Sunday, 11 January 2015

The Baptism of Christ: What does it mean for Christians today?

Time for some theology?  
Many people in our culture are either baptized themselves or have had their children baptized.  Yet how often do we think about what this water ritual means and what it accomplishes?  The best place to start is with the baptism of Christ himself.  His baptism is the forerunner of all Christian baptism.  But first, two readings to frame the discussion:

Acts 19:1-7
While Apollos was in Corinth, Paul passed through the inland regions and came to Ephesus, where he found some disciples. He said to them, ‘Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?’ They replied, ‘No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.’ Then he said, ‘Into what then were you baptized?’ They answered, ‘Into John’s baptism.’ Paul said, ‘John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, in Jesus.’ On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. When Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied— altogether there were about twelve of them.

Mark 1:4-11
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’


It started with an unexpected greeting...

'Hello Mum', I said. The look of surprise and then joy on her face was priceless as this was all a little unexpected. Perhaps I should explain. My parents had gone on holiday to Cornwall, little knowing that the rest of the family knew this, and knew exactly what beach they would go to and when, and so we made our own 'cunning plans' to travel down separately and surprise them.  And so my parents were sat innocently on the rocks overlooking the beach, enjoying as our family always has, the glorious life of the north Cornish Atlantic rollers, as one by one their children and grandchildren all showed up. It was one of those wonderful occasions where someone goes expecting one thing, only to be surprised by something far better happening.

And that merry surprise, I think, is what happened to John the Baptist when Jesus came to see him. Now perhaps the clearest thing to come out of the two readings is that the baptism that John the Baptist gave to everyone else was not the same as the baptism that Jesus actually received from John, and it was this, I think, that was the big surprise for John.  Usually when people came to him it would all have been about repentance and a new start. Perhaps there would have been tears and sorrow as new arrivals in the wilderness laid aside their old lives to start afresh, marking this with being baptized by John. But what happened next when he baptized Jesus, well that was markedly different.

But let's back up a step and think first about why we think the baptism given to Jesus, and to all Christians afterwards, was different from the baptism John usually gave. We know that there was a difference because when St. Paul met Christian believers at Ephesus, apparently they were ignorant regarding the baptism of Jesus, and had only received the baptism of repentance that John was doing to prepare the way for Jesus.

What, then, must have been different about Jesus' baptism?  If we can answer this question then we can understand more about what our baptisms mean today.

So first of all, John's baptism of repentance. In some Churches I kind of feel that actually, although the baptism is in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, it seems more like John's baptism. That's because in some cases churches will only baptize Christians who are old enough to profess their own faith. There is a bit of a sense of needing to say that you repent, and understand what that means, but it strikes me that is more to do with the way John baptized.

That's why if we looked at the account in Matthew's Gospel we would see that John is recorded as being very reticent about baptizing Jesus, telling him that surely it should be the other way around and that Jesus should be baptizing him! John felt that way because he knew that he was giving a baptism of repentance, and Jesus had no need of repentance. But Jesus urged him to go ahead anyway, and then we see why.  Mark is quite explicit in his language about what took place next: heaven was literally torn open and the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus in the form of a dove. This was new. This hadn't happened before. Jesus' baptism was somehow different from all the other baptisms that John had done.

Jesus' baptism had a deeply mystical and spiritual component to it, with the explicit revelation from Heaven of God declaring Jesus to be his beloved Son. This was far more than any previous baptism, and far more than any that would come in the future, and yet also it was a forerunner of all our baptisms.  That's why St. Paul questioned the believers at Ephesus, because apparently their baptism, being John's baptism, had not had this side to it. 

So what are the implications for us of Jesus' baptism? 

 To better understand that let's think a little about the roots of baptism.  For two thousand years baptism, or Christening as some people call it, has been the mark of identifying with Christ. In the earliest days of the church most of the people who were baptised were adults who had come to faith at some point in their life.  Slowly, however, as the church grew, so Christian parents would bring their newborn babies and children to be baptised with the promise that they would be brought up in the Christian faith.  But when Jesus was baptised there were no Christians, and that tells us that actually it wasn’t the Christians who came up with the idea of baptism. John the Baptist was a Jew and he was baptising like a Jew. The Jews had baptism long before Christians did, but unlike Christians who have only one baptism, first century Jews had several different types and I think that understanding the one that Jesus received is key to us understanding our own baptisms.  We can consider three different types.

The first type was the baptism of repentance, and this is the baptism that John was offering. This is the one where you realize that you need to change your ways. Repentance means literally to choose to turn around and go in another direction. By baptizing in this manner John was preparing the hearts and minds of the people for Christ.  But if Jesus was the Son of God, then he had no need of this baptism. Even though he chose to come to John to be baptised, he didn't need to repent because he'd done nothing wrong. 

So maybe it was the second type of baptism?

But when we look at it, it seems rather unlikely. The second kind of Jewish baptism we could consider was a baptism of conversion. These were done when someone who wasn’t a Jew wanted to become a Jew. Their baptism was treated like it was a birth. They went down into the water as a Gentile and came up as someone new, someone who was now Jewish.  However Jesus was already Jewish, so it wasn’t this one. 

The third type was far less common. When a person became a priest and began their ministry amongst the people, this was marked by them being baptized. And when we look at Jesus we can see that his baptism by John marked the beginning of his ministry. It was after this that he began to preach and to heal.

So I want to suggest to you that I think the baptism that Jesus received was a priestly baptism, and yet it was clearly more even than this because of the way in which he received the Holy Spirit. But that, I believe, is what makes Christian baptism so special, because it is the presence and power of the Holy Spirit that enables us to live out our calling. And what is that calling?

Think of it like this: A Priest, pretty much in any tradition, is someone who works to bring the light of God into the lives of people. They are a go-between. Jesus is the High Priest for the Church. He was the first to receive this baptism, but I believe that everyone who is baptized in his name is baptized with the same priestly baptism.

I know that in the Church of England we make much of an ordained priesthood; those of us who wear dog collars, but we need also to remember that the church is referred to in the New Testament as 'The priesthood of all believers.' Some of us may be ordained as priests to perform a specific role, but all of us, acting in concert, are intended to be a priesthood, to be a go-between for humanity and God.  In other words if a believer has been baptised then they have a role to perform of bringing the light and love of Christ into the lives of people around them.  And like Jesus, at baptism they should receive the Holy Spirit to empower them to do all of these things.

This, then, is at the heart of baptism - it is the beginning of a life dedicated to bringing the love of God into the lives of the people around us. In other words, if we are baptized then we are baptized into the mission and ministry of God to the world. And all those things  we might have read about Jesus doing, Christians are called to do them as well.  That's a little scary really, but that is precisely why God sends his Holy Spirit, not just to alight on Jesus as with the appearance of a dove, but also to live within, to provide us with the means to fulfill the work to which we're called.  And that is why St. Paul found it so necessary to give the believers in Ephesus a Christian baptism.

A baptism of repentance is insufficient, lacking that mystical, spiritual, divine edge.  Christians often say that Jesus saves us, but what we usually mean is that Jesus saves us from our sins. But this is only half of the story. Jesus doesn't just save us from something; he also saves us for something, and that something will inevitably require the presence and the power of the Holy Spirit to achieve.

So the question is, to what are each of us, as individuals, saved for?  And are we on the path to doing it?

But of course, receiving the Holy Spirit is not always the easiest thing.  The next post will be about the difficulties we might experience within our deepest selves.

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