The Beginning of the Galilean Ministry
(Mt 4:12–17; Lk 4:14–15)
14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
Jesus Calls the First Disciples
(Mt 4:18–22; Lk 5:1–11)
16 As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 17 And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” 18 And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19 As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20 Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.
There are times that I seem to be a bit hard on the church, and I know that last week might have been one of those days where that was the tone. I am hard only because I love the church. I love this community and this Meeting so deeply that it is really quite hard to explain. Yesterday during the discipleship training session that we hosted here at willow creek, we were actually challenged quite deeply about many things. There is the challenge because of the great love that our area and yearly meeting have for the local meetings. But right along with the challenges comes encouragement. Someone asked me yesterday about how we came to this church, and I actually surprised myself with the answer that I gave. I said that ever since I felt the call to become a pastor, this Meeting was at the center. I knew early on that eventually I would come to Kansas City to minister among each of you. They looked at me in shock so I went on to explain a bit about why.
When I first attended this Meeting, there were people that immediately welcomed me, there were people that encouraged me, people that encouraged me to explore the calling that I felt God was leading in my mind this Meeting was exactly the type of meeting I wanted to work with. This Meeting took a broken, discouraged young man that thought he was no longer really welcome in a church and you showed him that not only was a broken person welcome, but that that very same broken person was important and necessary for the kingdom of God. In the relatively short amount of time I have been associated with this Meeting I watched a small church encourage and guide two pastors while they explored their callings. So in my mind in my heart this Meeting is home, this is where God spoke the loudest to me, this is where I really fell in love not only with my wife, but with the people of God. I may be hard but I am hard because I know what can be done through each of you and I do not want us to forget the most important aspect of why we are here.
Why are we here? Why do we meet together every first day of the week in this place at this time? We are here because the kingdom of God is near.
The passage we read today is often consider the calling of the first disciples, but it could also be called the first message of Jesus, at least first message recorded by Mark. What I mean by that is that this was the first message that Jesus presented that caught the attention of this particular Gospel writer. It was the first message that attracted his attention and changed the course of history as he knew it. Was it the literal first, we will never truly know but what we do know is that this simple message lays the foundation for every other message that Jesus gave. A simple message, an introduction and invitation to a journey that changed the perspective of faith.
“The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.” One sentence, one brief statement that is simple and complex at the same time. This one statement tells us why we are here, where we came from and where we are going. So much in nineteen words.
The time is fulfilled. One could also say just as easily that a new era is being defined, and the next chapter is starting to be written. Change is one the horizon and through this change that everything that had gone one up to this point, is clarified more fully. The time is fulfilled. Jesus says this just after John the Baptizer is arrested, which most likely caused a stir in the community. John was seen as a prophet, the beginning of the next era, but John himself said no, that there is one coming that will be greater than he, one whose sandals he was not qualified to untie. John stood in the gap, a voice crying in the wilderness to repent.
The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near. The idea of a kingdom is a scope of influence. It is not necessarily a nation or state, but a way of life. It is the realm in which the king provides protection and encouragement. Picture in your mind a kingdom, for most of us when we visualize a kingdom we see a great walled fortress with high towers. It is within those wall that the king would sit, and the scope of influence would be the area seen from the tower. An ancient king could only influence the areas watched from the towers, at times they may gain more towers to extend the kingdom out but whoever controls the tower rules the land. I make mention because that is what near suggests. The term we translate as near means close, or all around. The towers are secured and the kingdom stretches from within the walls out across the hills and plains from horizon to horizon. It is everywhere all around us.
One era is closing, opening into the next, into which the influence of God stretches from horizon to horizon. Building on everything in the past but looking toward the future. The influence of God is all around us, but only if the towers are occupied by ones under the influenced and directed by God. Think about that for a moment. Picture that scene in your mind. Now we will get into the heart of the message, repent.
