Baptism – The Call to Ongoing Repentance

I have often queried the biblical translators’ rendering of the response of the wise men as ‘pay homage’ which seems a lesser response than I have believed.  ‘Pay homage’ seems to suggest simply honouring, a show of respect, of a good person rather than ‘worship’.  For your information the word in the Greek is ‘worship’.  It seems clear to me that Matthew in recording this event wanted it to be clear that the wise men were moved to recognise the infant Jesus as divine; they bent their knee and worshipped him.  This is an important point in Matthew’s recounting the event and the translation is disappointing.

I have also spoke about the example of the journey of the wise men from seeing the star in the west to their worship of the infant Jesus and return home by another road as a model for our own discipleship.  As it did for the wise men, our discipleship process begins with an experience we have called kairos, a moment where something challenges our status quo, and we go searching for understanding of what this might mean.  We often get distracted by returning to our expected response and, finding that inadequate, if we allow the journey to continue we discover that we are learning something new.  This kairos is a moment where God is revealing himself to us and, in seeking understanding, we come to new knowledge of God and ourselves.  This new belief transforms us and leads us into new behaviour.

There are arguments within the church about baptism, what it might mean and when it should take place.  Generally these arguments are driven, I think, by a focus on a particular charism of baptism from grace through to repentance of sin into salvation.

Both Mark and Luke, in Acts, describe John’s baptism as one of repentance.  Matthew describes this repentance as the process of making way for the Lord to be revealed, which John the Evangelist supports by recording John the Baptist during one of his days baptising declaring about Jesus, ‘Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!’

Just as an aside, I always found it interesting that ‘sin’ is in the singular; however Mark has ‘sins’ in the plural.  I’ll let you ponder what that might mean for yourself.

So, John’s baptism was one that was calling people to repent in order to prepare for God to be revealed.  I doubt that anybody would have any other understanding of repentance to literally mean changing your mind about something.

Sometimes, however, I think we can make the mistake of connecting repentance with sinfulness alone.  Perhaps it is right that repentance calls us to change our mind about our actions that damage our relationship with God, with others and with ourselves.  But if repentance is about changing our minds about our behaviour then we must be open to the possibility that there is a different way of behaving that builds up those relationships.  This, of course, also means that we also need to find another way of defining sin.

In addition to this, and this is a theologically important point that touches on that quandary I posed earlier, that is, ‘it’s interesting that sin is in the singular,’ despite the singular and plural rendering of sin, the repentance of John’s baptism is for preparation to receive the Lord, not to turn away from sin.  The reality is that all of us continue sinning.  The difference is that we have turned to God and trust in the work God has done to overcome the power of sin over us.  The single sin, then, is not turning to God.  The message of John’s baptism is to repent so you are able to receive God’s revelation of himself.

Just as it was for the wise men, so it is for John’s discipleship programme, repentance has more to do with our being able to receive the revelation of God.  To repent certainly means to change your mind, but it also implies that you make yourself open to the possibility that things could be understood differently.

I was reading something on the internet on Thursday titled ‘8 Signs You Might be an Evengelical Reject.’  The first of these was

You are nuanced in your understanding of “heresy” while believing that Jesus Christ is the source of all Truth.

In other words, judging folks who are wrestling with difficult questions about God and the bible, or those who come to different conclusions is off the table. Of course, heresy is a real thing–truth exists–but the honest truth is that we can’t know truth with absolute certainty… we see things like St. Paul: “Now we see a reflection in a mirror; then we will see face-to-face. Now I know partially, but then I will know completely in the same way that I have been completely known” (1 Cor. 13.12 CEB). Absolute certainty is a myth. Heresy matters, but it shouldn’t be defined by those who have “all the right answers.”[1]

I found myself agreeing with this and thinking, ‘to know the truth with absolute certainty, to have “all the right answers”, is not just a myth, it is sin;’ it does not leave the way open for new possibilities, it does not leave room for God to reveal himself.

The first part of discipleship is repentance.  The primary repentance is when we first turn to God through Jesus Christ, what we commonly call conversion.  The ongoing journey of discipleship is a repentance that is concerned with being open to the possibility that God is continuing to reveal himself to his creation.

This starts with the God moment, in the biblical Greek, kairos.  Kairos, that point when God disturbs our status quo.  Repentance is the process of looking at the facts of what actually took place in the kairos, then reflecting on what this may mean through talking about it with others.  by ‘others’ I include God, in prayer, what the bible has to say about the situation, what Christians down the ages have to say and what your contemporary Christians have to offer.  This is the purpose of our house groups, a group of people who can assist us in our discipleship journey.  Interpretation of revelation for Christians is not done in isolation, is not undertaken without reference and consultation to others.

Note that no actions or changes in behaviour have been decided yet.  Repentance is the process that leads to change.  Matthew makes that quite clear in his account of John’s baptism, ‘Bear fruit that befits repentance.’  Change of behaviour, action, comes out of the new belief we come to because we have been open to the possibility that God is revealing something new to us.  We are not stuck in our tradition, we have not arrived, we are disciples on a journey.  I encourage you to be a part of a group that will provide you with the means to continue on your discipleship journey.


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