Friday, January 15, 2010

Baptism

Isaiah 43.1-2, Luke 3.15-17, 21-22, Acts 8.14-17


Unlike our other lectionary readings, the beginning of Isaiah chapter 43 is not a passage that is directly about baptism, but it is redolent with themes that are linked to baptism. It talks about the idea that we belong to God, and are called by name to be part of his people. It talks about the idea that God redeems, or sets us free, from all that would hold us captive or enthralled and which would prevent us from realising our true potential. And it talks about us passing through rivers without being overwhelmed and fires without being scorched or consumed. This part of the passage has, perhaps, less to do with baptism and more to do with God being with us in times of hardship, suffering and adventure. But, of course, the mention of waters and rivers immediately conjures up baptismal imagery. And fire and flame might remind us of the Holy Spirit.


More significantly, perhaps, the image of passing through deep waters is often associated in the Bible with dying and reminds us, also, therefore that baptism is a rite of passage. That is to say, it marks an important transition, or staging post, from one state of being to another. For a long time, when people commonly believed that God could only forgive our sins once in a lifetime, they delayed their baptism until they were at the point of death, as the Emperor Constantine did. But there was another ancient tradition, which eventually gained greater popularity, that Christians should baptise their children as soon as possible after their birth, perhaps because life expectancy for infants was once so uncertain. So, either way, baptism soon came to mark a vital moment in a Christian's physical existence - either the point of our entry into life or the point of our leave taking from it.


However, before it became associated with physical birth and death, baptism was already linked to spiritual turning points in human life. When Gentile people adopt the Jewish faith, one of the rites of entry into Judaism, is a kind of baptism - signifying that they're dying to their old Gentile way of life - or being cleansed of its associations - and rising to their new Jewish existence. At the time of Jesus, a radical Jewish sect called the Essenes took this a step further. Deciding that the rest of the nation was irrevocably sinful, they separated themselves off into new communities where everyone was totally obedient to their interpretation of the Jewish faith. To enter an Essene community it was necessary to be cleansed of the old sinful way of life, just as if one were a Gentile, and to leave behind all of its old associations, just as if one had died to the old way of life completely.

John the Baptist had his own variation on the theme of baptism. He didn't ask people to separate themselves from the rest of society, but he did ask them to die to their old sinful way of life and make a radical new beginning before they fell under God's judgement and were doomed forever. He differed from the Essenes in that he was far more optimistic than they were. They had given up hope that the whole nation might ever be holy again, which is why they retreated into the desert and set themselves apart, whereas John the Baptist believed that everyone still had the chance to make a new beginning.

Notice how there's no suggestion, in Luke's account of John's ministry, that John actually knew Jesus, which is strange given the earlier story in the Gospel about John's miraculous birth, and the claim - within that story - that he was Jesus' cousin. Some people have felt, when they read these two different accounts side by side, that the birth narrative must be a later addition to the Gospel, which was perhaps originally intended to begin at chapter 3.

Be that as it may, Luke makes clear that John did not consider himself to be the Messiah, perhaps because at first - in the early days of the Christian faith - there was still some doubt about this. But in Luke's account John doesn't say that Jesus is the Messiah, either, only that one is coming who is mightier or more powerful than he. The baptism conferred by this newcomer will be more meaningful than John's purely symbolic baptism, in which people merely committed themselves to a new start, at least in Luke's understanding of what was happening. In contrast, his new baptism will also be sacramental - that is to say, it will confer a real spiritual blessing on those who are baptised, as they receive the Holy Spirit and - with it - the power to be changed and to change the world around them.

Not only is it not clear from Luke's account that John spoke about Jesus, it's not even clear that he actually baptised Jesus. It may have been one of John's disciples who performed the baptism because Jesus simply joined the crowd of people flocking to make a new start in their life and renounce their share in the nation's sinful ways.

