Baptism of Christ, 1st Sunday of Epiphany

30 December 2016

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Isaiah 42.1-9; Psalm 29; Acts 10.34-43; Matthew 3.13-end

Eternal Father, who at the baptism of Jesus revealed him to be your Son, anointing him with the Holy Spirit: grant to us, who are born again by water and the Spirit, that we may be faithful to our calling as your adopted children; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

QUESTIONS can sometimes be powerful statements. It is a question that the writer of Matthew’s Gospel uses to express John the Baptist’s incredulity at the very idea that Jesus should seek baptism from him: “I need to be baptised by you, and do you come to me?” (Matthew 3.14). Even so, the NRSV has not quite captured the force of the Greek, which demands a sharply raised intonation: “You come to me?”

John has just concluded a stirring announcement of the one who will come to baptise the people “with the Holy Spirit and with fire”. He has told them that he himself is unworthy to undo the sandals of this mightier saviour (Matthew 3.11). Now, on the only occasion that he meets Jesus, he must overcome his sense of unfitness, and do for Jesus what Jesus cannot do for himself.

By allowing John to baptise him, Jesus chooses to identify with all the others who have undergone this baptism. He enters into their determination to turn their lives around (Matthew 3.2), before embarking on the ministry that will end in offering himself for them on the cross. In his baptism, as in his crucifixion, he demonstrates his perfect obedience to something larger than himself or John: the will and purpose of God.

That obedience, Brendan Byrne writes, is what is meant by “righteousness” in Jesus’s reply to John: “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness” (Matthew 3.15 NRSV), helpfully glossed in the REB as “it is right for us to do all that God requires.” It is a matter of relationship, and it goes beyond keeping every article of the Torah, to obeying the law because that is what God wants (Lifting the Burden, Liturgical Press, 2004).

This relationship is confirmed by the voice of God, proclaiming Jesus as “my Son, the Beloved”, as he rises out of the water of the Jordan. Commentators point out how Matthew adjusts Mark’s rendering of this moment. There, God speaks directly to Jesus: “You are my Son, the Beloved;* with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1.11). Matthew turns this into a public pronouncement, audible to the crowd (Matthew 3.17).

It is less clear whether the descending Spirit was universally visible. William Tyndale tackled this by naming John as the one who saw the heavens open, in his translations of the Gospels of Matthew and Mark. For those who did see, and certainly for later interpreters, the parallel with the Spirit’s moving on the waters at the creation would have been obvious — more obvious than the parallel drawn by Tertullian and others with the dove who brought Noah the sign that the floodwaters were receding (Genesis 1.2, 8.8).

For attentive listeners, however, two unmistakable images would have been evoked: the anointed ruler, whose position is confirmed by a divine voice, in Psalm 2 (“You are my Son; this day have I begotten you” Psalm 2.7); and the chosen Servant of Isaiah 42.1. It will be the task of the Gospel-writer to show how Jesus is to be understood as king, and as the representative and saviour of the people of God, collectively understood in Isaiah’s Servant.

This reaches its dramatic pinnacle in the trial and crucifixion, where “king” becomes a term of mockery and abuse, and it seems that Jesus might die with the promise of his baptism unfulfilled (Matthew 27.11, 27-30, 37, 42). Only after he has risen, and faced the disciples in the power of his victory over death, do most of them grasp the meaning:

 

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”

Matthew 28.18-20

 

Peter, now in possession of the full story and significance of Jesus, speaks with that delegated authority to the extended household of Cornelius, the Roman officer who has summoned him to Caesarea after a remarkable vision (Acts 10.1-8). He is able to give his Gentile audience a seamless account of salvation, from the Jordan to the hill outside Jerusalem (Acts 10.36-43).

As he is speaking, the Spirit falls on the assembly. Peter is astonished that what he had expected to happen after instruction, profession of faith, and baptism, is in progress before his eyes. And yet the only possible response is to baptise these new believers (Acts 10.44-48).

This disruption has challenged later interpreters of the pattern of baptism and how it has been handed down, as much as it challenged Peter. Much as we might long for a single original model, however, God’s action in early communities of believers resists that longing for order.

We owe much to Professor Paul Bradshaw and other scholars for showing that this and other recorded baptisms not only testify to the exciting birth of new faith, but also inform us about the variety of practice in the Early Church (Acts 2.37ff, 8.26ff, 9.10ff, 16.11ff, 19.1ff: see Paul F. Bradshaw, The Search for the Origins of Christian Worship, second edition, SPCK, 2002).

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