Repent is more than just turning around, but it is a complete change of thought and attitude. Repentance is not a onetime event but it is a fluid and flexible concept. Our minds, our thoughts, and our attitudes can often take different paths, at times they can change countless times throughout a day. When Jesus says repent at this moment he is saying let your mind be flexible and open to change, allow your life to be molded into a vessel that can meet the situations at hand.
Believe. The message presented by John the Baptist and the message of Jesus are very similar. Both state the closing of one era and the beginning of another. Both call people to repent or change their thoughts and attitudes, but John cries to repent and be baptized, where Jesus calls us to repent and believe. How often have we thought about the difference between the two messages?
A few months ago I mentioned that there are different levels of belief. The first is knowledge, then trust and then entrust. There is a vast difference between each of these stages of belief. The first, knowledge, is basic understanding where we have thought about it and find it to be true. Trust is a step on down the path. To believe in a trusting way, we have knowledge that we find to be true, and we act on that knowledge, we find it trust worthy, but we still have some hesitations. Entrusting belief takes us well beyond knowledge and into a life fully immersed in God. We find Him trustworthy and are willing to put our very existence into the hands of God. Very few move to this level of belief because it requires that we let the other direct our paths, and trust that our wellbeing will be taken care of. Belief is relational.
But what are we to believe, what are we to entrust our wellbeing to? The good news. This is a cycle, which takes us back to the beginning of the statement. The good news is that the kingdom of God is near, it is at hand it is all around us as far as we can see, and we should repent change our thoughts and attitudes to allow ourselves to entrust our wellbeing to the good news. Which takes us back to the beginning again and again, deeper and deeper, drilling down into the very core of who we are until every aspect of our life is totally and completely entrusted to God.
Jesus speaks this simple message and he walks along the shores of the sea and he comes across Simon and his brother throwing out their nets. Simon and Andrew made their living casting nets, their entire day is spent tossing the net into the water, pulling it back, and repeating. It is a cyclical job. Throwing the net, pulling it in, emptying and repeating. It is hard work, never really knowing what lies beneath the surface but hoping that something of value is pulled in so that you can support and feed the family. Jesus watches them perform their cyclical task, and then invites them to something different, a change in their thoughts and attitudes. He invites them to follow Him and instead of casting nets and pulling in fish they could then participate in the cycles or holy rhythm of Christ. “I will make you fish for people.”
The group then walks a bit and they come across James and John. He again make the same invitation to walk with him in this cyclical relationship that will continuously drill down until every aspect of their life is fully entrusted to God their true King.
Why are we here? We are here because the kingdom of God is near. It is all around us and Jesus is calling us to repent and believe. He is calling us to ever deeper aspect of our relationship with him so that we move from knowledge to trust, until we can entrust every aspect of our life and wellbeing to Him. And when we do that He says we will bring others in. It is a cycle that drills deeper but at the same time grows and expands gathering more and more strength which turns the cycle again and again and with each turn we are conformed just a bit more to the image of Christ. We are here because when we meet with each other the spinning of the cycle in each of our lives begins to encourage those around us giving more energy to continue the cycle. We meet together to help each other adjust attitudes and change our minds so we can dig just a bit deeper, entrusting just a bit more of our lives to the king. With each turn our life goes deeper, wider, and we are then stretched upward toward glory as if we are atop a strong tower looking out over the plains and hills seeing those around you so we can cast out the nets and encourage another into the very same cycle.
We are here to continue the cycle, to entrust just a bit more, and to encourage each other and those outside to Repent and draw them into friendships so we can encourage again. It is a simple message but one that is incredibly hard to live out, because each of us have areas that are filled with hardness that threaten to stop the cycle in at any moment. I had one of those hard places several years ago. A place in my life that was hard and not entrusted to the king, yet there was someone here that help. And encouraged me just a little bit at a time.
I am often hard on the church because I want us to push through those hard rocky areas together, to turn those cycles and entrust more of our lives to God. I want us to follow him in that holy rhythm of Prayer, Worship, and service. So that we can repent, change our attitudes so we can conform to the spirit and become a people totally immersed in loving God, Embracing the Holy Spirit and living the love of Christ with others.
