To John the Baptist’s consternation, Jesus, of whom he had said, “I am not fit to kneel down and undo the strap of his sandals,” lines up to receive a baptism of repentance. It is an upsetting question for John the Baptist and many of us. Did Jesus need to repent? Unless his submission was just an empty gesture, apparently he did. So just as did Jesus, we need to take his baptism as a baptism of repentance seriously. Jesus’ mission is to establish the Kingdom of God – a new world order. We discover that ‘repent’ means more than ‘be sorry for your sins’. It means a complete change of life, of values, of priorities. It means a total re-orientation of life – a renouncing of the past and the embracing of the Kingdom.
It is in this sense thatJesus ‘repents’. For all the continuity between Jesus the child and Jesus the adult engaged in his mission that we can suppose and imagine from the other gospels, here we see Jesus undergoing a ‘baptism of repentance’. Here, in the Jordan’s waters, he publicly renounces his old life, family ties, old job, old priorities. His mission will require everything of him, and it begins with the renunciation of all he has been. He has been a son and brother; now his family will be defined by response to the Kingdom. He has had responsibilities as a member of the Nazareth community and economy and as part of his family; these are now renounced. Repentance meant that he had been a carpenter; he is now an itinerant preacher, prophet, miracle-worker and Servant of the Kingdom.
John had been announcing a coming new order; his baptism was to prepare people for new ways of living and behaving. Jesus is the focus of that new order. His baptism was a sign of renouncing the old order. His act of repentance signaled a break with the structures and values in society by which people are oppressed, and with the prevailing moral, religious, and political order.
“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.’” Mark 1: 4-8
The history of baptism predates Christianity. It has its roots in language descriptive of actions like the sinking of a ship or the dyeing of cloth. As a religious rites of purification and inclusion Jews practiced it, matter of fact John the Baptist was practicing a Jewish form of baptism and as a circumcised son of Abraham Jesus submitted to it. Almost all the current expressions of Christianity continue the practice water baptism in one form or another. Immersion, a continuation of John the Baptist’s practice continued until about the third century when sprinkling was introduced. It wasn’t until the Council of Ravenna in 1311 that sprinkling became the official practice. Roman Catholics, Greek Orthodox and Protestants all use one form or another – except us. As part of the reformation, when Scripture moved to the center of importance, some recognized that there was no such thing as infant baptism in the Bible. One result was the growth of a movement among the Protestants called Anabaptists – or re-baptizers. They rejected the efficacy of baptizing infants and called for an adult water baptism.
Matthew Boulton suggests that as a religious ritual, baptism is quintessentially divisive. It separates people into the camps of the righteous and the unrighteous, the advantaged and the disadvantaged, the in-group and the out-group – the baptized and the unbaptised. He said that it is the prime example of religious clannish work of producing boundaries and classes and investing them with an enchanting aura of sacred legitimacy. For most within the global Christian community it serves today as a threshold of acceptability just as it served the Jewish community before us. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia true and natural water is essential to baptism and it is necessary for salvation. Matter of fact, it is considered “first place among the sacraments,… the door to the spiritual life”. It is the way we become members of Christ and the church. (Now for some of us who are often considered just a bit liberal, that notion sounds really strange, wasn’t it Jesus who said that he was the way?)
With a quite different take on baptism, Boulton suggested in his book on liturgical reform God Against Religion that it was God’s intention to disrupt religious practice as usual. He points to the sheer incongruity of the Son of God, pre-existent with the Father, the maker of heaven and earth, the author of all righteousness, the judge of the quick and the dead, approaching John the Baptist on the banks of the Jordan River to begin his divine work of salvation by being baptized with water for repentance. The point is that in the very inaugural event of Christ’s mission, God means to revolutionize spiritual life.
So what did Mark have to say as he began his gospel? And, of course the big story is what Mark doesn’t say. Can you criticize someone for what they don’t say? Well, Luke seems to be a bit critical of Mark as he began his gospel. His intention is to draw up a narrative for Theophilus, who could be a person or could as well be directed at any who love God, the meaning of the word Theo-philus, concerning those matters which have been ‘fulfilled among us,’ the eye witnesses, so he or we, for that matter, might know the certainty concerning the ‘things’ of the beginnings of our faith tradition.
Luke, beginning with Jesus gives us Jesus’ pedigree going clear back to Methuselah, being as he writes, “the supposed son of Joseph”. Matthew does it differently, but with the same goal in mind, to establish Jesus’ biological credentials beginning with Abraham up through the generations and concluding with, of all people, Joseph.
Luke writes at length about the forecast of John the Baptist’s birth to his father, Zacharias. He tells of the forecast of Jesus’ birth to Mary, The forecast as well to Elizabeth, the baptizer’s mother. He tells of John the Baptist’s birth and Jesus’ birth at Bethlehem, expounding on the cosmic angelic celebration. He writes of Jesus’ dedication at the Temple in Jerusalem, speaks of his childhood and his return to Jerusalem and his continued development. Matthew touches on some of the same things and developed a few other things like the story of the wise men and the slaughter of the innocents.
Mark takes note of none of it. Mark writes: The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. And for Mark the gospel begins with John the Baptist, a messenger, a herald, preparing the way for Jesus’ arrival on the scene. John prepared the people for Jesus’ coming by preaching a baptism of repentance unto the remission of sins.
The very first time all three of the synoptic writers are in agreement is in quoting John the Baptist: Luke 3:16, Matthew 3:11 and Mark 1:8.
In quoting the Baptiser Matthew writes: “I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance;… he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and fire.”
Luke writes: “I indeed baptize you with water; … he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and fire.”
Mark writes that John said: “I baptize you with water; but he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost.”
Whatever else is at work – it is not religious ritual as usual. Jesus’ mission is to establish the Kingdom of God – a new world order. Repentance clearly means more than ‘being sorry for my sins’. It means a complete change of life, of values, of priorities. It means a total re-orientation of life – a renouncing of the past and the embracing of the Kingdom. And the biggest change of all is that it is no longer a symbolic water bath but the actual presence of God’s own Spirit that baptizes. The old practice is displaced by a new spiritual order that breaks down classes and privilege, that disrupts the claims of the religiously advantaged to spiritual legitimacy.
For Friends, “Just as there is ‘one Lord, and one faith’, so is there ‘one baptism’ which as we find in 1st Peter 3:, “an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” Or so thought Robert Barclay. It is a pure and spiritual thing, according to the Apostle Paul that frees us to walk in newness of life. Hasn’t there been more controversy, contention and petty strife over this question of baptism than over any other matter of the Christian faith? There are on going arguments that divide the body of Christ over its virtue, efficacy and administration. If there is but one baptism, isn’t it clear that it is that of the Holy Spirit.
When did Jesus institute for his followers the ritual of water baptism? When was it? Was it at his own baptism, when he spoke with Nicodemus, when he commissioned his apostles in John 3 and 4, at his death? No. You will find no answer to this question in scripture. Did Christ ever baptize with water? And isn’t it strange that in Matthew 5 and 6 there is no mention of such a standing ordinance. He says that it is our duty to worship, he exhorts us to meet adding the promise of his presence. He commands us to pray, preach and watch but he never tells us to baptize with water. How about Paul, was he commission to baptize?
Christianity is pure and spiritual, not ceremonial. The gospel brings to an end such divisive rites and ceremonies that were prescribed under the old law. The real significance of baptism by the Holy Spirit is in how it reaches our hearts, melts it and makes it malleable by Christ. Thus we become teachable, our lives are redirected and we become useful to God’s desire to restore creation.