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Baptism of Christ (1st Sunday of Epiphany)  

31 December 2020

Genesis 1.1-5; Psalm 29; Acts 19.1-7; Mark 1.4-11

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AT FIRST glance, camel-hair clothing and eating locusts sounds less like scripture than like a challenge on I’m a Celebrity: Get me out of here. But anyone who’s ever worn a camel coat or knitted with camel-hair fibre will know what an indulgent luxury it is. Perhaps the Baptist deliberately chose only the scratchy guard hair on the surface of the pelt rather than the soft fluff beneath. At any rate, his meals were kosher (Leviticus 11.22).

John’s baptism of Jesus marks the beginning of the Lord’s ministry. It also shaped later Christian expectations of what a baptism should be. There must be water; then, on coming up out of the water, there would be the Holy Spirit. The picture in Acts is similar: those disciples were baptised in the Lord’s name, but the Spirit came upon them afterwards, when Paul laid hands on them. Human action and divine response form a progressive sequence rather than combine in a single moment.

What John predicted, and what baptised Christians now expect, is slightly different: not water followed by Spirit, but water baptism “in” or “with” the Spirit. Under the new covenant, water alone is not enough; nor is repentance (and the forgiveness of sins which it confers) sufficient in itself. To be “in Christ” we need to be baptised with, or in, the Spirit. That means the whole package of baptism into death and resurrection (Romans 6).

In our eagerness to emphasise the difference between John’s water baptism and Christian Spirit baptism, we tend to go straight to the superiority of Spirit baptism. We ought to be noticing, though, that even Spirit baptism requires water. The descent of the Spirit upon Jesus comes after immersion in the Jordan: it does not replace it. This is a proto-sacrament, before sacraments became familiar in the worship of God.

Christian Spirit baptism, then, incorporates water baptism. Luke doesn’t tell us, in the Acts passage, whether Paul’s Spirit baptism of the Ephesian disciples used water. I suspect that it did — not merely as a way to big up the experience for those being baptised, but because the pattern of symbol and referent (or “meaning” and “thing”) is so ingrained in Bible thinking. Faith is about seeing the meaning under, or within, ordinary things. It is not about dismissing ordinary things, because God has chosen to work through them, not in spite of them.

Acts says of the disciples baptised by Paul that “there were about 12 of them.” That is a resonant number; it is not incidental. It signifies more than a quantity of units. That makes the “about” which precedes it a bit peculiar. We could imitate modern colloquial speech by translating the Greek for “about” (hosei) as “like”, which would have Luke saying “there were, like, twelve of them.” Tempting, but better not.

When we read them in order, the lections suggest a progressive disclosure about the Spirit from the beginning of time onwards. But it’s not as certain as the NRSV makes this appear. In the opening verses of Genesis, what was “the Spirit of God” in the AV (ruach elohim in Hebrew) is downgraded in NRSV to “a wind from God”. Spurrell’s Notes on the Hebrew Text of the Book of Genesis dismisses this out of hand: “Spirit of God” could never be anything as pedestrian as a weather report. I think it matters to Christians that the Spirit of God — not a wind from God — is moving over the waters.

The three lections have been chosen to reflect on one another. Yet it’s not a progressive disclosure: from OT to NT, simple to complex, or surface to depth. It’s an oddity of English education that study of the Greeks and Romans (“Classics”) and study of Judaism and Christianity are generally taught in separate faculties, when the boundaries between the disciplines are often quite porous. But, while scripture does not have much to say about its own nature, a “pagan” scholar (we know him as pseudo-Longinus) spotted straight away the sublime quality of this Genesis vision, when he wrote the first recorded “pagan” reaction to a Bible text:

“The lawgiver of the Jews was no ordinary man. He had a worthy conception of the power of the divine when he writes, ‘God said — what? “Let there be light”, and there was light’” (On Sublimity 9.9).

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