Making sense of Jesus’ baptism


Scripture: Mark 1: 1-20 Nigel Bunce


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Making sense of Jesus’ baptism

How we make sense of Jesus’ baptism depends on how we answer these questions. “Who do you think that Jesus was?” And, “What did Jesus mean when he said that the Kingdom of God had drawn near?” 

Today, we heard Mark’s version of the encounter between Jesus and John the Baptist. Unlike John the Gospel writer, Mark makes it clear that John actually baptized Jesus. That continued the epiphany (that is, the making known of Jesus), when the heavenly voice proclaimed, “You are my Son, the Beloved. With you, I am well pleased.”

Baptism was a life-changing occasion for Jesus. After this homily I’ll invite you to join in our annual renewal of baptismal vows. After the Trinitarian statement of belief, we make the six promises. These put flesh on the skeleton of the creedal statement. They should be life-changing for us, as well. Because they call us to continue in the faith, and tell us how to treat other people and God’s Creation in general.

The style of Mark’s gospel

Mark’s writing style is very spare. In just twenty verses, Mark introduces John the Baptist, who predicts that the Messiah will baptize with the Holy Spirit. Then John baptizes Jesus. He retreats to the desert for forty days, and then recruits his first disciples. Matthew and Luke also tell this material, but they take four chapters.

Mark’s Gospel tells the story of Jesus’ earthly ministry. Hence, if we only had Mark’s Gospel, we’d not know of Luke’s account of the shepherds and the angels, or Matthew’s story about the Magi. The Christmas season would be irrelevant. Mark’s Gospel ends with the Resurrection but without post-Resurrection stories.

Perhaps the stories about Jesus’ birth and the post-Resurrection events didn’t interest Mark. Or maybe they circulated later – most scholars reckon that Mark’s Gospel predates the others. For Mark, Jesus seems to “stride onto the stage” as an adult. His interest in Jesus began with his “commissioning” by the heavenly voice.

Was Mark and Adoptionist?

One group of early Christians (we call them Adoptionists) believed that Jesus was just an ordinary human. Then God recognized his exceptional holiness and “adopted” him as his special Son. Adoptionists also believed that this special relationship ended at Jesus’ crucifixion. When he uttered the words, “My God, why have you forsaken me?”

The Adoptionists’ ideas about the Messiah seem very Jewish. An ordinary human being with a divine mission. Mark was a Jew and a Christian. So maybe he was also an Adoptionist?

“The Kingdom of God is at hand.”  

The second part of today’s reading begins with Jesus’s first words in Mark’s Gospel.. “The Kingdom of God is at hand.. Repent and believe in the good news.”

This is a foundational piece of Scripture for me. “The Kingdom of God is at hand.”  Where should we look for it? On earth or in the afterlife? The answer to the question will guide our response to the good news that Jesus spoke of.  Our answers explain how to go about making sense of Jesus’ baptism.

But where will we find it?

Should we try to bring the Kingdom closer in our own society and social milieu? That means care for the less fortunate in society. This first answer is again very Jewish. First century Jews expected the Messiah to establish God’s righteous rule on earth.

Or do we act on best behaviour so as to get good seats in Heaven? Many Christians tend to focus on that second response. To get a reward in the afterlife for not sinning while here on earth. Personally (and I stress this), that second approach seems rathe mercenary, rather transactional.

But why do we need to repent? The Greek word for ‘repent’ is metanoia. It means to turn ourselves around or to have a change of heart. Not necessarily to feel contrition or sorrow for our sins. Jesus’ first words encourage us to turn towards God and believe that it is really true that the Kingdom of God has come near. We should get up and do something about bringing in the Kingdom.

Jesus calls his first disciples

The call of the first disciples continues the theme of Epiphany. It’s not mere coincidence that Mark reported this immediately after the call to the Kingdom. The fishermen must have recognized Jesus’ holiness. They left their livelihoods and families to follow him.

It’s rather like a parable. On the surfaces, “Follow me. You’ll change from men who catch fish into fishers of men.” Underneath, “Turn your life around. Make the Kingdom of God come near”.

Also, it’s significant that James, John, and Zebedee, were mending their nets when Jesus met them. Nets with holes in them are obviously useless for catching fish. So we can link turning your heart around with James and John mending their nets.

Gospel — good news — can be subversive

The word Gospel means good news. The nearness of the Kingdom of God is good news. To our ears, this seems innocuous. But when Mark wrote his Gospel, the word was subversive. The Romans used the word “gospel” to announce a military victory or a new emperor. Therefore, the flip side to the Kingdom of God drawing near was that the Emperor’s kingdom would pass away.  It’s another aspect of making sense of Jesus’ baptism.

But why did a sinless Jesus need a baptism of repentance?

Today’s Scripture has elements that are so familiar that we overlook details. Let’s go back to Jesus’ baptism. John the Baptist preached the need for a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Conventional Christianity teaches that Jesus was a perfect, sinless man. Why, then, did Jesus need baptism to forgive his sins?

I see two possible explanations. Either the Adoptionists were right. Jesus was just an ‘ordinary Joe’ till God selected him to be the Messiah. The moment of baptism was a ‘conversion experience’ for him. Or, Jesus’ baptism was not John’s baptism of repentance for sin. Instead, it was more like a graduation ceremony to mark the start of his public ministry.

So today, that’s where we must leave Jesus. John has baptized him. And, depending on your point of view, God has claimed him as his Son, the Messiah. Or, his Messianic role as God’s Son has been publicly announced to the world. He’s had a forty-day retreat, and recruited his first disciples. All in twenty verses. Mark’s Gospel is certainly action-packed!

Coming back to the question about making sense of Jesus’ baptism.

So, how each of us understands all this depends on our answers to the two questions I began with. “Who do you think that Jesus was?” And, “What did Jesus mean when he said that the Kingdom of God had drawn near?” Something to think about. Amen.