The way the baptism of Jesus is presented in the various gospels is a fascinating case study in the complex relationship between Jesus and John the Baptist and their respective disciples.
Chronologically: Mark presents the baptism fairly baldly whilst having John say that Jesus is mightier than him. Matthew is a little more embarrassed about the whole incident but still has Jesus being baptised by John. By the time we get to Luke, even more distance is put between the two of them because when Jesus is baptised John is already in prison so presumably Jesus is baptised by one of John’s disciples, and by the time we get to John’s gospel direct reference to the act of baptism itself has disappeared but John testifies indirectly that he saw the Spirit descend on Jesus.
All very confusing as is baptism itself. You cannot construct a coherent understanding of baptism from the new testament because you have people receiving the spirit before baptism, during baptism and after baptism. You have people receiving the spirit in Acts because they only knew the baptism of John the Baptist and in Acts today the even more curious thing that some hadn’t received the Spirit because they had only been baptised in the name of Jesus!
All very interesting but what the hell has any of it to do with us, with our life, here and now in the 21st century?
A good question and I’m the one that has to come up with somw kind of answer. Well the first thing I would say is the very obvious thing that you simply cannot pin God down and package God neatly in a nice tidy box. The Spirit of God as Jesus himself points out in another place blows where it wills. You don’t know where it comes from or where it is going – and that is the truth. But organisations like the church don’t like things messy like that – they prefer things neat and tidy with no embarrassing loose ends and contradictions.
Lesson one. Don’t second guess how the Spirit of God acts in this world. The best we can do is try and align ourselves with the Spirit in silence and prayer and communion and try to listen to the Spirit’s promptings. Even here there is a huge amount of nonsense spouted in the church.
Lesson two. However the Spirit came and when exactly it came it was revealed as a Spirit of communion. It was the Spirit of relationship. Relationship with the divine expressed by Jesus as a parent/child relationship and strong relationships with other people because we share the same parent. Strong relationships with the divine and each other are the result of receiving the Spirit of God.
Epiphany is often presented as the revelation that Jesus is God’s only son, because the Spirit rested on him. But the point of Christianity is that at Pentecost the Spirit symbolically rested on all people making us all children of God. Jesus though is the example that we are to follow if we take that seriously.
When Jesus realised his sonship – his own personal epiphany – he retreated to the wilderness to think, to pray, to meditate on the ramifications of this revelation. What was he going to do with this revelation?
So was launched the Jesus ministry which resulted ultimately in us, the church. People who just like Jesus recognise God as Father and through the actions of prayer and communion seek to follow in his footsteps.
Closeness to the divine is the defining feature of the Judeo/Christian/Islamic tradition going right back to the common ancestor of Judaism, Christianity and Islam – Abraham – Who was known as the “friend of God.”
I love that phrase. In fact acknowledging God as a friend I actually find more satisfying than Father or mother. I prefer to be known as a friend of God that a child of God because the latter is now so laden with theological baggage it has been rendered almost unusable.
Both are useful and have their strengths – but they say slightly different things. You can’t choose who your parents are – but you can choose your friends.
Friends are friends because they want to be. My favourite poet refers to God as the “friend” often. I started addressing my weekly emails to “Dear friends” not as an affectation but because at our purest that is what we are – friends of God.
Friends become friends because of mutual attraction and affection for each other and when nurtured over time this becomes very deep.
Friends bring lightness and fun into our lives and we comfortable in each other’s presence.
In the New Testament Jesus is presented as an icon of God and so his words are given a kind of divine status, so naturally one of my favourite sayings attributed to him in John (15:15) is
“I no longer call you servants. Instead I call you my friends, for everything I have learned from my Father I have made known to you”
Not master and servant any longer......but friends.......who seek each other out because we enjoy each other’s company. And God is in all things and can present himself in many different ways.
That for me, in the greatest epiphany of all.