The Gospel of the Day – 2016.01.10 (Sunday)
Mythology and Ministry
‘A feeling of expectancy had grown among the people, who were beginning to think that John might be the Christ, so John declared before them all, ‘I baptise you with water, but someone is coming, someone who is more powerful than I am, and I am not fit to undo the strap of his sandals; he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire. Now when all the people had been baptised and while Jesus after his own baptism was at prayer, heaven opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily shape, like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; my favour rests on you.’ (NJB)
Politics and the Subversion of Mission
In the calendar of observances today is a feast day. It is the Feast of the Baptism of Jesus. We have just concluded our celebration of his coming, and his birth. Now we are celebrating the beginning of his public ministry; the journey that led to his death on Golgotha.
Let us take a moment and consider the set of images, and the claims that are attached to them which appear in the narrative.
In Judea, and the broader Palestinian world the average person felt displaced. On the one hand they were a client state of Rome, and on the other hand they were subject to the corruption of their own royal dynasty; the Herodians, on the other hand the had no representation at the Temple in Jerusalem which was not only the spiritual, but also the economic center of their world.
The average person was ardently hoping for and expecting deliverance, the anointed one, the, the messiah, in Greek the Kyrios, in English the Christ.
They hoped for deliverance from both the political corruption of the Romans and the Herodians, as well as the sectarian at the temple, among the temple scribes, the Sadducees, and the Pharisees (returning from the diaspora).
In John the Baptist they saw a figure who might represent part of this deliverance. He was stern, and outspoken, uncompromising, and mysterious. He was an aesthetic, and while he preached repentance, he promised the reality of God’s love; present in the lives of the Baptized, present without an intermediary.
This narrative tells us that John eschewed the title and office that some of the people might have thrust on him. It tells us that John himself had the same hopes and expectations, but that John also had the knowledge of who the Christ was, and it was Jesus of Nazareth. In the statement where John says; “I am not fit to undo the strap of his sandals.” John is saying that compared to Jesus, he is lower than the lowest servant.
Had John lived, the history of Christianity would have been very different. But John was arrested and killed shortly after the baptism. The disciples of Jesus, and the Gospel writers who followed them would spend the next one hundred and fifty years writing their narratives and telling their stories in a manner intended to keep the followers of John in their movement. This required a great deal of effort. This effort served to shape the Christian story in a way which ultimately undermined the significance and uniqueness of the ministry of Christ.
It perpetuated questions like:
“Who is greater John or Jesus?”
And it prompted the followers of Jesus, long after his death to amplify that narrative, making it so that Jesus did not merely receive his baptism from John, but the heavens broke open, and the Holy Spirit descended in the form of a dove, and a voice came out of nowhere proclaiming that Jesus was the favored and beloved Son of God.
The entirety of this is the interpolation of myth into the ordinary story of the man, Jesus of Nazareth. It introduced categories of, ownership, and inheritance, and dominion which, it may be argued that Jesus himself did not speak to, even though his followers were very much concerned with this.
The Christian story is best told without artifice, without the fabrication of myth, and without resorting to fables, and magic. It is a story of love, and service, of hope and healing, and the celebration of our common humanity. It eclipses the differences between the sexes, it eclipses tribalism, sectarianism, and nationalism. In doing so it shows us the only path to peace, and justice.
Feast of the Baptism of Jesus