We believe in one God Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sin. The words of the creeds which we say each Sunday and in the Daily Office. Perhaps the greatest sign of Jesus the Christ in his Glory is the existence of the Church. How did the early church pull this expression of God’s will for all of humankind together from hints in the Jewish Scriptures and bits and pieces of oral tradition from those who knew Jesus on earth? And how did baptism become the singular act which binds the church together? Scholars have searched to find answers as to how the Early Church developed doctrine. In the beginning the One God came to an insignificant collection of semi-nomadic tribes in a world of great empires. Egypt. Put. The Hittites. The Cradle of Civilization. Builders of great cities. And wealth. And the Jews had sheep. And the Law. Throughout the Old Testament we read that the people of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob strayed from the Law and were punished by God. And prophets arose to call them back to the Law. But prophets also spoke of the one who would come and cleanse Israel of her sins, and return them to God, a Messiah. And in first century Judea, under the rule of the Roman Empire, and the Law eroded by Greek philosophy and culture, people were expecting the Messiah to come, and come now.
There were many candidates, some self-proclaimed, many raised up by the belief of the people. John the Baptizer was one, although we read that he denied that claim and pointed to Jesus. Every Jew knew, as Jesus knew, that the fulfillment of God the Father’s plan, the one that would put an end to the back and forth history of faith, apostasy, punishment, metanoia by the people of Israel, and reestablishment of God’s favor, was the coming of the Messiah, the bringer of forgiveness and adoption. And the early Christians drew from their Jewish foundation and saw Jesus in these predictions as they struggled to understand and build the church.
After the Resurrection, the followers of Jesus, especially the Apostles and those disciples closest to him, told stories of what they remembered, what he said, what they felt. It created an oral tradition which sustained the group, not yet the church, until Paul’s letters and letters of others articulated what that belief was. And that sustained the new church until the first scrolls of the Gospels, the four canonical ones we know and others, narrated the experience of the Incarnation, from birth, through death, to Resurrection and Ascension. Now there was something to pass down as the original disciples were killed or died or dispersed to spread the word.
Not more than two decades after the Crucifixion, Paul is preaching a very complete Christology (Eph 1:1-14). Not quite the Trinity of the 4th century Nicene Creed, but already the elements were there. We read, through Christ and belief in him we are chosen by adoption by God the Father. We are redeemed through Christ’s blood, and forgiven our sins, through the grace bestowed on Christ by the Father. And in the fullness of time, we will be gathered up to him in heaven. This is the word of Truth, the Gospel of salvation, and “the mark of the seal of the promised Holy Spirit,” our inheritance of redemption and his glory. Adoption is through the Spirit, and, as the church realized, baptism was the path through which the Spirit most often came and sealed those who believed in Christ.
Baptism is a seminal act in the beginning of the Gospel of Mark. The work of the Spirit is another. The Gospel text (Mk 1:1-13) starts with a quote from Isaiah 40:3, which we interpret as foretelling the mission of John the Baptizer and the coming of the Messiah. Mark is a hurry-up narrative. Probably the first written Gospel that we have (perhaps drawing on a Q or source document or merely the oral tradition), it dates from about 63-70 CE. Nero was having a field day blaming Christians for the great fire in Rome, and perhaps Mark was in a hurry to get everything down on scrolls before it was too late. Or so we suspect. In these few verses John the Baptizer has come from the wilderness calling for repentance, predicted the coming of Jesus, baptized Jesus, the Father has appeared and send down the Holy Spirit and declared Jesus his only Son, and Jesus is driven out to the dessert by the Spirit to be tempted. Could the wild beasts and ministering angels have been a hidden reference to the judicial execution of enemies of the state (Christians) at the gladiatorial games? A word of comfort to urge trust in Jesus even at the worst of times?
John’s words that the true baptism would be by water and the Spirit implies it would be an act binding us to the Father through Jesus as Jesus, the long awaited Christ, was bound to the Father as his Son and by the descent of the Holy Spirit at his baptism by John. Even if we don’t remember our own baptism by water and the anointing with oil calling down the Spirit, and proclaiming our name, writing it for eternity in the Book of Life, every time we see a baptism or renew our Baptismal Vows we proclaim that same bond between ourselves and our God, and our adherence to the life and doctrine of the Church. We, too, are asked to resist the temptation of the Evil One, remembering Jesus forty days of testing in the desert. We recapitulate the scene on the Jordan River with John and Jesus and the proclamation by God the Father and the descent of the Holy Spirit.
Doctrine, created by the prayerful action of people and the will of the Holy One, has held the knowledge of Jesus in the Church and sustained his teaching for two millennia and counting. And so we have the creeds, and know Jesus to be fully divine and fully human, and that God is a relationship amongst the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. Although we understand that the Holy One is One God, sometimes we are more comfortable with separating the Father and Jesus in prayer, addressing our Father in Jesus’ name, and asking for the Holy Spirit to come down and help and heal us. This is an echo of what we heard in the narrative of Jesus’ baptism. And that is fair, because it is in that relationship of the Persons and their mutual love that we find the heart of our faith. We, too, are bound to our Abba by adoption as we are bound to one another in baptism and through the Spirit. This is not something we can know in philosophy or cold logic. This is of the heart, of love, of caring, of wading through the inadequate words of the prophets, apostles, evangelists, who managed to capture all we need for salvation, if we continue to hear the whispers of God the Holy Spirit whom Jesus gave us to guide us, and is the loving hand of our heavenly Father.
Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is a parishioner at All Souls Parish, Episcopal, Berkeley, California and earned her master’s degree and PhD from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.
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