As we enter into this time of open worship and holy expectancy consider the message that Jesus presented, consider the message that we are giving. Is it continuing the cycles or stopping the drill. Is the cycle going deeper and wider or has the cycle stopped in a place short of total belief?
John 1:43–51 (NRSV)
Jesus Calls Philip and Nathanael
43 The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” 44 Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45 Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” 46 Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” 47 When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” 48 Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” 49 Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” 50 Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” 51 And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”
One of the most quoted statement in our contemporary culture is that people love Jesus but hate the church. There is something powerful in that statement that should make each of immediately stop whatever we are doing at that moment, turning our attention to the one making the statement, and engage that individual in conversation. I say this not because we need to proceed to argue with them and attempt to convert their souls with our craft use of the most advanced apologetic techniques, but because that person is saying something very profound about the life of the church. “I love Jesus but Hate the Church.” For probably most of us this statement causes us to cringe, like we had just licked a 9 volt battery on a dare. Our first reaction is to prove them wrong to lash out, but what they are actually pleading for is not an opportunity to engage in debate but to be listened too.
That statement speaks volumes about the church engages our culture. Somehow and somewhere along the course of this individual’s life the witness of the church has separated from the testimony of Christ. Somewhere along the line the gospel of Christ was separated from the assembly of believers. That is a damning statement, one that is painful to even contemplate let alone speak among one such gathering, but a statement that must be considered. How can someone say that they love Jesus yet hate those people that follow the Him?
This is the reality of the situation that the house of Israel was facing during the revelation of Jesus during the first century. Of course they did not know the reality of Christ at that point but they were very familiar with the concept of a people set apart for the glory of the one true God. That is the very reason that John was out in the wilderness baptizing the people of Israel and encouraging them to repent for the kingdom of God is drawing near. That is the reason that it was proper for Jesus to be baptized in the waters of the Jordan to reveal the opening of the floodgates of heaven to a new and more intimate relationship with God. One that was not devoted to the shadows of the temple but the very passion and blood of humanity.
Jesus rose from the waters and the Spirit of God spoke as the water drops fell from the locks of Jesus’ hair, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” God made flesh, the divine living among the created, and the holy living with the depraved. John the Baptizer looked out as Jesus walked by, and spoke to those around him, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” Imagine for a moment that scene, the confused looks of the followers and disciples of John as their teacher the one that was calling them to turn around and live for God in a different and more real way stood in awe of this retreating man. As Jesus walked away these men watched this bold preacher dramatically turn into a meek and submissive servant, gladly submitting to this man. The confusion, and the utter awe of the situation. A couple drop what they have and they follow this man. Among them was a man with the name Philip. If you were to look at the history and origin of this name you would find that it is not a name originating from Semitic roots but is a name of Greek origin meaning lover of horses. The meaning does not really give any real enlightenment but the origin loudly proclaims where the faith of the parent is rooted. Though Philip was Jewish his parents gave him a Greek name. That very fact gives us a vast understanding at the state of first century Israel. They were occupied they were blended and influenced by outside cultures. John the Baptist cries out in the wilderness because the faithful of Israel were not completely separated and devoted only to God but were as much a part of the world as we are to ours. There were people walking in the dust of the Holy land saying similar things as many are saying today. We love the idea of God, but we hate the Temple. John himself by baptizing in the Jordan was saying that there was a separation, or a disunity between the actions of the nation and the reality of their spiritual existence. They needed to repent to turn back to God.
Philip is there near the banks of the Jordan listening to John, yet feeling like an outsider do the heritage given to him by his parents. He did not run after this man whom John said was the lamb of God, he held himself back possibly feeling removed and excluded from the hope of Israel. He waited while the others Andrew and Peter, followed but the very next day Jesus found Philip and said to him, “Follow Me.” A Greek Jew was nearly as bad a straight up uncircumcised Gentile in the eyes of the zealots. He would have been rejected by the majority of rabbis simply because his parents were not devout enough, his heritage may have even been questioned yet Jesus come to him, looks him in the eye, and offers him the greatest opportunity every human truly want the opportunity to know and be known.
