah, son of Lamech, 37son of Methuselah, son of Enoch, son of Jared, son of Mahalaleel, son of Cainan, 38son of Enos, son of Seth, son of Adam, son of God. 

Epistle: Acts 8:14-17

 Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them. 15The two went down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit 16(for as yet the Spirit had not come upon any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus). 17Then Peter and John laid their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit. 

The anxiety of baptism
Who is greater; Jesus or John? It was a live issue: the followers of John the Baptiser as the true Messiah still exist today.  In the time of the Gospels, Jesus being baptised by John would seem a potent sign of his pre-eminence. It was clearly an issue for the gospel authors; the one coming is clearly indicated to be greater than John. Mark has John preparing the way for the one to come, and makes sure to remind us that he was beheaded by Herod. Matthew 3:14 has John saying, "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?" John has him deny being the Messiah, "He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, ‘I am not the Messiah," (John 1:20) and omits the fact that he baptised Jesus. Luke neatly sidesteps the issue in another way: Jesus is baptised after John is put in prison in the verses omitted by the lectionary.  (Luke 3:21) Without quite saying as much, he indicates that Jesus is baptised by spirit, not by John.

This is theology by narrative. The meaning of Jesus is contained as much, or more, in the re-telling of the story as in the original "facts" which, probably, are that John did baptise Jesus. The notion that the authors might put "spin" on the telling leaves us uncomfortable. We can feel that to admit to this is to say the biblical authors lie.  So we close our eyes to the nuances of the text to avoid our fear of the "lie" rather than grapple with the differences of culture.

We fear getting out of our depth here, of being drowned if we abandon the shore ground of facticity. But how much will we insist on the literal?  As Mark D Davis says of Luke 3:17, "I’ve always been amused at those who take the latter part of this verse literally, but not the former part. If hell really is an unquenchable fire, per this verse, then heaven is ... a granary?"

Theology by narrative does not demand we abandon the facts (as best we can ascertain them.) Indeed, having some idea of the actual underlying occurrences will help us identify the metaphors and symbols. But theology by narrative does demand we play with the symbols: that we recognise they are multi-valent, serving multiple purposes in the narrative; that we look for their echoing of the Old Testament narratives; that we look for their resonance in our own lives.

Jesus is greater than John. He dips, immerses, purifies, and cleanses us, not only in water, but also in holy spirit and fire. And we see an aspect of that fire when, immediately after this pronouncement, John the Baptiser is thrown into prison. (Luke 3:17-20)

I write elsewhere that

John's baptism of repentance predates Jesus' baptism in Holy Spirit. In fact, Luke predicates baptism of spirit upon a baptism of repentance.  Why? Our material privilege and security deafens us to the presence of God.  We are blind to how much we place our trust in what we have, until we do not have. Repentance is the behaviour which clears away the chaff and dead wood which clogs our lives, and allows us to learn again the language of spirit.

But as this implies, repentance is not the whole answer. There remains a baptism in Holy Spirit. Here and here I have touched on our anxiety and confusion about what this means. But in this current text we see that Jesus himself is baptised in the Holy Spirit.

Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’ 23 Jesus was about thirty years old when he began his work. He was the son (as was thought) of Joseph son of Heli, 24son of Matthat, son of Levi, son of Melchi… son of Adam, son of God.

These few words are laden with echo and meaning.

•  when all the people were baptised, and when Jesus also had been baptised: Jesus is one of us. He is baptised like us.

•  the heaven was opened: "in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up for three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land" (Luke 4:25) This is a time of new (baptising) rain and an end to famine. The twist, of course, is that it does not fit the old sensibilities held by the people who reject him. There is also an echo of Isaiah 64:1 in this, ("O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.") although Mark makes this much more explicit with the words, "he saw the heavens torn apart." Stoffregen says

Although it might be stretching the image, if the "shutting up of heaven" resulted in famine and all that goes along with that: hunger, sickness, death; could not the "opening of heaven" symbolize the coming of plenty, health, and life?

Isaiah 64 cries out for help, for the heavens to be opened. In Luke 4 God answers as Jesus "proclaim[s] the year of the Lord's favour," again from Isaiah. (Isaiah 61)

•  and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form: Loader says,

 Mark tells us what Jesus saw, suggesting a visionary experience in which Jesus saw the heavens torn open (Mark uses that language), saw the Spirit come down like a dove and heard words addressing him personally (1:10-11)

… Luke paints a scene in which the Spirit comes down ‘in physical/bodily form’ as a dove. Like the tongues of fire at Pentecost the symbolic has become directly visible and physical. Luke would have known what he was doing. He was creating symbolic narrative. He invites us to play - seriously, imaginatively, with images of the Spirit. He invites us at the same time not to be distracted by concerns about the literalness of the event. The narrative here, and already in Mark, is celebrating a reality: that in Jesus we see the coming to fulfilment of the promise that in the last days God’s Spirit would immerse us (baptise us) with God’s reality. That reality …  cannot be contained in mere statement or literal reporting. (Bold emphasis is mine.)

