Getting it Wrong About Baptism (Isaiah 43:1-7; Acts 8:14-17; Luke 3:21-22)
Luke’s story of Jesus’ baptism is one of four, one in each of the Gospels. Mark’s is the oldest and is the basic source of Matthew and Luke. John is on his own. Each story makes its own points, and eliminates some points of the others. Each was written to a community and a context that needed to grasp the centralities of Jesus’ baptism in ways relevant to them. So it is for us.
Now Christian Baptism, and the baptism of Jesus by John, had their differences As far as we can discern from archaeology and other sources such as the Dead Sea Scrolls, it was a rite of symbolic cleansing and of initiation to a new community thought of in terms of family. Most in Jesus’ day would have known about that, and so the New Testament didn’t explain it. The day came when readers of the stories of Jesus did not understand what baptism in Jesus’ day had been about, and they read later meanings into earlier text. So thoughts about baptism began to modify to meet the community’s needs.
I think most Baptists (and, frankly, most Christians) make the wrong things about baptism central. Baptists in Wisconsin know that most other churches do not do it like we do. We baptize at a different time of life and in a different manner. We call it “following Jesus” in baptism, so we baptize people who have already chosen to do so, and we baptize them by immersion, to symbolize their decision to die to self and be buried to their old way of life, and rise again with Jesus to a new way of life for others. I think these things are good understandings of a way to think about and do baptism, but if we say that our way is the only one and use it as a way to divide Christians over doctrinal issues, we get it wrong, no matter how pure our doctrine
Each year, after Epiphany, we take a Sunday to think of Jesus’ baptism, and this text from Luke was the beginning of my thinking about how easy it is to get baptism wrong. To begin with, Luke’s account is just barely there – two little verses that make up one sentence in Greek. It doesn’t tell us where it happened (although we can guess from the wider context that it was in the wilderness of Judea). He doesn’t even tell us who performed the baptism, though I think it’s likely that John did.
What Luke, rather, emphasizes in his account, is not “the facts” of Jesus’ baptism at all, but what happened next. The opening of the text, which is, more or less: : “When a bunch of people were baptized, so was Jesus,” is important because it incorporates Jesus’ baptism within a community. Baptism never belongs all alone, but is the act of God who calls, of the individual who responds, within a community that affirms.
But, even having said that, the baptism really is only mentioned as an introduction to set the stage because after his baptism, as Jesus was in an attitude of prayer, some important stuff happened. The main sentence is: “(then) heaven was opened…the Holy Spirit descended…and a voice came from heaven.” Jesus’ baptism is the occasion for three acts of God that describe Jesus’ ministry as for the whole world. First, the heavens were opened. In the Bible, “heaven” or “the heavens,” in addition to being equivalent to our “the sky,” is where God is. The earth is where God’s creatures are. The realms are distinct. This figure of speech implies that God has opened a way for humans and God to commune and form relationships in new ways. God makes heaven open to earth. Luke’s statement reminds me of words addressed to God that we find in Isaiah chapter 64: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down…to make your name known…When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence” (Isaiah 64:1a, 2b-3).Luke intimates that in Jesus’ ministry God would do what Isaiah 64 looked for. God was in the process of opening heaven to earth, and was in process of coming down to do what we don’t expect God to do.
Second, the Holy Spirit descended. In the Bible, the Spirit of God (or the Holy Spirit) is the very energy and presence of God with people. Again and again, in both Luke and in Acts, we find that the ministry of Jesus and those who follow him is engulfed by the energy of God that, again, is in process of doing what we don’t expect sometimes.
Third, a voice (which is a Hebrew way of referring to God) says, in paraphrase of Psalm 2:7 and Isaiah 42:1: “You are my son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased.” God speaks directly to Jesus and affirms him as the well-pleasing, beloved one of God, called by Luke, and other New Testament authors, the Son.
As Luke is writing, in the first instance, for a late first century audience who were trying to figure out how to respond to God, following Jesus in baptism becomes an act of identification with people in an attitude of prayer, to which God responds with open heavens, Holy Spirit, and word of affirmation. Of course the opening of heaven, coming of the spirit, the hearing of the voice, is not intended to prescribe a physical thing for every last human who follows Jesus, but a spiritual one that’s wide open to the future. That’s why this is a good text for Epiphany, because the emphasis of this season is opening up what it mean to follow Jesus into the whole world with all its diversity and difference. Luke emphasizes that in Jesus’ baptism (and ours) God is at work to further the work of open heavens, the work that we don’t expect God to do.
Luke can help us keep ourselves from getting too hung up on the “nuts and bolts” of baptism. Even though we may have some pretty firm convictions on these things, we need to remember that all the details are not the real point, which is that following Jesus means trusting the God who opens the heavens, and engulfs us with divine presence and energy to cooperate with God’s unexpected work in the world. And the God who accomplishes all this in community.