This man could have lived his entire life rejected, constantly having his faith questioned by the very people that should have been encouraging him, finding acceptance only from a crazy preacher out in the wilderness, and then the teacher he respected looks to another in holy reverence and that man comes to Philip accepting him and giving him a chance to be involved in something more. Philip immediately understands that everything has changed. Something different has emerged, he begins to see that the kingdom has opened up and become available to all people. So he runs to speak to his friend, telling him we have found the one spoken of by Moses and the prophets, Jesus son of Joseph of Nazareth.
Again it is important to note that Nazareth was not a significant location. It was not a major metropolis, it was not on any major trade route, but it had a reputation. It was most likely a city of labor a city that cut and mined limestone rocks, and like most blue collar cities it probably had a hardened reputation. If we were to compare it to a city today it might resemble the economically challenged areas of Detroit, once having a thriving economy while the stone was being gathered for the great building projects of Herod but now that the construction had fallen off is now just a hardened and impoverished. People that once focused their attention on their careers now unemployed and angry. Nathanial says, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” because this area was filled with rouge rebels and bandits looking for a fight that could line their pockets with ill received gains.
Nathanael curious at what could have gotten his friend so excited decides to respond to Philip’s invitation to come and see. As he approaches Jesus, Jesus says, “Here is a true Israelite in whom there is no deceit.” This greeting has always been odd to me, especially when one considers the fact that he was close enough friend to Philip, the Greek Jew, for him to be the first person Philip wanted to find after his encounter with Jesus. True Israelite is not exactly the term that one would say to someone who hung out with an impure outsider. But that was the greeting, “here is a true Israelite.”
This got me thinking, why would Jesus single out Nathanael as a true Israelite? What about him was different from the others Jesus had asked to follow Him at this point? Was he more devout or more righteous? Again we must consider the company that he kept. I keep bringing up the Greek influence of Philip’s name because of the way that the Jewish people treated the people of Samaria the half breeds the ones that did not keep pure lines within the tribe. How could someone be called a true Israelite when they keep the company of on similar to this?
Who is Israel? This goes back to the very beginning of the tribes when Jacob received a new name, Israel, from God. He gained this name because he spent an entire night wrestling with the Angel of the Lord. He would not give up until this Angel, of whom most would say was a manifestation of Jesus prior to his birth, blessed him. So Jacob received the name one who wrestles with God. Nathanael was a true Israelite, or one that is of the follows the line of God wrestlers. He did not simply sit back idle but he wrestled with God. Nathanael was not simply content or fatalistic but he actively pursued an understanding or relationship with God. This greeting alludes to the possibility that Nathanael was not afraid to question the status quo and would struggle to make sense of the emerging culture around him and where God was in it. He struggled, he pursued, and he sought the relationship even if the religious norm around him seemed to go a different way.
Nathanael then ask Jesus, “Where did you get to know me?” This is just as odd of a response to an odd greeting. But fitting if we look at the greeting from the perspective I just mentioned. If Nathanael was the wrestler as I described then to be considered a true Israelite in that case Nathanael could have taken the greeting very negatively. Which is the response he gave. Basically he is telling Jesus who are you to judge? Yet Jesus answers that he saw him under the fig tree. There is a traditional saying that rabbis would go into the shade of a fig tree to do their studying. Making this place under the fig tree a very intimate place for one to wrestle with the things of God. So it is clear that though Nathanael may not be one of the religious elite of Israel he was actively pursuing the relational aspects of God, and Jesus met him there in the shade and knew what was being said. Chances are very high that for Nathanial to respond by saying, “Rabbi, You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” whatever was being wrestled with under that tree was revealed in some manner, and that probably had something to do with his friend Philip.
