Jesus the Jewish religious progressive

Baptism of the Lord
Christ Church Cathedral
7 January 2018
[Video of the sermon from 8.00 am service]


May the Spirit of God that moved across the waters of creation,
may the Spirit of God that fell upon the disciples of John,
and may the Spirit of God that was poured out on Jesus at his baptism,
descend upon us this day. Amen.

Well, here we are at the beginning of a transition.

Yesterday was the Feast of the Epiphany, so—for those of us in the Western Church—Christmas has ended. Of course, for Christians in the Middle East—as well as Australians in the Coptic and Orthodox faith communities—today is Christmas.

As our Christmas wraps up we pray for our friends whose Christmas is just commencing.

For us a new season begins, the Sundays between Epiphany and the beginning of Lent. This Epiphany season is a liminal space, a time of transition, a period for reflection.

“Epiphany” is an ancient Greek term that means manifestation or revelation.

We have been celebrating Emmanuel, the God who is to be found among us, and now we are invited to reflect on on the Epiphany moments in our own lives: those times when we catch a glimpse of the Sacred One who is always present but often unnoticed.

On the first of these Sundays in the Epiphany season we celebrate the baptism of Jesus, an Epiphany moment for him, for John, and for his earliest followers. It is a major festival in the life of the church and a wonderful day for Baptisms, but for us it always falls in the middle of our summer holidays.

It was certainly a significant moment for Jesus.

A couple of Sundays ago I alluded to the special relationship between Jesus and John the Baptist, when our Advent readings featured the prophetic ministry of John.

The baptism of Jesus by John is rock solid historical tradition. Along with the crucifixion, this is one of those episodes from the life of Jesus that none of his followers would ever have invented. Scholars refer to this as the ‘criterion of embarrassment’.

The idea that Jesus—our great spiritual master and the human face of God—began as a disciple of someone else, was an ‘inconvenient truth’ for the Gospel writers. When we compare the four Gospel accounts of this episode we can see their embarrassment at this awkward truth.

The core historical reality is clear. Not only was Jesus baptised by John, but Jesus seems to have been a disciple of John, one of his many followers. At least for a time.

We cannot be certain of the exact location, although we know it was at the southern end of the Jordan River, just north of the Dead Sea.

We do not know exactly what form the ritual actions took, but it most likely involved a complete immersion in the river to symbolise ‘scrubbing up’ in preparation for God’s next big thing.

And we are unable to determine the exact words that passed between Jesus and John, as each Gospel writer tells the story a bit differently.

Such matters are what I describe as ‘micro history’ and they need not concern us now. I happen to find them fascinating but they are not appropriate for a sermon. Some other time, perhaps. In a Bible class discussion.

What can can focus upon in a sermon is the ‘macro history’ of this tradition, both then and now.

As we reflect in the big picture of Jesus being baptised by John, we can choose to see the forest rather than being distracted by all the trees. When we do that there are insights to be gleaned about Jesus ‘back then’ and also about ourselves ‘here and now’.

When we look at the baptism of Jesus in this way there are several things that attract our attention.


Jesus and Second Temple Judaism

The first and most obvious point, although it is too easily overlooked by Christians, is that Jesus was deeply embedded in the religious beliefs and practices of Judaism in the Second Temple period. He was a Jew, not a Christian. His core beliefs and all his actions were shaped by the ancient tradition of Judaism, and there was nothing that he did or said which was inconsistent with the best of that spiritual tradition.

We do a disservice both to Jesus and to Judaism, when we suggest that Jesus was somehow alienated from the spiritual tradition that nurtured and shaped his own prophetic instincts. In time, and most unfortunately, the new tradition centred around the person and teachings of Jesus would part ways with his own faith tradition, but that is no reason to project our history of alienation, competition and suspicion back onto Jesus himself.

In our own time and place, we do well to be as deeply embedded in our own spiritual tradition as Jesus was in his tradition. One of the tragedies of our time is that most people have lost confidence in the Great Tradition, and thus have lost their own connection to the accumulated spiritual wisdom that we need to draw from in order to live lives that are authentic.

We live in a society that might be described as ‘SBNR’—spiritual but not religious.

That is a distinction unknown to Jesus, and the sooner we overcome this false dichotomy the better for everyone. We need people who are both religious and spiritual, and Jesus was just such a person.


Jesus and progressive religion

While Jesus took his own religious heritage very seriously, he was no traditionalist.

In fact, I want to claim Jesus as a religious progressive.

He was drawn into the radical reform movement of John the Baptist—‘John the Scrubber’—who stood firmly within the prophetic tradition of Judaism, but also called for root and branch reform of the religious institutions of his day.

John’s radical stance is seen most clearly in the ritual washing that gave him his nickname, the Baptizer, the Scrubber. Baptism was not unknown in Second Temple Judaism, although it had not existed in earlier stages of the Jewish religion. However, it was not something Jews did. Rather, it was a rite for the conversion of Gentiles to Judaism.

In demanding that his Jewish audience undergo this water ritual, John was dismissing their existing religious identity. They were no better and no worse than the goyim who needed to be baptised (“scrubbed up”) in order to particulate in the blessings of the covenant.

We can imagine John shouting, “I don’t care if your grandmother was Jewish! Your religious pedigree means nothing to me. Everyone has to be scrubbed up to get ready for God’s next big thing.”

