‘Each Day Nurtures and Enlivens’

Posted: January 23, 2023 in Uncategorized

‘Each Day Nurtures and Enlivens’

The story of the Baptism of Jesus is a story that reminds us of the nature of awareness, the nature of encountering or engaging with the novel, the new. It challenges us to ask about choice and decision and making change and how to value them as part of life and living while at the same time acknowledging their importance as watershed or significant life choices. In the time of the early gatherings of Jesus followers it was important to declare ones membership of the cause, Baptism was a ritual that expressed that and later took on the supernatural status of divine family. The context of the story in our context is our lives and how we live them. During the past week of so some of us have undertaken the post-Christmas ritual of disassembling the lounge room Christmas tree and decorations. The fairy lights and decorated wreaths and been packed away. The last remaining spot of candle grease removed from the dining room table. And the Christmas cards packed away as reminders for another year. Maybe the cupboards and ‘under beds’ have once again received their annual ‘gifts’ and will not be invaded for another 11 months. It’ll soon be back to reality! Time to get back into the public demands of commuting and work and all that.

In the spirit of this so-called ‘return to reality’ let me then pose a couple of questions. How do we prepare to step out into the public spotlight? And how do we act once we are out in the public view? In this post Christendom and almost post Christian world, what is the significance of the ritual of Baptism? Parties, media releases and performances are the usual ways folk are introduced into public view.

 Rex Hunt talks of an article he read in 1970 Joint Board of Christian Education –
written by former Victorian, Doug Mackenzie.  The query was, “How can we in the church expand our rituals, our celebrations, to include those important special stages of life – such as applying for a first job, or leaving home to go to university, or heading off overseas for 12 months? What rituals can we, the church, encourage, invent, celebrate, as those among us step out into the public spotlight in these ‘first time’ public events? Rex commented that he was left with the conclusion we really haven’t seen the necessity of doing that. Perhaps it is caught up in the ‘too hard’ basket. Or got lost in the so-called ‘sacred/secular’ debate.”

Rex also notes that the church has been reasonably successful despite the decline in acknowledging how one is introduced into public ministry within the church. It still maintains its recognition and even one’s authentication or legalization through ordination and induction.

The baptism of Jesus, as told by the storyteller Matthew, is the church’s traditional ritual story of the ‘coming out’ of Jesus into the public spotlight. And while Jesus may have been reticent to claim titles for himself, others, such as Matthew, were quick to do so. For Matthew, this ‘coming out’ is of the one who will “establish justice upon the earth”. through tenderness and vulnerability rather than force. We note here the magnitude of the significance of his Baptism as more than an individually motivated act and thus an integral part of the meaning of the ritual. His coming out was both an individual personal choice and a social, political, economic, and religious transformation.

New Testament scholars now tell us the baptism of Jesus has distinctive characteristics in Matthew’s story. For instance, only Matthew: • includes a conversation between John the baptiser and Jesus; • recounts John’s resistance to the baptism request; • stresses the public character of the baptism – the ‘voice’ addresses everyone. And the baptism of Jesus was also a very controversial subject. John was not the first to baptise people. Jews baptised ‘outsiders’ into their faith, but did not baptise other Jews. Jesus was a Jew.

William Barclay picks up this point in his commentary on Matthew: “No Jew had ever conceived that he, a member of the chosen people, a son of Abraham, assured of God’s salvation, could ever need baptism…”. (Barclay 1956:52-53).

Rex has also said elsewhere… that;(i) Jesus’ baptism is mentioned only in the Synoptic Gospels, and not as ‘historical reports, but as Christian accounts of an existing practice within the Christian community, (ii) that tradition is clearly uneasy with the idea of John the Dipper baptising Jesus, and (iii) the John baptism was not a Christian baptism!

Grounding the Sacrament of Baptism in the New Testament as some are wont to do, is also tricky business.  There is no consistent or one New Testament view on this which leaded one to abandon that understanding.  Even when we examine the genuine Pauline letters it is impossible to determine the origin of Christian baptism.  Only that Paul already met with baptism

These were all important issues for members of the early Jesus Movement communities. Especially the debate around the different style and theology of Jesus and his cousin John, the baptiser! Dom Crossan also puts this in context for us: “The tradition is clearly uneasy with the idea of John baptizing Jesus because that seems to make John superior and Jesus sinful” (Crossan 1991:232).

And of course this raises another question. That which we have been taught by conservatives and traditionalists that Jesus was born and led a ‘sinless’ life. Like us, but not really one of us. So was Jesus just participating in a public relations exercise by setting a good public example? Others have suggested that maybe Jesus did not see himself as beyond the need for repentance. That he was content to be identified along with the tax collectors, the lowly, the outsider. Maybe he felt an acute need to share the baptism of repentance.

Bruce Prewer, retired Uniting Church minister, suggests: “Jesus was baptised along beside the common human herd, because he was one of us and saw himself as one of us.  He did not play the role of being a human being; he was one.  His dipping in the river was neither setting a good example nor a public relations exercise for the best of reasons…  If this leaves us in a doctrinal tangle about the so-called sinlessness of Jesus, too bad.  I would far prefer a tangle, a dilemma, a paradox, than compromise [his] essential humanity…”.  (Bruce Prewer Web site, 2005).

Much doctrinal ‘bothering’ has gone on over the years around this issue. In Matthew’s era and in our era. And no doubt all of you will have your own opinion on this issue as well. I am sure when Matthew told this story, he told it very sensitively and aware of the raging debates of his time. But Like Rex and many Progressives, I am also inclined to the view the reason he told this story was not doctrinal, but to lure his hearers away from all those ‘tangles’ to the life of the man Jesus who’s vision would enlarge their experiences of what it means to be human, a child of God, and the understanding of that which they named Elohim, Yahweh, and God and what we might name Love, The sacred, Perhaps or Almost.

Today, we are invited to recall the public ‘coming out’ of Jesus: Jesus’ baptism. And by association we are also being invited to recall our own baptism. To know again, to remember again, to acknowledge that the refreshing waters of baptism signified by the ritual enlivens, and nurtures us each new day. It also reminds us that we live in tat which we call God, the Serendipitously creating event we call God lives and comes to wonderful expression, in us in every new moment of life. If anything needs a ritual then that has to worth ‘coming out’ and celebrating! Amen.

Barclay, W. The Gospel According to Matthew. Scotland. St Andrew’s Press, 1956.
Crossan, J. D. The Historical Jesus. The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant. North Blackburn. CollinsDove, 1991.

Hunt & Jenks. Wisdom & Imagination, Melbourne. Morning Star Publishing, 2014) ALSO Hunt, R. A. E. When Progressives Gather Together: Liturgy, Lectionary, Landscape… And Other Explorations. Melbourne: Morning Star Publishing, 2016.


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