So back to the all too common statement of, “I love Jesus but Hate the Church.” A statement that is so easily thrown around in our culture today. We have a parallel at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus at that moment was unknown but obviously there was something about him that attracted these men’s attention so early. Something simple yet very profound. Each one was drawn into discipleship through a very simple conversation, come and see or follow me. They were moved by an invitation to a conversation, and invitation to know and be known, and invitation to wrestle with God and be accepted even if the challenge goes against the perceived cultural norm. John the crazy preacher testified about Him, and sent his followers to Jesus. Andrew on of John’s disciples followed Jesus and brought his brother to also see him. Jesus went out to find Philip the Greek Jew and gave him the opportunity enter into a relationship which quite possibly was often neglected do to his heritage, and then Philip brings in Nathanael the one that wrestles. None of these first disciples would have been people the contemporary culture of the day would have considered worthy of the attention of a Rabbi, yet Jesus invited them to come and see, to follow, and to wrestle. Jesus accepted them where they were and he lifted them up to see and experience greater things.
Jesus is still calling and inviting people to come and see, to follow, and to wrestle. This is where the statement “I love Jesus but hate the church” comes from. People are still interested and intrigued by Jesus, but the church has not always been accepting of those that are invited. We have separated Christ from the gospel to such a degree that people no longer see Christ in the Church. You cringe and rightfully so because that is something to cringe about, something to wrestle with and challenge to take on. Each of us who take on the name of Christ are involved in that challenge. They love Jesus, they love the acceptance and the grace of Jesus but they hate us. That is profound. Why? We can puff ourselves up and say that it is because we are righteous and people do not want to be righteous, but why then are there charitable and humanitarian organizations that do the work that Christ calls us to do that have nothing to do with Christ? We can say that it is because they reject God, but that then leads us to ask what God or image of God are they rejecting? They are rejecting our image of God, the image of a judgmental and wrathful God, the God that demands the blood of all that reject him. But that is not the image of God that is revealed through Jesus, the image of God that would lay down His life for the ones that were his enemies.
Philip was most likely rejected by the religious elite, Nathanael was most likely put off by the religious elite, Peter and Andrew were seen as simple uneducated men not worth the time of the religious elite, yet each was actively pursued and asked by God himself to follow him. Each of these men walked along side of Jesus and saw Jesus open the gate of heaven in ways that were never before imagined. As we enter into this time of open worship consider the statement often repeated “I love Jesus but hate the church.” Consider if we as follower of Jesus are adequately reflecting the image of God within us as revealed by Jesus. Are we accepting of the rejected and encouraging to the discouraged, are we inviting those around us to come and see and to walk with us as we follow Christ? Or are we just possibly participating in something totally different and quite possibly devoid of Christ? Jesus taught and showed us a rhythm of live that revolved around worship, prayer, and service. He is calling each of us into that life as well, a life of loving God, embracing the Holy Spirit and living the love of Christ with others. To be people devoted to that lifestyle it requires us to entrust every aspect of our life into his hands, it requires us to cling to him and wrestle even when we do not understand what he is doing. It requires us to embrace the unlikely and to encourage them to walk beside us as they respond to their personal invitation from Christ to come and see.
Mark 1:4–11 (NRSV)
4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 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. 6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 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. 8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
The Baptism of Jesus
(Mt 3:13–17; Lk 3:21–22; Jn 1:29–34)
9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Of all the differences between all of the denominations found in the various Christian traditions the most divisive is that of baptism. When there is one church one God and one baptism why exactly is there so much disunity among believers over this one activity? There is much fuss over this activity because in most faith traditions baptism is the first rite, the first ordinance or means of grace. Which is why we read about it today during the first Sunday of Epiphany. The season of Epiphany is the celebrations of the great revelation of God, the revealing of Jesus as the Messiah, Lord, and king. Baptism and the baptism of Jesus is the beginning of God’s greatest revelation to mankind, the revelation of the very word of God, Jesus.