We can be very sure that Jesus was baptised, however, because Christians were - from the very beginning of the faith - a little bit embarrassed about this. Why should Jesus feel the need to identify himself with all the people who were trying to turn their life around? Didn't he already know that he was special? Luke leaves this open to doubt, remarking only that - while Jesus was praying after his baptism - he had an intense visionary experience in which he felt the Spirit of God descending on him in a very graphic and real way, and heard a voice assuring him that he was the voice's beloved Son.

Later, some Christians interpreted this as meaning that Jesus only became one with God when he received the Holy Spirit after his baptism and submitted himself entirely to God's will. But, as time went by, this understanding of what had happened at the River Jordan was felt to be incompatible with the teaching in the Gospel of John that Jesus is the divine Word, who has always been part of what it means to be God and who shared in creation. Whether it really is incompatible with that teaching is perhaps another matter, but for Christians who held the view that God had somehow adopted Jesus after his baptism, it was certainly very easy to imagine that God had only been present in Jesus in the same way that he is present in all of us - although perhaps in a more sustained and intense way than usual, whereas mainstream Christianity has come to view that in Jesus God has actually experienced the totality of human existence - its joy and sadness, its moments of pain and elation, but above all - our birth and death, and has experienced them not as a disinterested spectator but as someone who was actually sharing in those things himself. And because God has experienced what it is to be fully human we are promised that we will one day be able to experience what it means to be fully divine.

For Christians, then, baptism soon came to mean a great deal more than just a rite of passage, it became a sacramental moment, a moment of grace and gifting by God. Paul describes it as the moment when we die to ordinary human existence, with all its limitations and failings, and rise to a new kind of human life - the kind which Jesus shares with God.

And so we come to that curious passage from the Acts of the Apostles, which was also written by Luke and therefore is shot through with his rather peculiar understanding of how the Holy Spirit works. No where else can one imagine reading an account of a baptism which is only half of the real thing. What is supposed to be going on here?

Well, for one thing, the mission to Samaria, which was taking place when this story happens, had not been begun by one of the apostles - that is by one of the men and women commissioned by the risen Jesus to proclaim the good news about him. Instead, the person leading this mission was Philip, a man who had been appointed to manage the church's social work but not to preach and baptise. Perhaps Luke was a little uncomfortable about this. It's possible that, in his own day, unauthorised people were going around preaching and he felt this was a bad thing and that they might be encouraged by this story. So he makes the point that Philip's baptism isn't complete without the intervention of a real apostle, someone who can actually do the sacramental bit and confer the Holy Spirit on people, as Jesus did. However, if that's the case, then Luke very soon seems to forget the limitations of Philip's baptism, because later in the same chapter Philip also baptises the Ethiopian Eunuch, and there's no suggestion that the eunuch's baptism wasn't complete.

Perhaps, instead therefore, Luke means us to understand the episode in Samaria as part of a learning curve for Philip. At first, not unnaturally, he baptises people just in the name of Jesus, whereas by the time of Luke Christians were probably being baptised in the name of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and certainly the Holy Spirit is very important to Luke and he doesn't feel it can be left out of the equation.

I think, in the end, we're probably being reminded again by this little story that baptism is indeed a sacrament, that it isn't just about ministers, or anyone else, doing something symbolic and stating publicly that we owe our allegiance to Jesus. It's also about bringing God's Spirit into the situation, and into the life of the person who is being baptised, in a very real and powerful way. It's about separating out - but not about separating individual believers out from the rest of the community in the way that the Essene's separated people out. It's more about separating the worthless husk within our human nature - the disobedient side - from the pure grain, the part of us that is naturally drawn to godliness, and giving us the spiritual resources to keep them apart so that we can set be set aside for service to the community.

However, baptism is only the start of a process. In baptism we acknowledge that we - or our children - belong to God, that we are called by God to be part of his people, to identify ourselves with Jesus' death for us and to die to life without him. But what we are called to is a journey, not a destination. We are on the way, but we have not yet arrived. It's a process, or a pilgrimage, which has to be renewed and reaffirmed each day.

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