The Baptizer, the Baptized—Nathan Hosler (January 12, 2014)
Isaiah 42:1-9, Acts 10:34-43, Matthew 3:13-17
Our Gospel text shows Jesus coming to the river Jordan to be baptized by John the Baptizer. The second New Testament text in Acts tells of Peter proclaiming the story of Jesus, what came to be called “the Gospel” with a group of people, their believing, and Peter immediately baptizing them. Over the past year I have on occasion mused about baptism. The occasion of these texts gave an opportunity to focus a bit more on a practice that seems to be central but which we do not often talk about.
The Church of the Brethren began when a group of eight people felt, after studying the Bible, that they needed to be rebaptized. They had all been baptized as infants in the State churches of their region of Germany but after study of the New Testament came to believe that they needed to be baptized as adults who had consciously chosen to follow Jesus. This put them in the realm of the Anabaptists, such as Mennonites. Given the centrality of baptism for our churches history (we started with baptism were called Anabaptists, German Baptists and Dunkers) and the importance placed on baptism by many Christians it is interesting that we do not emphasize this more than we do.
I am not, you will be glad to know, going to engage in a comprehensive look at baptism biblically, theologically, and historically but I will focus for on the passages in Acts and Matthew.
In Matthew there are just 5 verses. The central point of action is that Jesus is baptized by John the baptizer. Earlier in the chapter John is out in the desert calling people to repentance. He wears camel hair clothing and eats wild locusts and honey. He is baptizing in a river. In this appearance and action John is acting as type of reappearance of Elijah(?). It says, all of Israel was coming out to repent. Though individuals are coming out they are part of the call to repentance of the community. In the tradition of prophets and eventually Jesus, John not only calls for a change but singles out leaders for a special rebuke. Saying…
“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 9 Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.”
To this scene Jesus shows up. He asks to be baptized. John says “you should baptize me.” Jesus says it is necessary that he be baptized to fulfill righteousness. After baptizing Jesus the Spirit comes down as a dove and we hear a voice from heaven saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved,[d] with whom I am well pleased.” From this point on Jesus heads off into his ministry.
There are several things we can observe about the baptism in this passage which will be much different than when we look at Peter in the book of Acts. For one, there is no Christian community in the 3rd chapter of Matthew. The beginning of the church is usually held to be at Pentecost. Pentecost, or the coming of the Holy Spirit on the disciples of Jesus, is still years down the line from Matthew 3. Matthew 3 is the first time that we see Jesus as an adult. Matthew 3 is followed by Jesus’ ministry of healing, feeding, and preaching the Kingdom of God. Matthew 3 is before anyone hates, or fears, Jesus to the point of killing him. It is before the crucifixion—before the resurrection. It is before Jesus ascends into heaven saying he will come again but in the meantime will send the comforter who will bring power. After this coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost is where we find ourselves when we read Acts 10.
Matthew 3 is before all that. In Matthew 3 John is preaching repentance. Jesus comes and, it would seem is baptized out of obedience. He does this to “fulfill righteousness.” He does this out of obedience and it would seem as part of his calling or launching into his ministry.
The book of Acts—also called Acts of the Apostles—picks up with Jesus ascending into heaven. It is a sort of part 2 to the story of Jesus and the early Church. All four Gospels end around the same time and Acts begins where these have ended. Early in Acts the disciples are hiding out for fear that those who killed Jesus would come after them. While in hiding the Holy Spirit comes down and fills them. They go out preaching with great affect. Up until the 10th chapter, however, they are only going to the Jewish people. In Chapter 10 this dramatically changes. An angel comes to Cornelius telling him to send for Peter. A vision comes to Peter telling him to go to Cornelius. Peter preaches. They believe. The Holy Spirit comes. Peter says “ How can we withhold baptism from them since the Spirit came on them just like it came on us?
