Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM
(John the Baptist) 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.”
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 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. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:7-11 – NRSV)
We find similar texts in Matthew 3:13–17 and Luke 3:21–22 – both of whom are dependent on Mark – and John 1.29–34.
The Greek verb baptizo means “dip” or “immerse” or “wash”. Both notions – immersion and washing – are present in the Christian understanding of baptism, though with very specific intent.
“Many religions in antiquity practised different washings and baths. This holds true for the mysteries of Eleusis, of Mithras, and of Isis; the OT prescribed several ablutions to be performed, rules which were observed by Jews also in NT times (John 2:6); the Qumran community laid a particular stress on them, and Bannus (Joseph. Life. 10) and John the Baptist were not alone in practising baptisms outside of mainstream Judaism; other baptismal movements also appeared in the Transjordanian/Syrian area. Sometime during the 1st century c.e. proselyte baptism was introduced in Judaism, and when baptism received a central place in Mandeism, the rite as such was certainly no novelty, regardless of whether it should be regarded as pre-Christian or not. One should beware of assigning the same or even similar meanings to these rites. As rites they are open to several interpretations; in each case it is to be expected that the meaning of the rite is provided by the ritual context or otherwise through instruction or tradition.” (L Hartman, Baptism. In D. N. Freedman (Ed.), The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, Volume 1, Doubleday, 1992, 583.)
Scholars tell us that the descriptions of John the Baptist and his preaching in the Gospels echo the prophet Malachi 3:1: “…. this means adducing a text which illustrates the spiritual climate in which John appeared. There, in the perspective of the coming Day of Yahweh, we encounter the following motifs: a messenger sent before God (3:1), God’s coming (3:1–2, 5), the coming of the Day (3:2; 3:19, 23), purification through fire (3:2–4), burning (3:19), returning to God (3:7) from sins against fellowmen (3:5) and against God (3:8–9, 13–15), the sending of Elijah before the Day comes (3:23).” (Op cit, 584.)
Jesus’ baptism by John is certain. And it contains a subtle but profound significance. Given that John is preaching repentance and the forgiveness of sin, and that this is symbolised in the baptism he offers, we must ask why does Jesus – the sinless one – allow John to baptize him? The answer lies in the identity of Jesus as “the suffering servant” – see Isaiah 42:1-4 & 53:1-12. Recalling Isaiah 53:4, Matthew’s Gospel reminds us: “He took our sicknesses away and carried our diseases for us”. John’s Gospel tells us that Jesus “is the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” – see John 1:29 & 36. With this in mind we can understand a little better the words spoken by Jesus later in Luke’s Gospel: “There is a baptism I must still receive, and how great is my distress until it is over” – Luke 12:50.
Thus St Paul says starkly: “For our sake God made the sinless one into sin, so that in him we might become the goodness of God” (2Corinthains 5:21). Jesus heals the broken world from within. In his life, death and resurrection Jesus gives us the victory over sin and death. We are “baptized into his death” (Romans 6:3). Our baptism is an immersion in Christ – we become one with him – and it is a purification and healing – we share in his victory over sin and death.
C S Lewis once said that nothing will rob a word of its power more effectively than popularity. Our repeated use of certain words can have a dulling effect over time. Thus, words like “baptism” can lose their richness and depth and their power to convey something remarkable. It is as if common use disconnects us from the roots of the word and therefore its deeper meaning. Take for example the word “conversation”. That word has become very popular these days – media outlets keep inviting us to “join the conversation”. I wonder if the word conversation still holds its original deep meaning and consequences. It shares its roots with the word “conversion”, suggesting that a true conversation involves conversion or at least an openness to conversion. On this basis, it is not possible for someone with a closed mind to have a conversation. Such a person might have a discussion or an argument or chatter, but not conversation. To have a conversation you must be open to being changed by encounter with the other. I suggest this is in fact a serious issue for our society – we need to recover the original meaning and practice of conversation.
Something similar can be said of the word baptism and our use of that word. The word “baptize”, in Greek, literally means “immerse” or “wash”. So, what John the Baptist is proclaiming could be translated as follows: “I have immersed you and washed you in water, the one coming after me will immerse you and wash you in the Spirit of God!”. Mark later confirms this stunning revelation with the words of Jesus himself: “When they bring you to trial and hand you over, do not worry beforehand about what you are to say; but say whatever is given you at that time, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit” (13:11). This suggests that, through Baptism, a communion of life begins between the baptized person and God. The life of the Baptized is the life of God! This is a remarkable claim!
We find it expressed through the parable of the vine in John’s Gospel where we hear Jesus say: “Abide in me as I abide in you” (15:4). St Paul can say: “For to me, living is Christ” (Philippians 1:21). And again, writing to the Christians in Galatia: “I live now not I but Christ lives in me!” (2:19).
We should spend a lot of time listening to this truth. Once it takes hold in our hearts and minds, everything else will follow. Renewal in the Church and in our own lives depends on recovering this mystical heart of our faith. Ignore this truth and we will either abandon the way of Jesus or reduce him to merely a moral teacher. A Church that is not enlivened by and always focused on, this truth of our communion of life with God, will get lost in doctrine, law and institutional matters.
When you leave the church today, as you walk down the street, repeat the truth that you are immersed in God. God lives in you and you live in God. Your true life and identity are found in God.