That is the radical reform movement within Second Temple Judaism with which Jesus aligned himself.

We may like to imagine that Jesus would attend the Cathedral if he lived in Grafton today, but I suspect he would cause us some headaches if he did.

Were Jesus on our parish roll he would be constantly challenging and questioning what we are doing, and how we are doing it. Why are you doing that? Why are we not doing this? Why are we doing it this way?

Jesus, of course, is not on our Parish roll. But those are precisely the uncomfortable questions that Jesus is asking us all the time.

Reconnect with the heart of the tradition, he would demand. He does demand. Now.

He was—and is—a true radical, a genuine progressive.


Jesus had the heart of a disciple

Another of the things we see in the baptism tradition is that Jesus was willing to learn from others.

He did not walk around thinking to himself, “I am the Son of God. I do not need anyone to tell me what to think or how to act.”

On the contrary, as best we can tell, Jesus joined a wider movement of reform minded Jews who embraced John’s message and went back to first principles in their own spiritual tradition. Most likely he spent some time with John, and did not simply turn up anonymously among the crowd of candidates waiting for baptism in the Jordan River. In the Gospel of John we find hints of a deep and longer connection between these two people

Jesus submitted himself to the spiritual authority of John. John was his master. Jesus was the disciple. Only after John is arrested does Jesus seem to begin his own prophetic ministry, and we find those fascinating accounts of John sending other disciples to Jesus to ask whether Jesus was the one for whom John had been looking.

In the true style of spiritual masters, John and Jesus defer to each other.

Jesus would later defer to the spiritual wisdom of a Lebanese mother who offered him a ‘master class’ in divine compassion.

May we all have the capacity to see the wisdom that others have to share with us, regardless of their status, their ethnicity or their gender.


Jesus loved the liturgy

Jesus is sometimes portrayed as a critic of the Temple and an opponent of the Pharisees. This is misplaced.

He was surely a fierce critic of the Temple elite who exploited their privileges for their own benefit. He was certainly a tough opponent of religious teachers who imposed on their students burdens they were not prepared to carry themselves.

As a Second Temple Jew, Jesus was familiar with the biblical tradition but in the baptism episode we see Jesus going beyond the text of the Bible to engage in religious ritual.

For Jesus as for John, it was not sufficient to read the Bible and make an interior commitment to faith, repentance, justice, and faithfulness.

Such commitments needed to be acted out in ritual. We embodied personas, and our religion is better when expressed in tangible actions and ritual moments.

Like Jesus, we are called to go beyond reading and reciting the sacred scriptures—which, as it happens, are replete with ritual actions involving individuals, families, and whole societies.

More than that, we need to teach people how to celebrate their life journey with appropriate rituals, and to develop a robust religious literacy that includes both the capacity to work with the canonical texts and also to draw on the rich storehouse of the faith to shape rituals old and new that speak sacred truth in this secular age.


Jesus’ own religious experience

My final observations takes us onto holy ground indeed. We may want to take off our shoes—another ancient ritual that we still see observed before people enter a mosque—as we tread this space.

The biblical accounts of the Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan River hint at a profound spiritual experience for Jesus at that time.

He is participating in a personal, profound and prospective ritual moment. The whole drama is presided over by his mentor and teacher. Jesus is stepping into his vocation, even if he is not fully aware of what is happening.

The crowds are oblivious, as they mostly are when something of deep significance is happening in our own lives.

These moments matter to us. They transform us. But they may pass unnoticed by those around us at the time. Even those who are closest to us.

Jesus gains new and deeper insight into his identity and his worth, as well as God’s call on his life.

You are my child,
the chosen one,
the beloved.
I am well-pleased with you.

It would take Jesus the rest of his life to discern what that meant for him.

Likewise, our great work is to discern what it means in our life when we hear the bat-qol, the heavenly voice, naming us as a beloved child of the universe and expressing her delight in us: just as we are, right now.

In our brokenness and confusion we make God’s heart skip for joy. Just as we are.

Can we believe that?

Can we wrap our hearts around that possibility?

It is surely the deepest and most profound religious experience to discover that we are loved—unconditionally—by Life in all its depth and in all its fullness. That, surely, is good news as well as a transformative religious moment.


At the start of this sermon I said some truly dangerous words:

May the Spirit of God that moved across the waters of creation,
may the Spirit of God that fell upon the disciples of John,
and may the Spirit of God that was poured out on Jesus at his baptism,
descend upon us this day. Amen.

You probably thought I was just staying some religious words at the start of the sermon, and they could be safely ignored as you settled back into your seats.

But these are dangerous words.

What if my prayer was answered?

What if the Spirit that hovered over the watery chaos of creation was poured out on us?

What if the Spirit that overwhelmed John’s disciples fell upon us?

What if the Spirit that enveloped Jesus was also to envelope us?

What would it means for us, for our Cathedral and for our city, if we heard those ancient words addressed to us?

You are my child; my daughter, my son.
I am delighted in you,
Be all that you are,
become all that you can be.
Grow into the promise,
grow into my dream for you.


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  1. Now Gregory… This IS an interesting thought: What if the Spirit that hovered over the watery chaos of cremation was poured out on us?



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