Mark, 1:4-11, Christ’s Baptism, Christian Baptism

[January 11, 2015] Having celebrated “the Epiphany” (manifestation) of Jesus to the gentiles—of which we will be reminded again by the prophecy of Simeon when we celebrate his presentation in the Temple on February 2—this morning we begin the Season of Epiphany, that moves from the manifestation of Jesus at his baptism in the river Jordan to his manifestation at his transfiguration on the mountain range of Hermon (from whence springs the Jordan), moving from valley to mountain, capturing between them the manifestation of Jesus to the people of Galilee. Today we remember his baptism, the compass of the text deliberately including words to the affect that he whose baptism we recall is the one who baptizes us in the Holy Spirit.

This morning I am straining from stress and lack of sleep and so I will attempt to go straight to the point. Similarly, Peter, in crafting a digest of Matthew and Luke (our Gospel according to Mark), rushes us through the story of Jesus, though with great care. The church of Rome was under brutal persecution from the imperial seat and Peter was aware that his own time was coming: “I am sure it is my duty, as long as I am in this tent, to keep stirring you up with reminders, since I know the time for me to lay aside this tent is coming soon, as our Lord Jesus Christ made clear to me. And I shall take great care that after my own departure you will still have a means to recall these things to mind” (2 Peter 1:13-15).

Peter begins his telling of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, with the baptism of Jesus. At the age of “about” thirty, Jesus comes to John the Baptist from the quiet of his life in Galilee. John is in the valley of the Jordan in the wilderness of Judea proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. “A baptism of repentance”: Jesus comes to take this mantle upon himself, to accept repentance (penitence) as the mode of his life from this point on.

It is when he does this—when having accomplished his resolve to be baptized, to receive baptism as the seal of his resolve to thus live permanently as a penitent—that the heavens are, in fact, “torn asunder” and the voice of God (his Father) speaks to him, affirming who he is—“You are my Son, the Beloved, in you I have found my delight”—as the Holy Spirit simultaneously comes down out of the heavens on him, anointing (christ-ening) him for the task that lies before him, the ministry of his apostolate (that for which he was sent, apesta).

Those words, “in you I have found my delight,” are en soi (“in you”) eudokēsa (the active aorist of “to delight [in], to be well-pleased [with], “to like, to approve, or to consent”). The Father is sated with satisfaction about his Son, not only in general but—what evoked this heavenly response—for this act of his, his receiving baptism at the hands of John.

This act is so singular it tears open the veil of heaven that separates and hides heaven from earth, the invisible from the visible, and heaven comes through to earth—literally tears its way through—in the form of the Father’s voice and the Holy Spirit’s descent. In this one moment the eternal triangulation of the Three (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) is manifested at the moment of Jesus’ bodily act.

In Mark’s account Jesus is the one who sees this—not John and not the crowd—and it is to him that the voice says “you.” It was, no doubt, an objective event (at least John witnesses it: “I saw the Spirit come down on him,” John 1:32), but in this account the rending of the veil is subjective. It is something Jesus experiences. It seems to me that it indicates a transformation of his human consciousness, that it becomes a permanent state until—at that heartbreaking moment—the curtain is drawn shut on Golgotha, when “at the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, ‘Eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani?’ which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’” (Mark 15:34). The “open heaven” that he enjoyed closes and the anointing by which he acted is withdrawn (something that the Father and the Spirit also experience in him). His baptism indicates, then, the opening of heaven to his consciousness and the anointing of the Holy Spirit upon his words and deeds.

What was it that Jesus had done that had such a consequence? What had he in fact done by being baptized by John? It was a baptism of repentance, an initiation into a life of penitence. Why was this so important? How does it even make sense in his own case? Surely he in whom the Father had such delight was not in need of this. The sins which he confessed could not have been personal. He confessed the sins of us all; he accepted responsibility for them; he took them upon himself. Not as a substitute! This idea makes nonsense of what Jesus actually did. No, but in solidarity with us. He consciously and deliberately threw in his lot with us and became one of us, one with us in our sin, our alienation from God. This was something that delighted God? Yes. It was something God chose to do in him. God was embodied in him in this choice. (It was not something that he did in his humanity because God could not do it because God’s holiness could not be tainted by our sin—rather the opposite: God, embodied in Jesus, chose to enter fully into solidarity with us in our sin. Colossians 2:9. Amazing love!)

This is why it says that the Spirit drove him into the desert to fast for forty days. Fasting was a way of expressing grief; it was a way of mourning a loss. Go through all the occurrences of fasting in the Hebrew Scriptures and you will see that this is so. What was Jesus mourning? He was mourning for our sin; grieving over the loss of our relationship with God, of the rupture of that relationship that we call “the Fall.” While he enjoyed unprecedented freedom with God, indeed, enjoying in his consciousness the reality of his own person as the Son of the Father, with God’s own love for us he grieved over our loss of relationship with God, over the awful chasm that our sin set between us and over the unfathomable suffering that we all endure on account of that. Not realizing what we have lost, none of us can realize the depth of our own suffering; but he does, and for an eternal moment on the cross, he experiences it—God experiences it in him.

