A Provocation: The Baptism of Our Lord: January 7, 2018: Mark 1:4-11

Mark 1:4-11
1:4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

1:5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

1:6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.

1:7 He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.

1:8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

1:9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.

1:10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.

1:11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

A Question or Two:

  • Why does the voice from the sky say: Beloved?
  • No, really: Why?
  • Go to Phil Ruge-Jones’ Early Sermon Seeds on Facebook to help think about this.

Some Longer Reflections:

John has indeed baptized with water.  Baptizing is his essential function: you can tell this from the way he is named when he enters the story.  And he did this baptizing with water, which is only natural since water is what is used in significant Jewish rites of purification.  Those rites provide a way for ordinary people to return to a state of “ordinariness” after having come into contact with holy mysteries like blood or semen or corpses.  Those mysteries are, to be sure also ordinary, normal in their own way.  Menstruation and ejaculation are normal and healthy parts of everyday life.  But they are also tied to the mystery of the gift of life, and that is why the Jewish community developed rites that allow people to come into contact with them and still return to their ordinary jobs and responsibilities.

In this scene, John is washing people to prepare them for the work of turning the world right side up.  This means that washing is to be understood as facilitating the crossing of the border between the ordinary and the extraordinary.  Washing in this scene, then, is the mirror image of the usual rites of washing.  Those rites allow crossing back to regular life.  This washing allows people to cross over to the truly extraordinary act of re-balancing the world, which is a holy mystery if ever there was one.  Washing is the gateway.

But what is really interesting here is that John points ahead to a washing with the Holy Spirit.

This activity is so charged with energy that Christians have been interpreting it vigorously throughout our history.  Pentecostals have read it as a reference to a divine action that results in the bestowing of spiritual gifts such as speaking in tongues.  Lutherans (and many others) have linked the “baptism with the Holy Spirit” to the sacrament of baptism which is understood to create new life in the person baptized.  Both of these readings are charged with power.  They are different from each other, but both see the “baptism with the Holy Spirit” as decisively connected to the heart of the faith.

But it remains unclear just what “he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” means.

As an experiment, avoid dragging the Third Person of the Trinity into your interpretation.  Maybe the Holy Spirit belongs here.  You can always bring the Trinity back in if you so decide.  But for now, notice that the Greek here is ἐν πνεύματι ἁγίῳ. The word ἁγίῳ means “holy.”  And πνεύματι could mean “spirit,” but you would do well to stop and think about what you think a “spirit” might be.  There are all sorts of theological ready-made answers, but I have come to distrust theological answers (especially of the ready-made variety) when they require me to assert the existence of an non-material material, a non-thing thing.  So I am struck that πνεύματι mainly means “breath” or “wind.”

So what would a “holy breath” be?

There are two places to go for an answer.

The first is to Genesis 2.  When God has formed the Mud Guy (adam) from the soil (adamah), Mud Guy is still only an intricately-formed mudpie.  He lies inert and lifeless on the ground.  And then God puffs breath into his nose, and the Mud Guy becomes a living being.

This breath is the original holy mystery.  It is the reason that blood is so powerfully holy (“the life is in the blood,” which is to say that the breath of God goes straight from your lungs into your blood).  And the word in Hebrew (ruach) means “breath“ or “wind” and is translated into Greek as πνεύμα.

So John is linking this greater “washing” with the act of God that created life in Genesis 2.

A second link comes in Paul’s letters.  Look at the times he uses the word πνεύμα (translated as “Spirit”).  His uses of πνεύμα are the seeds out of which our notions of the Holy Spirit grow.  But if you look closely, you may notice that Paul’s talk about Spirit are tightly tied to his words about the resurrection of Jesus.

What if the πνεύμα he is talking about is the breath that God blew into Jesus’ nose as he lay in the tomb, the breath that raised him from the dead?

What if?

This same breath now creates new life not limited by death in all those baptized into Jesus’ death and gives gifts that create a new experience of life for all those who have this πνεύμα blown into them.  (This, by the way, seems to catch what both Pentecostals and Lutherans are trying get at when they talk about “baptism with the Holy Spirit.”)

If we read ἐν πνεύματι ἁγίῳ as “being washed with the Breath of resurrection,” this washing does indeed mark a momentous crossing between ordinary and extraordinary.  And the particular nature of this extraordinary created reality is important: in a world where Power (especially the power to kill) is the real, effective Deity, the storyteller opens to us a world in which Power does not have the last word.

Read this carefully.

If you take this as a set of magic words, this could be nothing more than whistling while you walk past the graveyard.  Such readings are of little practical (or theological) use.

But notice that this scene makes it clear that Power will indeed have its way.  There are no magic words, and there is no supernatural deliverance from domination.  Resistance does not guarantee success.  Not in the short run anyhow.  But being washed with Resurrection implies being committed to resisting nevertheless.

Out of death comes life.  But only out of death.

Buckle your chinstraps, girls and boys.  This will get rough.


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