Text Study for Luke 3:15-22 (Part 2)

Baptism as Vocation

Why does Jesus get baptized? This seems to be a developing problem for the Gospel traditions that come after the Markan composition. The Matthean account devotes several verses to this issue in chapter three. John resists the idea that he ought to baptize Jesus “for repentance.” Jesus puts the issue to rest by saying that the baptism is proper “to fulfill all righteousness” (verse 14). I’m not clear what that phrase really means, but it is a way to move on from the issue.

The Johannine account does not report a baptism at all. John does testify, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him” (John 1:32, NRSV). Thus, even though mention of Jesus’ baptism is studiously avoided here, the descent of the Holy Spirit is emphasized more strongly.

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John, in this version, declares that he did not know Jesus, “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” before this event. That seems odd, given the Synoptic tradition that Jesus and John were kinfolk. But John receives a revelation that “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit” (John 1:33, NRSV). John has seen this descent and testifies that Jesus is “the Son of God.”

The Lukan account reports that Jesus is baptized but seems to separate John from that baptism. “But while all the people were being baptized and when Jesus also had been baptized, then as he was praying, the heaven opened, and the Holy Spirit descended in visible, bodily form as a dove upon him, and there was a voice out of heaven, ‘You are my son, the beloved, in you I have taken pleasure’” (Luke 3:21-22, my translation).

The Matthean and Lukan accounts are pretty much in sync in the verses leading up to this paragraph. But they diverge significantly at this point, applying different “fixes” to the “problem.” The problem seems to be that baptism – whether by John or of the Christian variety – is associated with the forgiveness of sins. And Jesus is regarded, both narratively and theologically, as without sin. So, the question remains. Why does Jesus get baptized?

The Lukan account seems to open up a bit of space between the baptism of Jesus and the descent of the Holy Spirit, moving toward the Johannine emphasis on the descent as the important moment in this part of the drama. I think that the Lukan author wants listeners/readers to experience the descent of the Holy Spirit as a moment of vocation more than a moment of forgiveness and reconciliation.

This may be a helpful emphasis in proclamation for this coming Sunday. In my Lutheran tradition, baptism (at least as understood in the pews) is almost exclusively about forgiveness of sins and reconciliation with God in Christ. This understanding leads to a highly transactional understanding of the nature of baptism – do the act and get the benefit. This leads to people calling (at least Lutheran) pastors wanting to schedule a time to “get the kid done.”

I hated those calls to my study almost as much as I detested the inquires about weddings because we had such a pretty sanctuary. It’s not that I think nothing happens in baptism regarding the forgiveness of sin and the entrance into a new life. Far from it! I never turned down those “get the kid done” calls precisely because I am sure that the Holy Spirit can work powerfully even when those involved have no interest in that work.

The fact is, however, that a significant part of the Rite of Christian Baptism, at least in our tradition, is vocational in nature. Baptism into the death and resurrection of Christ is certainly the gift that Paul describes, for example, in Romans 6. But it is also the calling we receive in Christ to follow him and the equipment we receive by the Holy Spirit to pursue that calling.

The presider, for example, marks the forehead of the baptismal candidate with the sign of the cross (often using anointing oil). The presider speaks the name of the person and then continues: “child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.” That assurance is then followed by the vocation. The presider presents a lit candle to the baptized and brings to mind Jesus’ words: “Let you light so shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify your father in heaven.”

Just as Jesus’ baptism was both gift and vocation, so is the baptism of each person who follows Jesus. The baptismal rite concludes with a welcome to the newest member of the Messiah’s family. That welcome is into the body of Christ, but also into the mission all members of that body share – a mission both of worship and witness, of prayer and service.

I think that we see this working out in the Lukan account both when Jesus is tested in the wilderness and when Jesus preaches his inaugural sermon in Nazareth in chapter four. Jesus is full of the Holy Spirt and is led by the Spirit in the wilderness (Luke 4:1). What is tested is his identity as the Son of God, the gift of identity received after the baptism and the descent of the dove. Following the testing, Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee to carry out his calling.

In the Nazareth sermon, we get the content of the call. Jesus reads from Isaiah about the nature of the call which comes from the anointing of the Spirit – bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming release to the captives, recovery of sight for the blind, freedom for the oppressed, and a declaration of the Jubilee Year. His sermon is one of the shorter on record: “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:20, NRSV).

This is the content of the call that comes to Jesus followers who are baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection. Forgiveness of sin is preparation to receive and enact that vocation. I think the Lukan author would like us to see that such forgiveness is not an end in itself but is rather a necessary step in the journey toward Spirit-born discipleship. Therefore, baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection cannot be a mere transaction. It is intended by God to be an ongoing transformation powered by the Holy Spirit in, among, and through us.

The Baptism of our Lord is an excellent opportunity to remind Jesus followers of this dimension of the baptized life. It will be news for some and a helpful reminder for others. I hope it is an opportunity that is not missed.

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