So what is baptism, anyway? Lectionary Reflections for January 13, 2013

This week’s readings (The Baptism of Our Lord) are here.

The readings for the first Sunday after the Epiphany always focus on Jesus’ baptism but in year C, the lectionary raises all sorts of questions for a close reader of the texts. The brief selection from Acts 8 seems to suggest that baptism with water is not adequate (a reading reinforced by the Pentecostal tradition that asserts the importance of baptism with the Holy Spirit). The gospel reading only tells part of the story and leaves out the most interesting details in Luke’s account of Jesus’ baptism. Taken together, these two readings should encourage us to ask about the meaning of baptism, both for Luke (the author of both the gospel and Acts) and in the twenty-first century.

Context is always important for understanding the text, so to extract the brief lection from Acts 8 is confusing and misleading. The chapter begins with Philip fleeing Jerusalem for Samaria, where he preaches the gospel and baptizes a large number of people. The twelve heard about this success and sent a couple of representatives to Samaria to check it out. One particular person is mentioned, the magician Simon, who is also baptized. After Peter and John lay hands on the newly baptized and they receive the Holy Spirit, Simon offers them money to do the same for him (hence the term simony which refers to the sin of purchasing church offices). There’s a great deal that’s curious in this brief episode but perhaps most important in the context of the lectionary regards the significance of the Holy Spirit in all of this. Pentecostal interpretation notwithstanding,  “signs and miracles” were taking place in Samaria before the arrival of the apostles (and the Holy Spirit).

The gospel reading only deepens the mystery surrounding baptism for in Luke’s account, we don’t actually see the baptism taking place. There is no mention of John baptizing Jesus and the lectionary omits the verses that suggest John was already in prison when Jesus was baptized. Early in chapter 3, Luke writes that John proclaimed a baptism for the forgiveness of sins, but Luke records no conversation between John and Jesus that would help a reader understand why Jesus was baptized.

The readings invite questions about baptism. No doubt, many people have a different set of questions about the sacrament of baptism than those raised by the readings. It has been a matter of deep division within Christianity over the centuries and its meaning in our current cultural context is being debated as well. The Episcopal Church is debating the relationship between baptism and the Eucharist, for example (a conversation I’ve followed at least sporadically here).

As David Lohse points out in his column this week, sermons about the meaning of the sacrament might be especially appropriate now.



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