The Baptism of our Lord 11th January 2015

The Baptism of our Lord 11th January 2015 Gen 1 1-5 Ps 29 Acts 19 1-7 Mk 1 4-11

Introduction before the readings for the feast of the Baptism of the Lord

The beginning of the 1st creation story from Genesis 1. The deep waters are the first thing. From the terrifying deep, an image of danger and death, God’s Spirit hovering over it calls creation and life to be born from water.

Psalm 29—which we’ll say together—recalls this creation image. God’s voice is like thunder above the great waters: God is sovereign over the water-flood, and instead of danger, gives strength & the blessing of peace.

Acts 19 will find us in Ephesus on the western coast of Turkey. We read about a brilliant Christian teacher called Apollos. He was active at the same time as Paul. But earlier, in ch 18, we find that Apollos ‘only knew the baptism of John’—the baptism of repentance. Paul’s co-workers in Ephesus, Prisc[ill]a and Aquila, heard Apollos preaching his incomplete message and took him to one side to correct his theology. He was a good student; later, when he wanted to go and preach in Greece, they gave him good references. Today we hear he’s in Greece when Paul arrives in Ephesus and finds some people who had been baptized by Apollos ‘into John’s baptism’—that is, before his theology refresher course. Paul sets them straight, and they are then baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus.

Our Gospel reading from Mark 1 begins with John the baptizer ‘in the wilderness proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.’ He also proclaims the one who is coming who will baptize people with the Holy Spirit’. Then Jesus comes and receives baptism from John.

In the collect prayer for the Baptism of our Lord, we pray: ‘Loving God, your Son came to seek the lost, and was baptised with sinners…’

I think it’s very beautiful that Jesus was baptised with sinners—with us—but even so, it’s a mystery. Why did he do it? John the Baptist called people to a baptism of repentance—to turn from the wrongs they had done and return to a godly life. But surely Jesus didn’t need to do that. What can we make of it?

Back in the time of John and Jesus, every good Jew would baptize themselves each morning—they would immerse themselves in a special bath called a mikveh. A mikveh is a ritual bath, an upright, rectangular pool, and mikvehs have been found in the basement of every 1st century home excavated in Galilee. The reason for this daily baptism was to keep ritually pure: Jewish men and women needed to remain ritually pure so they could participate in religious activities—come into the presence of the Holy God of Israel—and also, so they could participate in normal community life.

A mikveh dealt with impurities that happened to people, but it didn’t deal with wrongs people committed—like crimes of violence or theft—that cut them off from membership of the community; breaking God’s commandments, and so also damaging their relationship with God. John the Baptiser called people to a new type of baptism to deal with this: he proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. This was a new thing, and people knew they needed it. They flocked to John to receive this baptism of repentance. Today, we saw Jesus come to John to receive this baptism; something that’s puzzled people ever since. Why did he do it?

Two people’s ideas have struck me: one commentator says that Jesus did it to support the other people being baptized—to show his solidarity with their good decision.MDH 44 Another suggests that Jesus chose to be baptized on our behalf, which connects his baptism with his dying for us on the Cross.VSB He joined himself to us in our state of separation from God.

Paul would describe baptism as our entering into Jesus’s death ‘so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.…’ R 6.4 John described baptism as our being born again. Jn 3.3 Our understanding of baptism continued to evolve. Paul, unsatisfied with the people in Ephesus only knowing John’s baptism, made sure they were baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus.

Later on, the early Church looked at today’s Gospel story and saw Jesus in the water, the Holy Spirit descending on him and the Father’s voice blessing him from heaven. So baptism could no longer be just in Jesus’s name, but in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. And baptism was no longer just about repentance; it had become the ritual of initiation into the Christian community—like circumcision was for Judaism.

And it was a deadly serious matter in the early centuries of persecution. You were prepared for at least a year before you might be baptised. And if you committed a serious sin, or if you renounced the faith to escape persecution, you might not be allowed back without years of proven faithful life.

That’s very different from what we’ve grown up with: for many people, it’s no more than a tokenistic naming ceremony. The Iranian people who have come to us in recent years have reminded us very profoundly that it’s still a matter of life and death. PTO

This quick glimpse at the history of baptism tells us one thing very clearly and consistently. We are called into a community of love; a community of self-giving grace. It’s something we must never forget, and so we will remember our own baptisms today in the Easter Renewal of Baptismal Vows.