Every Christian denomination has some understanding of what baptism is and how it should be performed, and each of these various denominations have a disagreement in some form with each other. Of course there is the common argument infant baptism versus believer’s baptism, then there are submersion versus pouring, there are arguments and against the number of times one must be submerged or sprinkled, or what words one must say for the baptism to be acceptable, and even who is authorized to do the baptizing. There are arguments even over what type of water can be used when administering a baptism. Some traditions have an age limit, some have degrees of which your baptism can count. There are even some faith traditions that require frequent baptisms for repentance of sins. I have confused myself already, but with all of these various understandings of baptism how can we be sure we are right? And to top it off how can be sure of anything when we are in a Friends Church where most would say we do not believe in baptism.
Let us start over. John was baptizing in the Jordon, dressed in crazy attire and eating things that do not sound too appetizing. Why and what was John doing? For most people we believe that baptism is a Christian thing, but we would actually be wrong. Baptism has a long history one that stretches back to the very beginning of humanity. Baptism in some form has been part of religion for as long as religions have been acted out. But according to some Jewish traditions the first mention of an activity similar to baptism comes directly Adam and Eve sinned and were banished from the Garden of Eden. It is said that Adam fasted and stood in the Jordan River (or the River Gihon) up to his neck for forty (or forty-nine) days and Eve likewise stood in Tigris for thirty-seven days. Each stood there as for penance for their sin, hoping to gain atonement. Now that story is one of tradition and not of historical fact, and is not mentioned in scripture anywhere and is not even believed across all forms of Jewish tradition but there is a history that connects ritualistic washing to the cleansing of sin. This is seen even more directly during the time the Jewish people were exiled to Babylon.
During the exile the rabbinical forms of the Jewish faith began to emerge. This is important because this is the beginnings of both the contemporary Christian and Jewish traditions. The rabbinical systems had to find a way to express orthodox faith without an actual temple to perform sacrifices in. It was during the exile that Daniel and his friends were in the courts of and became advisors to the king. Because there were people of Hebrew heritage in such prominent rolls people became curious about their faith. These people were taught and in some cases had a strong desire to join into the community of the faithful. To accommodate these God fearers the Rabbis devised methods and practices for conversion. These included a period of rejection, ceremonial washing, and circumcision or the release of blood. Many of the methods and practices that started during this timeframe are still being used in some traditions today.
The use of water in the acceptance into the Jewish community is symbolic for many points in history. It can represent the repentant activities of Adam and Eve, it can represent the joining of the community by passing through the water that the children of Israel passed through during the exodus or before entering the Promised Land. But in all cases it represented the crossing from one life to another. A new beginning, letting the old life be washed away and a new life to emerge unblemished and clean.
John was out there baptizing in the Jordan. The location of John’s ministry is very important as well. It is widely accepted today that John was most likely a member of the Jewish sect known as the Essenes, which is the sect that preserved the documents we call the Dead Sea scrolls. The odd thing about this group of people is that they made their residence outside of the land of Israel. The lived on the opposite side of the Jordan because they taught a very strict form of faith that one could not enter the Promised Land unless you were properly cleansed from all sin. John stood on the banks of the Jordan crying out to the people of Israel to repent and be baptized because they were not prepared to be in the land promised to their fore fathers, they were corrupt and unclean in some way and needed to be rejoined into the community just as any other person foreign to the community of the faithful. They needed to have a new beginning.
John baptized in the Jordan and 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.” Consider this statement for a moment while we contemplate the meaning and purpose of baptism. When the early Friends spoke out against the performance of water baptism they almost exclusively used this very statement for their discussion. Robert Barclay, considered the first Quaker theologian and author of An Apology for the True Christian Divinity (now commonly refered to as, “Barclay’s Apology”) says, “If those that were baptized with the baptism of water were not therefore baptized with the baptism of Christ; then the baptism of water is not the baptism of Christ…Why should he have said, that those whom he had already baptized, should yet be baptized with another baptism?”
