First Thoughts on Year A Epistle Passages from the Lectionary

Baptism of Jesus

William Loader

Baptism of Jesus 12 January  Acts 10:34-43

In Luke's second volume in which he gives an account of the early church, he reports the baptism of the Church with the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, when Jews were gathered from all over their world. In Acts 10 he reports a further step: the baptism of non Jews with the Spirit. This is the context for our passage from Acts. Members of the Church, Gentiles and Jews, are thus joined as one with Jesus - in solidarity and continuity.

Peter's short speech plays an important role. Using information available to him and his best historical imagination Luke exercises the skills of the historians of his day to reconstruct the likely scenario and what Peter is likely to have said. It may tell us more about Luke than it does about Peter, but Luke's understanding of how the church began is very instructive. Here in particular through the speech he has Peter give us a summary of what he saw was the main significance of Jesus.

The opening verse is an extraordinary statement. God has no favourites. God welcomes anyone who does what is right and just, whatever their nationality or culture. This is rather typical of Luke and invites us to contemplate God as looking generously on all peoples and all cultures. Later he will picture Paul citing Athenian poets in recognition that they, too, could express God's truth. Luke opens an important door to other cultures and religions. Luke has bolstered his case in relation to the Gentile Cornelius by describing his goodness (see 10:1-2). His comments certainly contribute to overcoming prejudice against foreigners. We might perhaps say that Luke holds people in high regard and therefore wants them to know about Jesus rather than holding them in low regard until they hear about Jesus. The difference is important. One could also have the impression that Cornelius was such a good fellow he did not need a gospel, but that misses Luke's point. Rather, Luke's positive regard is part of what motivates Peter's telling Cornelius about Jesus - at least that is how Luke sees what Peter is doing. It is a useful model for interfaith communication today.

It is then very interesting what Luke singles out from the ministry of Jesus. Jesus is Lord of all. Of that there is no question as far as Luke is concerned, but what does it mean? It refers to Jesus' status before God and importance for all people. That status is based on what he did. Here Luke focuses on Jesus' ministry, beginning from the time of his baptism by John. We hear echoes of the gospel story of Jesus' baptism. Luke goes on to tell us through the speech he has constructed for Peter that Jesus was anointed with the Spirit ("anointed" is also the meaning of the word, "Christ", "Messiah"). That anointing was so that he could go about doing good. We are hearing echoes of Jesus' self presentation in the synagogue at Nazareth where Jesus uses Isaiah 61 to explain how the Spirit had anointed him and for what tasks (Luke 4:14-20).

God was with Jesus and by God's Spirit Jesus healed people oppressed by the devil. Jesus did more than that, but this is Luke's version of what he thought Peter should say. The good news was about Jesus the liberator who (in ancient world language of demonology) set people free. We then hear that Jews executed him on a cross (no mention of the Romans, although Luke knew they played a key role), but God raised Jesus from the dead and let him be seen as alive. The effect was to reverse what had happened: they rejected Jesus; God accepted and vindicated Jesus. The implications: so Jesus really was acting for God in going about doing good and really does point to the way for people to be set free. It is interesting that neither here nor in any other of the speeches does Luke focus on the death as a sacrifice for sins. Luke was also concerned to proclaim forgiveness of sins, but, though he knew the sacrifice model, he chose not to use it and does not show any of the first Christians making it their emphasis - in contrast, for instance, to Paul. There are various ways of proclaiming the good news and Luke's is just as legitimate as Paul's.

Luke's trim speech given to Peter ends by noting the promise of forgiveness and declaring that Jesus will be the one to judge the world. This is also part of what it meant to say, "Jesus is Lord". The underlying message is one of God's generosity expressed through Jesus, which includes forgiveness and liberation. The resurrection only serves to confirm that this is so. The speech is really a brief summary of the Gospel of Luke and of Luke's understanding of the gospel. It was enough to launch a mass movement. Deliberately echoing the events of Pentecost Luke speaks of ecstatic language and all three main aspects repeat themselves: the coming of the Spirit, faith, and baptism. They belonged together. A new much wider community of faith was born.

Gospel: Baptism of Jesus 12 January  Matthew 3:13-17

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