I think the lesson from Acts 8 together with Luke’s Gospel lesson, within the context of Epiphany, provides a wonderful encouragement not to get too hung up on things like the nuts and bolts of baptism and many other minor doctrinal points on which we’ve been tempted to major from time to time.
The Acts 8 story is that, by and by, the Christian movement had grown from just being in and around Judea and Galilee, into Gentile territory. Chapter 8 tells an interesting tale about how things went when the disciples of Jesus came to Samaria. Now, Samaria was the home of the Samaritans, and they were sort of half-Jews. The New Testament is not shy to say that Jews and Samaritans didn’t share much in common. It’s not surprising that it was the evangelist Philip that went to Samaria, for Philip, at least has a Greek name, and was probably a Gentile. Philip went there and preached and served, and all kinds of folk responded, but not in the same way that Jewish converts might have. They were used to different ways. There were a lot of magical rites done there. One of the really good magicians, whose name was Simon was among the converts. And when he and many others were baptized, he was fascinated by what Philip was doing. That’s the background, which simply says that “the early Christians weren’t in Kansas anymore.”
The norm in most other places we’re told about in the New Testament seems to have been that the experience of the Holy Spirit came at the same time as baptism, but among those Samaritans, it wasn’t the way. What happened was that Peter and John went to Samaria and laid their hands on the believers and then they received the Holy Spirit. There is no comment that all this was a great doctrinal deflection that had to be shunned. Different people experienced God and the Christian life differently. It’s a lesson that Paul would later champion in many ways, and it’s still a lesson well worth learning and remembering in our diverse and multi-ethnic world today.
What was a big deal was when this magician Simon thought that he could buy the privilege of being engulfed by God’s energy and presence and control God’s power for his own benefit. That was an error that mistook who was really in charge. It’s worth learning, that no matter how good, pious, and righteous we are, we do not control God, nor are we the ones who decide who God loves, or hand out goodies in God’s name. It’s interesting how often over the centuries those of us who claim to be Christ’s disciples have wanted to crawl into the driver’s seat right beside Simon and dictate to God how things go. At that point, things didn’t go well for Simon. And Peter’s words are worth remembering: “May your money perish with you, because you thought you could obtain God’s gift with it!”
So, then, if we’re not in charge, and are unwise to make such hard and fast rules about what God is up to, what kind of thing might we want to say and do as a community who, like Jesus, witness to the open heavens, being engulfed by God’s own energy and power, and listening to Jesus, God’s beloved?
Our Old Testament Lesson from Isaiah 43 contains one of the most remarkable statements of God’s intent and determination to be found in the Bible. These words, put in God’s mouth, are addressed to people who were at least two time losers. They’d lost out to Babylon and were in exile to a foreign power, strike one. They also are called both blind and deaf to what God wants from them, strike two. They have been both overpowered and seduced by the power and wealth of an empire that everyone said controlled the world. To such an unlikely community, God comes with eleven self-identifying statements. God says: I have made you, I have liberated you (in spite of who you still are), I have called you by name (I know you personally), you are mine, I will be with you in danger, I am your God, I value you more than anything, I love you and would do anything for you. Surrounded by all these things that God is and does, God says this to these two time losers, alienated, cut off, overwhelmed and seduced by power: “Stop being afraid.” God knows that people’s lives are products of fear: fear of enemies, fear of friends, fear of ridicule, fear of being wrong, you name it and fill in the blank. After God says stop letting fear, in the sense of dread, be that which guides your life, whether it’s dread of the world or of God. “Don’t dread me, I love you.”
Then, close to the end, God says, once more, “Stop fearing.” And this is just before one more promise that God says, “I will do.” God says, “I will gather you – all of you, those like you, those unlike you, from all over the world: from the east, the west, the north, the south. The God who does all these things is the God who gathers. That’s one of the things Jesus came to do, when God opened the heavens, engulfed him (and those who follow him) with divine energy and presence, and witnessed to the truth of the Beloved Son. God says it is unnecessary to continue to make decisions based on fear because the God who has loved us, named us, liberated us, valued us, and all the rest is also the God who gathers us together into a community to do that unexpected work that Jesus did and does.
At the end of our Old Testament passage God says that all this that God has done, is done for “my glory.” The Hebrew word “glory” comes from the idea of “heaviness.” Glory is God’s heaviness. Glory is what makes God a heavyweight, gives God substance, shows God’s nature to the very best. What this text says (and others agree with it) is what gives God glory, what shows God’s nature in its truest light is the divine making, liberating, calling, valuing, loving, gathering, and all the rest. This is the work for which the heavens were opened in Jesus’ ministry. This is the work for which the spirit comes. And this is the word that we proclaim and the work we do in Jesus’ name.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, AMEN.