EPIPHANY 1, B
Finally, we are back to reading this year’s Gospel. Please note that what we just heard is from the FIRST chapter of Mark, verses 4-11. In other words, the first thing that actually happens in Mark’s Gospel is the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist in the wilderness.
As you know, Mark was written earlier than any of the other Gospels in the canon. It contains no birth stories. The implication is that Jesus was a normal human being. The big question in Mark is this: was he the Messiah?
It was probably from this Gospel that the idea of baptism being the point at which God adopts us as his children first arose due to God’s pronouncement to Jesus. Proponents of this view were called adoptionists.
Matthew and Luke both included birth stories in their Gospels, ones that look much like the stories common in the ancient world about the birth of famous men. At that time, they were not understood to be literally true, but as predictors of the success of the child being born. They also include stories of Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist.
John’s Gospel, probably the latest one written is so different. The birth story is replaced by an extensive theological statement: In the beginning was the Word, etc. This statement essentially claims that Jesus, the incarnate Word of God, existed before the world was created. By implication then, Jesus was fully divine. It’s no wonder that the Council of Nicea wound up claiming that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine. It was the only way to keep the churches in the same tent.
John also doesn’t really tell a baptismal story, maybe in order to downplay the role of John the Baptist, changing John’s role to that of signpost. Remember we read this several weeks before Christmas. There was also the sense that if Jesus was divine (and therefore perfect?) he didn’t need the Baptist’s forgiveness of sins.
Reading through some commentaries this week revealed many points of discussion and disagreement about what Christian baptism is all about. I found it about as interesting as the arguments some centuries ago about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.
So that leaves me with talking about what I really believe about baptism. In order to do this I have to take you back to the golden olden days of the 50’s when I was growing up. Back then there were several related things I learned or noticed.
- Most folks believed you had to be baptized to be saved or to go to heaven, which made baby baptism really important!
- Being baptized is what made you a Christian.
- God created everything.
- God is love.
So being the sort of child I was, I asked myself, what happens to children who die without being baptized? What happens to Jewish people who die? Didn’t God create these people too? Didn’t God see that they were good? If God is love, how could God send these people to hell?
Notice that the first reading today from Genesis is about God creating all things and finding they were good. If you do no other reading this week, go back and read the first creation story. Consider the implications.
At various times since the 50’s I’ve struggled with such questions more than once, and this is what I’ve come to believe:
- God created the world we live in and all that is in it. The scientific explanation of how this happened is not a problem at all.
- Every child born is a child of God, bearing the spark of life and the holy spirit within themselves.
- God loves the creation and therefore loves all God’s children.
- This love is given freely and never revoked.
- As Christians, baptism is our acknowledgement of that love and our relationship to God. We are saying “Yes, God, we know you as our creator and we will dedicate our lives to you.”
- Other religions have other rituals, but the great religions all have the golden rule at their heart.
- Our rules are based on the teaching of Jesus: Love God and love your neighbor as yourself. These are what we affirm in our baptismal covenant.
When I hear someone imply that we are right and others are wrong, in the sense that the others will not be saved or are going to hell, I want to ask, “What kind of a God do you believe in?” Considering how oft we go astray, I can certainly understand a God who weeps or a God who rails or even a God of wrath, but I cannot accept a God of vengeance, a God of violence. I cannot worship a God that’s just like us, both loving and hateful, kind and cruel, honest and deceitful, etc. I want to be held to a higher standard, even though I will never attain it.
And what makes that possible is believing that God is love and that love saves us. Love gives us a hand up, love forgives our faults, love understands our sorrows, love builds us up and shows us the way to live in this world. Love calls us to serenity and peace. And finally love calls us to love one another as God loves us. All we have to do is go on trying! AMEN