Facing the apostolate that lies before him, he was tested in the desert, and we can get to that another time. According to Matthew and Luke, it was only after he had fasted for forty days that the devil came to him (Matthew 4:2-3; see Luke 4:2-3), though in Luke and Mark he was also tested throughout. He was tried for forty days, but the tempter did not come until the end. The reason for his fasting, however, was to grieve.

Jesus took upon himself the mantle, or the role, of a penitent. This means that he placed himself under the divine judgment. Not only did he accept and put himself under the judgment of God’s holiness, the destructive fire that blazes when that holiness comes in contact with our willful rejection of and enmity towards God, but he loved the God whose holiness has that affect. This is penitence. What is surprising is that, after his period of grief, he began a ministry characterized by openness and joy, not the harsh condemnation we might expect. It is because he knew and embodied the love of God for us, for us sinners and for all of the creation, sentient and non-sentient. (The holiness that burns us is this love of God!) He knew that love in the triangulation of the divine persons embodied in him—the Father’s love, toward us, his own love as the incarnate Son, the love of the Spirit that worked on and through him towards others (each person co-inhering in the other even as they were aware of their distinction).

This is a serious meditation that we should grasp to some degree before we consider my next point: the resurrected Jesus commands us to take on his baptism (indeed, to be baptized “into” him, into the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit), and to baptize others—a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins—making them his disciples (Matthew 28:18-19; see Luke 24:47; Mark 16:16). The meaning of our baptism is not different from his: we too take on the mantle of penitence as a perpetual state, and we too—though, in solidarity with our neighbors, mourning for the loss that they suffer (and blessed are those who do so)—do so with compassion and joy, knowing, by virtue of our being called to Jesus—into the relationship with fidelity to his person—the love that God has for us all. (“Having been justified by faith, we have peace toward God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand”—an open heaven!—“and boast because of the hope of the glory of God,” Romans 5:2).

When we believe and are baptized (or come to believe after our baptism), we are united with Jesus in his baptism, doing what he did with him. How so? When Jesus rose from the dead, his humanity—his entire human history—was divinized, becoming eternal and ubiquitous. What Jesus went through, because he dwells in the Father and the Spirit, and they dwell in him (the divine persons co-inhere), is communicated to them and becomes their own (without the three losing their distinction). In resurrection, Jesus thus becomes the Spirit, so that when the operates within us, bringing us to faith and baptism, we enter into Jesus and he into us. We are united with him as one, so that what he went through becomes our own. Being in him and he in us, we are thus crucified and raised with him. We are also baptized with him when we are united with him in the act of our baptism (the Holy Spirit working in us in our faith). So both the meaning of his baptism and the consequence of his baptism becomes our own.

We come then to where we began: John said, “I have baptized you in water, but he himself will baptize you in the Holy Spirit,” and Jesus, when he was baptized by John in the Jordan, “at once, as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit, like a dove descending on him,” anointing him with the power to carry out the work of his apostolate. When we are baptized into him we too receive his open heaven and the baptism of the Holy Spirit that he received. This second anointing, the one that comes upon us, came on Pentecost (Acts 1:5) in response to the glorification of Jesus in resurrection (the ascension, see Acts 2:33). It came upon the church as his body: “In one Spirit we were all baptized into one body … and were all given to drink one Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:13). Peter’s words in Acts 11:16 do not mean that Cornelius and his family were individually baptized in the Holy Spirit but that what happened to them was an inclusion in what happened to the church before them. When the Holy Spirit comes on us, anointing us for the task that lies before us, the baptism that we receive baptizes us into the one body. The anointing then that we individually receive is the anointing that lies upon the body. It is not separate. The apostolate into which we then are baptized is the apostolate of the church, the apostolate into which Christ calls the church. The power that rests on us is always for the sake of the church. There is no individual “mission” anointed by the Spirit, only this. So, even though we may be a believer without having anything to do with Christ’s church, we cannot know the anointing of the Holy Spirit apart from it.

Our baptism in water into Christ, that is, into the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, baptizes us in the Holy Spirit into Christ’s body, the church. The Spirit that came upon Jesus at his baptism—the anointing with power for ministry that came upon him—is the very same that comes upon us. The significance of our baptism can be no different than it was for him.

This is the subtext that begins the Gospel according to Mark. May we have ears to hear it, eyes to see it. Anointed with his anointing, may we follow Jesus—the Jesus of the text—as we make our way through the Gospel story according to Mark.

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