In this passage baptism is closely tied with their believing the account of Jesus. This believing brings them into the story of Jesus and into the community of those who follow Jesus and have been reconciled by Jesus. Interestingly, this group of people are the first group of people outside of the Jewish people to believe and follow Jesus. Peter coming to them is a radical act of expanding the boundaries of who is part of this believing and acting community.
All this makes baptism sound pretty important. I must admit, however, a personal ambivalence —it seems many who have been baptized are not actively following Jesus and many who are not baptized are following him.
Anabaptists are into the forming of communities through baptism—Pietists on the other hand dislike, distrust, and tried to do away with rituals and formalities that might hinder the Spirit moving.
In neither Acts 10 nor in Matthew 3 do we have a direct command to ourselves follow in either of these practices. These two passages, do however highlight and inform certain aspects of how we might understand baptism but more importantly how we understand our being in the community of Jesus followers, our believing (in) Jesus, and our own ministry once we have joined the worshiping community.
Matthew 28. “And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Obedience, linked believing (in Jesus), and calling to ministry
Linked to believing (in Jesus)—being brought into the community
“He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. 43 All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”
While Peter was still preaching the Holy Spirit came down on this group. This is a mirror image of what happened to the original Jewish disciples at Pentecost. Not only do Cornelius and Peter both see visions that bring them together—and thus break the good news of Jesus out of a strictly Jewish crowd but the Holy Spirit confirms the legitimacy of Peter’s going to the Gentiles.
We don’t hear a testimony of belief or Peter requiring a certain prayer but apparently this crowd of gentiles believed because the Spirit came down upon them. Peter responds by saying “we gotta baptize them.” Why?
Baptism in this case is obviously linked with believing and seems to serve as a way of initiating these new believers into the community.
The question that arises for me is —aren’t there ways that we welcome and bring people into the community that are not baptism? If we have a view of baptism that doesn’t carry as much weight—that is that it is doesn’t in and of itself convey something necessary for salvation—then do we need to rigorously encourage this act?
Obedience. At several points in his ministry we see Jesus being obedient. Though he was rocking the proverbial boat in many ways—disobeying conventions or ways of the community that were wrong or unjust (such as eating with “sinners”)—Jesus was not bent on having it his way. Obedience is linked to authority. Probably most of us, being North Americans, don’t particularly like the notion of obedience. We prefer to decide for ourselves rather than to submit to anyone or anything. Now, there are some reasons why this is probably not a completely bad thing. We have become accustomed to hearing of people abusing power. It seems almost any power, no matter how small is up for abuse. Not wanting to facilitate such abuse we resist the idea of obedience. In Matthew 3 at the scene of Jesus’ baptism we witness the appearance of all three persons of what became known as the Trinity–God, a unity of one but of three persons. At Jesus baptism we see Jesus, we hear the voice of God the Father, and we see the Spirit descend in the form of a dove. Jesus, who is said to be without sin comes to receive that baptism of repentance from John so that “all righteousness” will be fulfilled. Jesus, the Messiah, submits in baptism.
Calling to ministry
When you become a Christian, that is, a Christ follower you are automatically called to ministry. This call to ministry certainly does not necessarily mean pastoral ministry, or to preaching, or to be an employee of the church. This call to minister is critical because we are a community—not just lone-disciples. Our call to ministry is a call out of ourselves. We do not exist to serve ourselves but to serve others.
In Isaiah we read of the one coming to proclaim freedom and justice.
God constituted a people. When we join on the way of Jesus we join this people. This is not merely a club for people who like hymns or like to get up on Sunday mornings–the church challenges all loyalties that pull us from God. Joining this people means that we die to ourselves and join the adventure not inheriting a rule-book.
These three—joining the community, obedience, and call to ministry point to the nature of the community. This is not a club for the self-interested. It is not just me and my self-realization or even just me and Jesus. When we join in following Jesus we join a community of disciples who begin to submit to God and to one another in love and to serve one another.