By Rev Ellie. Readings: Gen 1:1-5, Acts 19:1-7, Mark 1:4-11
Today marks the Baptism of the Lord. We moved from his birth on Christmas Day to his naming and circumcision; and on to the Epiphany: The Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles when we celebrated that God’s intention was to include the Gentiles (people like you and me) from the very beginning of Jesus’ life. We celebrated alongside the Magi, the astrologers (peoples of other faiths). Our tradition of celebrating the Epiphany comes from the Eastern Church, which celebrates both the Nativity and the Baptism of Christ on the 6thJanuary. The celebration of the Baptism of the Lord is also referred to as the Theophany or the Manifestation of God as God revealed himself in three ways at the point of baptism. In the Western Church we have separated the two feasts of Epiphany and the Baptism.
So, let us fast forward twenty odd years to the scene by the River Jordan. The writer of Mark’s Gospel begins with no preamble about childhood or genealogy. Instead, he dives into setting the scene for John the Baptist as the precursor for the ministry of Jesus.
John is likened to Elijah – a prophet in the wilderness, dressed in camel’s hair. This connection is repeated elsewhere in the Gospels (Luke 1:13, 16-17; Mt 16:14, Mk 6:15; 8:28, Jn 1:21).
Mark is letting us know that John’s ministry immediately preceded the ministry of Jesus. He places the beginning of Jesus’ ministry at the point of John’s arrest, thereby using John’s ministry to endorse Jesus.
“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.”
Remember too that John the Baptist is Jesus’ second cousin. Mary, the mother of Jesus and Elizabeth, the mother of John were cousins. Both men were born miraculously, and both are part of God’s plan of redemption.
John’s nickname – John the Baptist or John the Baptizer, comes from his practice of immersing repentant Jews in the river Jordan. One of the commentators I read in preparation (Hurtado) suggests that immersion may have been a relatively new practice in the Jewish religion but may also have developed from other sects where regular immersion was required as part of their purification rituals. John’s rite of baptism was different in that only one immersion was required for the Jews’ repentance.
Many of us forget that people weren’t called Christians until much later – at this point of the story unfolding before us in the Gospel, there were only Jews and non-Jews. In our reading from Acts, on the other hand, we learn of a group of disciples. We learn that they were baptized with water – John’s baptism. And they learn what we have learned from the Gospel passage: “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.” This is the only case in the New Testament where people received two baptisms. One suggestion is that the first baptism was not a Christian baptism in the name of Jesus. This throws up more cans of worms than we have time for but suffice to say, we all only need one baptism in God, and I don’t think we need to be rebaptised in order to receive the Holy Spirit. That happened at the point of our baptism, whether we are aware of it or not.
The characteristic and essential feature of the ceremony of Christian baptism is that it is performed in the name of Jesus and is an outward and public sign of our journey with Christ. The renewal of our baptismal vows at various points through the Church year are our public affirmation of what we believe.
Going back to the reading from Acts, we are told that Paul laid his hands on them and then they began speaking in tongues and prophesied. One way of reading this passage is that in order to have the Holy Spirit, one must speak in tongues. I disagree with that interpretation. Speaking in tongues and prophecy are two supernatural gifts along with many others. One may or may not have the ability to speak in tongues while still filled with the Holy Spirit. The laying on of hands should not be associated with the sudden ability to prophesy or speak in tongues.
The laying on of hands was and is a prophetic act. It was, and is, a gesture welcoming the people into the fellowship of the church. However, it also served and still serves as a conduit for the Holy Spirit. It just happened that on that particular occasion, the effect of the baptism of the Holy Spirit was shown through charismatic manifestations.
Going back to the Gospel reading, we read that Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan. And we have what the Eastern Church calls the Theophany. God revealed himself as the Holy Trinity – God spoke from heaven; the incarnate Son of God was baptised, and the Holy Spirit descended like a dove. Being blameless, Jesus did not need the baptism of John but through the act of baptism, conferred the power of the true baptism on to the waters.
The same spirit that descended on the waters was also present in the beginning. “a wind from God swept over the face of the waters,” (Gen 1:2). Thus, we are presented in the Gospel passage with a new beginning: a new creation. Jesus comes to repair that which Adam undid. He does this as the Lamb of God that take away our sins.
The following quote is by Joseph Ratzinger:
“Looking at the events in light of the Cross and Resurrection, the Christian people realised what happened: Jesus loaded the burden of all mankind’s guilt upon His shoulders; he bore it down into the depths of the Jordan. He inaugurated his public activity by stepping into the place of sinners.”Joseph Ratzinger
Thirty years had passed before Jesus began his public ministry – that which we have recorded in the Gospels. We can suggest that there was a lot of thought and preparation that went into forming the man we read about. In Israel, one reached full maturity at the age of thirty and could become a master. Jesus came of age and began his public ministry. In his baptism we encounter a different dimension of the Epiphany that we celebrated last week. In Baptism, not only is Jesus the Christ to Israel, but also the son of God to the nations.
In his baptism and ours we have entry to heaven, the Holy Spirit came and dwelt within, and we become part of God’s family. Because we are baptised only once, we seek to renew our baptismal vows on a regular basis, to remind ourselves what baptism is all about and why we chose baptism or our parents chose for us.