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?