The implication of this making the symbolic directly physical is that the in-spirit baptism of Jesus is real. The story of his baptism is more than fine phrases— some kind of empty poetry, or empty rhetoric— there is something, in a sense, tangible here which happens to Jesus. You could see this. So the neo-Pentecostals are correct to expect to expect to see tangible evidence of spirt. Where this goes wrong is in the insistence that such evidence follow the literal biblical story— which is an inability to recognise theology by narrative— so that tongues must happen if there is a real baptism in spirit, for example. Literalism always stifles our imagination. It blinds us to spirit! The reality of what God does among us "cannot be contained in mere… literal reporting."

Nancy Rockwell writes of the confusion of water baptism with the outward signs.

Baptism has become its customs, once meant to celebrate its meaning, but now the only meaning of the celebration:   a time for dressing the baby in something outlandish, an occasion of presents and promises and family.   And none of this has anything to do with profound and dangerous journeys of the spirit.   The danger of water and demons,  the spirit journey, the profundity, have gotten lost in ritual huzzahs, so much so that most Christians, in their own profound journeys, do not think of them as part of their baptism.

She quotes T. S. Eliot:  "Signs are taken for wonders... "

It is judgemental to assume no spiritual longing resides a request for baptism, but we seek to fill our genuine needs in the wrong places. In the same way, the insistence upon certain signs as necessary, and the insistence upon the literal truth of the scripture stories, is seeking insight from the same places. In its own way, it is equally as shallow as a formulaic baptism. It may preserve us from "the danger of water and demons" that we perceive will occur if we go out onto the uncertain waters of symbol, but, to use the words of May Gibbs, it dries us. (In the watery world of Little Obelia those who die are dried.)

 like a dove: The very use of the word like (as if) indicates symbol and metaphor. Petty says, " The most natural Biblical association is that of Genesis 8:11 where the dove appears as a sign of the renewal of the earth following the flood."  But there is also "a symbol of the hovering Spirit of creation." (Loader) The dove is a symbol of connection and peace between God and us. God comes to us again. God calms the chaos.

•   And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased’: Mark D Davis says

This is a mashed up citation of Psalm 2:7 (“I will tell of the decree of the Lord: He said to me, ‘You are my son; today I have begotten you”) and Isaiah 42:1 (“Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations”).

Davis continues:

I believe that the Scriptures have ongoing dialogues, conversations, and sometimes even disputations over some subjects. In this case, the expectations regarding the Messiah would be an issue over which there is a history of contending ideas regarding what to expect. Will the Messiah be a strong king, similar to but greater even than the strength of the Roman Empire? Some of the OT texts – like Psalm 2 – seem to argue that way. The people who saw Jesus as a Davidic King, coming in the same kind of power as the Roman Empire (the term that is translated 'kingdom' in the phrase 'the kingdom of God' is the same term that is translated 'empire' in 'the Roman Empire') saw it that way because some strands of messianic expectation in the OT see it that way. 

But, there were other views of the coming Messiah. By citing Psalm 2 and then Isaiah 42, I believe Luke is indicating that he is in a camp that has different expectations. Psalm 2 speaks of God’s son breaking the nations with rods and crushing them, but Isaiah 42 is about the servant of God bringing justice to the nations. It names the blind, the deaf, the poor, the imprisoned (John!?), among those who are set free in this act of bringing justice. The Royal Psalm is reinterpreted by being pinned to the Servant song in Isaiah. I see this as Luke’s way of naming his theology, as it is shaped by the suffering servant motif of OT. 

•   Jesus was about thirty years old when he began his work. He was the son (as was thought) of Joseph son of Heli, 24son of Matthat, son of Levi, son of Melchi… 38son of Enos, son of Seth, son of Adam, son of God: There is a bracketing here: Jesus is called son of God in the description of the baptism, and at the end of the genealogy. But the genealogy is also us. Jesus' people could, in principle, do the same as Luke does for him: trace back their ancestry through Adam to God, and so may we. We study genealogy to find out who we are: we are children of God.

•   … the Holy Spirit descended upon him: The Spirit comes. Down or up?

We celebrate this week as The Baptism of Jesus. What might this say to us who are called to follow him? Is it not that we with whom he was baptised should be baptised like him?

In this life lived in intersection of the material and the spiritual, I often suggest to people that although we sit around a material table at bible study, "under the table" our feet reach down into the water table of spirit; we have wet feet; we are spiritual beings. And increasingly, when we talk of spiritual reality we speak of something welling up in us, rather than coming down on us. It is symbol for the same thing, which is that God irrupts into our lives. There is an opening of the realm of spirit which flows down over us or wells up within us. To be clear, that which wells up in us in "from the water table." It is not "just us," although paying attention to our inner life will reveal much more of our own selves as well.

The question is whether we will insist on keeping our heads above water. Writers such as David Tacey (Gods and Diseases) suggest that to seek to do this is to invite sickness; we cannot refuse the spiritual which is part of us. In this text, like Jesus, we are sons and daughters of adam; dust. (Genesis 2:7) But as his sisters and brothers, we are also breathed into, in-spirited. (Genesis 2:7)  We can be baptised in "the profound and dangerous journeys of the spirit" in faith that we are beloved children with whom God is well pleased. (Luke 3:22) The baptism of Jesus can be our baptism.

Andrew Prior

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!



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