Why exactly do we as followers of Jesus continue to argue over this one activity of baptism? Mainly because it marks the beginning of a new life. When a husband brings their new wife home for the first time there is a tradition of carrying her over the threshold. This tradition symbolically represents a profound change in their relationship and their existence from that moment on. He is placing her into his house, she has crossed over no longer a guest but part of the household, placed in not to be removed. You can add or subtract whatever you want to that tradition, I did not carry Kristy over the threshold because she feared for her life that I would drop her or cause a serious head injury as I rammed her head into the door frame. And she was probably right. The religious rite of Baptism is just like that it is a symbolic representation of crossing over from death to life, from a foreigner a to member of a community, from one rejected to one accepted. This happens in various forms, at various ages, and by various methods. Infants, children, adolescents, and adults are all accepted as they are and are encouraged from that moment on to walk with Christ. We continue to argue the point across the various traditions because we have different understandings of when that life of discipleship begins.
The most important thing is that it does begin. The most important thing is the encouragement of every individual that is in or has contact with our community to walk with Christ. To immerse them in the teachings and lifestyle that Christ has shown us. To turn every aspect of their being away from the ways of a sinful world and refocus them to promote the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.
Pure faith, distilled faith, faith taken down to the purest most elemental form is what the early Friends wanted to promote. A faith that was not filled with ritual or weighted down with dogma. I have often been asked how can I be a Christian if I have not been baptized, how can Friends be Christian if they do not perform baptisms? I ask what baptism is. For a Baptist it is one thing, to a Lutheran something else, for a Catholic it is performed one way for an Orthodox another. In every case the pure elemental form of the rite is the same there is an acceptance of an individual and a commitment of a community to encourage and teach them to follow Christ. Baptism is just one of those rites used to encourage and provide means of grace available to each of us through Jesus. The Eucharist or communion is another, marriage another, repentance and confirmation, the anointing of the sick, and the participation in a life of devotion are others. Protestants see only two sacraments, Catholics see seven, Orthodox see an infinite number of mysteries that can draw us into to the grace of God, and as Friends we see every aspect of our lives as being holy and sacred to God, to be used to encourage everyone we meet to turn to God.
In the gospel of Matthew John refuses to baptize Jesus saying that it is John not Jesus that needs to be baptized, but Jesus responds by saying, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” It is proper for what, Jesus was sinless, he was the fulfillment and the hope of the ages, what and why was it proper for him to be baptized by John? It was the beginning. He was taking all people Jew and Greek, male and female, slave or free into the land of promise. He was opening the doors of the kingdom and providing the very means of that entrance through himself. John stood as the guardian of the old covenant and Jesus as the gate to the new and as he emerged from the waters the heavens opened and the spirit descended on him like a dove, and a voice from heaven spoke, “This is my son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
God made the greatest revelation that day, and he began a new work. He revealed to us through that act that in Jesus, God is pleased. That in Jesus, all things are made new. It is in Jesus we can cross from death into life and have hope through the hopelessness we see all around us. The power of that life is not in the water, but it is in Jesus. It is Jesus who left his throne in Heaven to dwell among mankind. It is Jesus who took on our humanity, our sin and our shame and hung it on the cross and covered it with his blood. It is Jesus who over powered the grip of death and rose to life. It is Jesus who went before us to prepare our place in heaven. It is Jesus who sends the very spirit of God to dwell inside our hearts, to teach and guide us. And it is Jesus who is calling each of us to join him and cross over into the Promised Land, a land that is not devoted to the way of man but a land that is influenced and devoted to the ways of God. It is Jesus that is calling each of us to become a person who devotes every aspect of to be set apart and devoted for Him and his ministry in this world.
As we enter into this time of open worship and holy expectancy I encourage each of us to consider a few things. Consider what is more important to God, performing the right ritual or living a right life? Consider what is more important to mankind, arguing over methods or encouraging a better lifestyle? God told the prophets of old that it was mercy that he wanted from the people of Israel not sacrifice, it is a life lived loving God, Embracing the Holy Spirit and Living the Love of Christ with others that he wants. Will we be his people living that out in our community?