|Baptism of Jesus - Jacopo Tintoretto (Cleveland Museum of Art)|
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16 John 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. 17 His 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.”
21 Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22 and 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.”
I was first baptized at St. Luke’s of the Mountains Episcopal Church in LaCrescenta, California. Years later, as a high schooler, I was immersed in a creek at summer camp in Oregon. I’ve even experienced the Baptism of the Holy Spirit as understood by Pentecostals. I guess I have the bases covered. What does it mean to be baptized?
On the first Sunday following Epiphany we consider both the baptismal ministry of John and Jesus’ baptism at the hands of John at the Jordan. For the Gospel writers this baptism marks the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. In Mark and John, it’s the first time Jesus actually appears in the story (no infancy narratives). According to Luke, the now grown up Jesus goes down to the Jordan and is baptized, assumedly by John, who’s own baptismal ministry is understood as being preparatory to that of the Messiah. John baptizes with Water, but the Messiah will baptize with Holy Spirit and fire.
According to Luke, John offered a baptism of repentance and forgiveness, while the Messiah offered a baptism of judgment and Holy Spirit. In Acts 2, we have the Holy Spirit and fire, which descends upon Peter and the others gathered in the upper room. Then, Luke recounts Peter’s call to a baptism that involves repentance and forgiveness, as was the case with John’s baptism. But Peter also offers the promise of the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38). For Peter, Pentecost brings the two ministries together—water of repentance and forgiveness, and the fire of the Holy Spirit. Later, in Acts, Paul encounters disciples who knew the baptism of John, but not the Holy Spirit. Paul then rebaptized them in the name of Jesus and laid hands on them so that they might receive the Holy Spirit. Perhaps both are needed—Water and the fire of the Holy Spirit (Acts 19:1-10).
The question that has always troubled Christians is why Jesus was baptized. Did he need to receive the washing of repentance and the fire of purification? Our traditional theologies suggest that Jesus was not in need of such purification, so why does Luke tell us that when everyone else was baptized (after repenting so as to receive forgiveness), Jesus was baptized? Luke doesn’t say. Perhaps for Jesus it was something else. Perhaps it had to do with his call to messiahship.
Luke does say that after Jesus was baptized, and as he was praying, the heavens opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon him. It was at this point that a voice from heaven declared Jesus to be God’s son, with whom God was pleased. Remember that when Jesus visited the Temple as a youth, he declared that he was merely spending time in his Father’s house (Luke 2:41-51). Then upon returning home, it is recorded that Jesus “increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor” (Luke 2:52). Here in Luke 3, God makes this approval known to Jesus (though we’re not told if anyone else heard God’s voice). The voice declares that Jesus is “My Son, the Beloved.” The declaration “you are my son” is rooted in Psalm 2:7, an enthronement Psalm that declared the king to be God’s heir and representative. Thus, as Ron Allen and Clark Williamson suggest, these words spoken over Jesus by God, “indicate that from baptism onward, Jesus is invested with power to rule as God’s representative. Luke-Acts explains the purpose and means of Jesus’ sovereignty: to bring about the final manifestation of the divine realm” [Preaching the Gospels without Blaming the Jews, p. 179]. Thus, Jesus is anointed the Messiah, who baptizes with Holy Spirit, which Jesus receives at baptism, and with fire.
The messianic kingdom that Jesus is to initiate will bring with it both forgiveness and judgment. It brings about a new reality. The old is gone, the new has arrived. That is a good word to hear as the new year begins. In Christ the chaff of our lives is burned away, that the good grain might remain. At the same time, even as the new realm is inaugurated, Jesus still lived within the world that was, as do we. Carol Lakey Hess makes a good point in commenting on this passage:
Jesus was born from as well as into a world of systemic sin, and his baptism is a signal that he understood the full implications of the incarnation. He was not merely identifying with or showing solidarity with the human world; he was fully acknowledging its tragic structure. There are no innocent, no perfect, no unambiguous, no controllable, indeed no sinless choices in this world. All choices must be made within a context that precedes and impinges upon them. [Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 1, p. 238].
There is, therefore, a now but not yet element to the story. Jesus understood this, and so in baptism we live with this both/and reality. But by receiving baptism, we begin a new chapter of the story of God’s realm.
We who receive baptism are embraced by Jesus and his realm. We begin with water, the sign of our cleansing, and the gift of the Holy Spirit, the empowerment for service. Too often baptism has been the source of friction and division in the Christian community. Do we immerse or sprinkle? Should baptism be made available to infants and children, or only those ready to profess faith. I was born into a tradition that practiced infant baptism, assuming that baptism included such children in the covenant community. Later I became part of communities that assumed that baptism marked the moment when one professed faith. It served as a seal to that confession. There are theological rationales available for all of our practices, but how do we connect our experiences with that of Jesus?
I would like to suggest that however we understand baptism, at least in terms of timing and mode, that we keep in mind two things. First there is involved a decision to enter the realm of God. The repentance and the cleansing that are symbolized by the water, remind us that in baptism we leave certain things behind. Secondly, once we enter the realm, God prepares us for the work at hand. We don’t go about serving God on our own. We go in the power of the Holy Spirit. In the book of Acts, it’s clear that it’s the Spirit that moves the community of faith out into the world. Once they are empowered by the Spirit, they take on a new sense of purpose.
On this first Sunday after Epiphany, as we enter this period of enlightenment, it might be useful for us as the body of Christ to consider our own baptisms. What does this event in our lives mean to us? Whether it occurred in infancy or at some other stage, how does baptism influence our daily lives? How are we made new so we can participate fully in God’s new realm? In what ways is the Holy Spirit moving in our midst, empowering us for service in God’s realm?