First Thoughts on Year B Epistle Passages from the Lectionary

Baptism of Jesus

William Loader

Baptism of Jesus: 7 January  Acts 19:1-7

Twelve people in a group: perhaps, symbolically a cell of greater Israel? We know from Jesus' movement that twelve was significant. Was it also for John the Baptist? Or is Luke playing with the symbolic number? As in the first chapter of John's gospel, the model action is clear: people who once followed John should follow Jesus. These model disciples of John - for that is what they appear to be - become disciples of Jesus. The fact that they are termed 'disciples' already before their encounter with Paul may reflect the closeness of the two movements, about which we can only speculate. John 1:20 has John the Baptist bending over backwards to assert that he is not the Christ. No such belief appears here, but the baptism does.

Both John and, according to John's gospel (3:22; 4:1), Jesus (or his disciples) baptised. Maybe they once operated together? Read in the context of Luke's gospel we might expect that these believers had lost touch with developments. They had repented and been baptised by John. Allowing John to do it rather than immersing oneself made the event unusual. Ritual washings and immersions were common enough. But it was so unusual that one person immersed someone else that John acquired a reputation: people called him 'the baptizer', John 'the dipper'.

The unusual procedure appears to have been a theological statement. It heightened the sense of total dependence on God. Baptism was a way of submitting oneself to something which God is doing. That logic later flows through into infant baptism where people recognised that God's life-giving love already touched people in their infancy where that love was acknowledged and celebrated. It became a way of entering the influence of the story of Jesus, his life and death and resurrection. Forgiveness of sins belongs to such love (as does much else!) and, addressed to adults in John's time, the call to baptism certainly entailed a total turnabout in direction of life with ethical consequences (emphasised strongly in Luke's account).

John and Jesus were not in competition - certainly not in Luke. Jesus did, however, add significant new dimensions. They appear to have included a sense of celebration in the present (John fasted) and the claim that what John and others waited for was beginning to happen already in Jesus' ministry. Mark pictures the ministry as Jesus' baptising with the Spirit. Luke sees the blessing of the Spirit both in the ministry of Jesus and in the life of the early church. Luke sums up Jesus' ministry as going about doing good (Acts 10:38). That sounds rather tame, as if it means going about and not being bad. In fact it meant something much more radical as Jesus' sermon at Nazareth indicated (4:16-30). Jesus proclaimed and embodied good news to the poor and oppressed, whoever they were, rich and poor, men and women, Jew and Samaritan.

That was the extra that Jesus brought and why to be baptised with Jesus' baptism, ie. in the name of Jesus, meant an act not only of receiving divine grace (as with John) but also joining with Jesus in his reaching out and, like Jesus, being equipped and inspired by the Spirit to do so. The twelve are baptised; they receive the Spirit. They then speak in tongues. This reflects a favourite technique of Luke's: to echo something which occurred previously. Something as new as Pentecost is happening again. It happened in Jerusalem. It happened with Cornelius. Now it is happening with the church of Asia. That is probably why we hear just at the end that there were twelve. It is a kind of wink.

Baptism, belief, receiving the Spirit, and affirming the lordship of Jesus were linked as aspects of what was usually seen as one total event. Not everything happened together. That does not seem to have bothered Luke or his hearers. It bothers more system-driven thinkers who have used the irregularities in the order of these aspects to establish denominations or at least to create naive havoc in existing ones. But for Luke sometimes the Spirit came first. Sometimes the baptism came first. The order did not greatly matter, even if days or hours separated them. Nor was there room for separating the aspects: baptism was not to be seen as something which in a magical way operated independently of the context of faith or vice-versa. They just belonged together. Clearly for Luke baptism is also about much more than individual experiences. It is about a radical extension of doing and being good, or better, embodying God's goodness and justice in the world.

Gospel: Baptism of Jesus: 7 January Mark 1:4-11

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