Thinking Anglicans

The heavens are opened

So. We arrive at the Baptism of Christ. We leave behind angels and dreams, shepherds and wise men, stable and census, and with the Baptism of Christ we arrive at history in the life of Jesus. We can be sure, I suggest, of two things: that John the Baptist existed; and that Jesus came and was baptized by him.

The existence and mission of the Baptist is attested not just by the gospels, but also by the Jewish historian Josephus. And Jesus’s baptism is recorded in the gospel according to Mark and that of Matthew; Luke briefly mentions it, and though John manages to get away without any explicit statement, he does relate the build-up and the aftermath.

In the accounts in Mark and Matthew, after his baptism Jesus sees the heavens open and the Spirit descend on him. In Luke the vision becomes an event seen by all; in the fourth gospel the Baptist himself has this vision as a witness to Jesus as Messiah.

Presumably Jesus had heard report of the Baptist and, perhaps with others, travelled out to see and hear him. And having seen and heard he was immersed in the water, just like many of the others who saw and heard. The synoptic gospels tell us this was a moment of great spiritual significance for Jesus. With the vision of the descent of the Spirit, perhaps it is at this point that Jesus decides to abandon his former life as a carpenter in Nazareth. Presumably he becomes a disciple of the Baptist, retreating into the wilderness for reflection and self-examination, and joining John in baptizing in the river Jordan.

And then John is arrested and is incarcerated in Herod’s prison and will soon meet his death at Herod’s whim. He was not the first person to fall victim to the wrath of a tyrant, and nor was he the last. A roll call of victims and prisoners of conscience would number in the tens of millions in the twentieth century alone. The list of current news stories at Amnesty International includes not just all the usual suspects — our own proud western democracies are not always beyond reproach either. The image at the top of this piece shows a detail of the ‘prisoners of conscience’ window at the east end of Salisbury Cathedral, where every day prayers are said for those held around the world. Let us too hold these people in our prayers and work for their freedom and the improvement of their lot. Let the oppressed go free.

Jesus meanwhile ‘withdraws’ (Matthew 4.12) to Galilee — very probably it was no longer safe for anyone linked to the Baptist to be in Herod’s territory. Luke tells us that Jesus’s first public act on his return to Galilee is to read in the synagogue at Nazareth:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’

If this is historical, then is it too much to see it as an expectation by Jesus that in this year of the Lord’s favour the captive Baptist will be released — and that this is happening now? Not surprising that his message was not received favourably and he was driven out.

But with the arrest and decrease of the Baptist, it is time for Jesus to increase and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour, the imminence of the kingdom of God. A kingdom based not on austerity or retreat to the wilderness but on justice for the oppressed and life in all its fullness. Here we are invited to sit and feast, accepted and welcomed into fellowship with the divine. In the subsequent ministry of Jesus baptism does not seem to be a prerequisite to ritual purity and to acceptance into the society of the ritually pure. Instead Jesus tells people their sins are already forgiven, and he accepts them without further ritual into society with him, sitting at table together and breaking bread.

Is it any wonder that it was these remarkable meals of Jesus that his followers continued — and that they continued to recognize his presence at the breaking of the bread? In this ritual we sit and eat at God’s table, and we break bread with our fellows, forgiving them the wrongs they have done us and receiving their forgiveness for the wrongs we have done them; and as we break bread together we recognize still the presence of Jesus, the incarnate Word.

And this begins with the baptism of Christ: the year of the Lord’s favour is now.

Simon Kershaw is one of the founders of Thinking Anglicans

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Father Ron Smith
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A brilliant homily, Simon. So good, in fact, that I’m taking the liberty of putting it up, with due ascription, on my own blog-site at kiwianglo.

Kalo Epiphania!

Chris Smith
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Chris Smith

Thank you to Simon Kershaw for his beautifully written “The heavens are opened” I will use it as a private meditation as well because it is such a truly fine homily.

JCF
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JCF

“The existence and mission of the Baptist is attested not just by the gospels, but also by the Jewish historian Josephus.”

I was under the impression that the extant texts of Josephus are not to be trusted re *anything* related to Jesus? [OCICBW]

Father David
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Father David

Not only a thought provoking and stimulating homily but also a beautiful work of art in the form of a detail from the Salisbury cathedral stained glass window. See how it greatly enhances the blog! Let’s have more visual images on the Thinking Anglicans website for they do say that a picture is worth a thousand words.

Pluralist
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Interesting. Does this amount to saying then that Jesus was wrong? The Baptist and he expected an imminent end to the known world (why the Romans, who’d be removed from oppressing, would have had reason to kill him as head of a small following) and they were wrong. Also, is not the acceptance of the ritually poor in fact linked to healing – they were healed and told to sin no more – and thus a belief in ill-health and demons. The piece here also suggests a practical view of ‘resurrection’, that is presence in the meal, which would have… Read more »

Pluralist
Guest

Point taken on healing; point overlapped yes regarding resurrection and ‘history’ there – my view, if it matters, is resurrection is a legitimising matter for leadership and right belief (though it was variable then!) and it was just as important to have the ascension to tell early Christians why there were no more legitimate resurrection appearances (after all, people have been ‘seeing Jesus’ ever since and still do). But it is odd, this, about the deity, the full God the Son, when the God the Son does not know future-wise what God the Father presumably knows, should you believe in… Read more »

Pluralist
Guest

I thought, oh leave it there. What’s the point of saying, well, Chalcedonian via 21st century thinking (if such is possible) equals non-Chalcedonian nineteenth century thinking. And then, rereading it, you have the fully man limited, fully God, ‘through whom the universe came into being’. How does that work then? So this, the word, Jesus Christ, sets the universe into being, and creates it (it’s his job), through which, on a pale blue dot, an asteroid knocks out dinosaurs, little mammals succeed, human beings come about (evolution is chaotic, it is local, specific and unplanned) and then this second person… Read more »

Pluralist
Guest

I admit, I read the comments without reading the piece. Apologies. I also looked at my own comment and didn’t understand my own comment. Well, now I have read the piece. I still don’t get it. This is a sort of interpretive, subjective association of one kind of thought to another. After Darwin’s biology book came out, people started applying the idea to just about everything, including society and the cosmos. To update this, the cosmos, like biological evolution, is also a chaotic system, that is the chaos is local and specific, and unpredictable, and the systemic is only how… Read more »

Father Ron Smith
Guest

I wonder if ‘Pluralist’ has ever heard of the term ‘kenosis’? This is generally associated with the self-limitation of the human Jesus on the occasion of his Incarnation: “Jesus chose” the limitation, because, as fully divine, he was able to. That renders the exercise of kenosis even more meaningful to us followers of Jesus.

murdoch
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murdoch

Rather a smug comment by Ron Smith. Of course Adrian has heard of “kenosis,” even without benefit of an expensive seminary education. *I’ve* heard the term, with a BA in English and 60 years in Anglican pews. Nevertheless, giving it a Greek label doesn’t solve the practical and logical problems of a fully human person also being Almighty God. *When* did Jesus choose the limitation? Not in the flesh, and sperm-egg biology isn’t open to pre-existence. How is Ron Smith so familiar with the event? Like most (all) of theology, it’s reasoning and explication within a traditional narrative — no… Read more »

Helen
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Helen

“The message of the kingdom” seems to have got lost in the doctrinal nit picking, not for the first time in the history of the church. Is it because the Christian life as described in Simon’s last 2 paragraphs is just too much of a challenge?