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Baptism as a political statement

Today’s lectionary reading is the story of baptism of Jesus from Luke’s gospel (Luke 3: 15-17, 21-22).  Three of the gospels tell of Jesus being baptised but one misses out, anyone know which one?

You might be surprised to hear that Jesus’ baptism is not explicitly mentioned in John’s gospel. You probably think, “of course it is, John saw the spirit descending in the form of a dove and recognised Jesus as the Lamb of God”. If you read the text carefully, however, you’ll find no mention of any baptism. Yes, Jesus goes to visit John where he is baptising people in the Jordan. Yes, Jesus, meets John. Yes, John recognises Jesus as the Messiah. Yes, John proclaims this to the crowd, but there is no mention of John baptising Jesus. Because the story is told by the other gospel writers, we tend to assume that John records it as well. If you read the text carefully, however, it’s missed out. Why?

Well it could be because John just forgot to mention it, or because he thought his readership knew the story so well that he didn’t have to mention it, or because he thought other aspects of the story were more important. But there is another explanation. John thought that God was within Jesus from his very birth, in fact before that birth, “In the beginning the word already existed and the word was with God and the word was God” (John 1:1).

John the Baptism baptised people who repented of their sins and to restore their relationship with God. But Jesus was God and had always been God. How could he have sinned and how could he need his relationship with God to be restored? John, the gospel writer, has left Jesus’ baptism out of his story intentionally, it doesn’t fit with his view of who Jesus was and of his relationship to God. This theory is further confirmed by his omission of the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. If Jesus is God how can he be tempted by the devil, or anyone else?

The more interesting question, given that most modern-day Christians accept John’s view of who Jesus was, is not why did John leave the story of Jesus’ baptism out but why Matthew, Mark and Luke included it?

It tells us that the writers of these three gospels saw Jesus differently. Biblical scholars think that John’s gospel was written later than the other three, probably 20 to 30 years later. During that time the way that the early church thought about Jesus and God  changed and this is reflected in how John tells the story differently to the other three. Indeed, if you look at the other three gospels, they all tell their stories differently to reflect their individual views of exactly who God was. Just as around this congregation different individuals have a different understanding of  who God is and who Jesus is, so that is reflected in the heart of our Bible. The four gospels all present somewhat different understandings of who Jesus was and is, but are still united in proclaiming Jesus as Lord. It’s a model for how those Christians today can relate to each other despite having different views. Depsite those different views we can still see God working in each other and come together jointly to proclaim that Jesus is Lord.

Luke and Mark, and to a lesser extent Matthew, consider the political significance of Jesus baltism as more important than did John (who focussed on his spiritual significance). Baptism to them was not just a spiritual act it was also a political act.

People in Palestine in the first century lived in a domination system. Society was extremely hierarchical with the rich people at the top, poor people in the middle and a large underclass of outcasts, the disabled, beggars, prostitutes, lepers who had no place in society at all. This structure was enforced primarily by economic power. The poor people had to work so hard merely to survive that they had no time or opportunity to even think about any alternative, let alone revolt. Without any safety net those who had a little money feared they would be demoted to absolute poverty if they didn’t play their part in the system.

This was bad enough within the Jewish society but the system was made much worse by the Roman invasion. The Roman Empire was the ultimate hierarchy with the Emperor at the top and everyone else in a series of layers below him down to the slaves who had no rights whatsoever. This structure did not just depend on economic power however, it was reinforced with brutal violence. Crucifixion was a particularly painful method of execution which was reserved for revolutionaries and those who defied the political system.

John the Baptist, and others at the time, saw that this domination system was not what God wanted. The books of the Jewish law lay out an economic structure that ensures that God’s gifts are shared amongst his people. If economic imbalances develop over time they are corrected in a year of jubilee. All people were deemed equal in the eyes of God. John did not want to be part of the domination system and separated himself from it by going and living in the desert and surviving on what little food the desert had to provide, locusts and honey. That was a subversive step. John was saying, “You do not need to be part of this domination system, there is an alternative, you can live by God’s law instead”. This was really dangerous because those who had wealth and power depended for that wealth and power on those below them in the domination system accepting that system and their place in it. John was a dangerous revolutionary and would pay for this a little later with his life.

Baptism has been referred to from very early times as a sacrament, from the Latin word sacramentum, but does anyone know what the original meaning of the word was? The sacramentum was the oath of allegiance that a Roman Soldier took when he joined the Roman Army. It was an oath of allegiance to the Emperor and, effectively, to the domination system that he represented.

In undertaking the sacrament of baptism people were stating their allegiance to a different authority, the authority of God. Baptism was a seditious act that signified a rejection of the domination system. Today we think of repentance as referring to turning from our past way of life as individuals, but to John the Baptism it almost certainly also referred to turning from our past way of living as a society. This is brought to full fruition in Paul’s teaching that in Christ there is neither male nor female, Jew nor gentile, freeman or slave (Galatians 3:28). We need to step outside a domination system based upon exploitation and see everyone as equal in the eyes of God and united by love.

Against this understanding, Jesus’ baptism makes perfect sense. Jesus wanted to make a statement that he too objected to the domination system, that he too had read the Torah and that he too recognised that God’s intended Kingdom was very different from how the world was functioning. It was the Kingdom that Mary foresaw when she sang the Magnificat, as recorded by Luke:

He has brought down mighty kings from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away with empty hands.
He has kept the promise he made to our ancestors,
and has come to the help of his servant Israel.

Luke 1:52-54

Through his baptism, Jesus’ ministry starts with a statement of political as well as spiritual intent.

But baptism isn’t just a statement of intent it is also an embodiment of the methods for achieving change. When the Roman soldier took his sacramentum he did so in full armour, in front of his commanding officer who signified the full might of the Roman empire. His role was to uphold the empire through power and violence. When people where baptised they stripped off and entered a river to be baptised by a man clothed only in camel’s skin secured by a leather belt. God’s kingdom cannot be entered by violence and power but by rejecting violence and making ourselves vulnerable.

What can be more symbolic of that offer of our vulnerability than to be lowered backwards into water trusting only on the baptiser to support us and restore us to life? I can think of only one thing and that is of an innocent man allowing himself to be crucified.

Jesus’ baptism is a powerful statement that not only can the world be different, but that it will be made different by our making ourselves vulnerable through the giving of love sacrificially and non-violently.

We’ll explore how these ideas might affect our lives today in our prayers, but I wanted to think of an illustration of this and will leave you with a video clip from the film Gandhi. The British Empire in India was a domination system similar in some ways to the Roman occupation of Palestine. One way the British exerted power was to control the supply of salt. The Indians were taxed heavily for making their own salt and forced to buy it at inflated prices. In the past the Indians had made their own salt from sea-water but the British deemed this illegal and enforced the law with violence. In 1930 Mahatma Gandhi led a march to the sea to start making salt again. He was arrested but his followers continued to march to the old salt-works …

As the reporter said, “Whatever moral ascendancy the West has held was lost here today”. India gained her freedom when those ordinary Indians rejected the system that the British had imposed upon them, when they offered up their vulnerability to the violence of their oppressors. So too our freedom has been gained when Jesus rejected the system within which he lived and and offered up his vulnerability to the violence of his oppressors. Let us give thanks for his self-sacrifice and let us seek the courage to follow it.

This sermon has been inspired be reading Alan Street’s book, Caesar and the Sacrament – Baptism: a Rite of Resistance.

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