Theological Gymnastics–Mark 1:10-11

Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son,whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” –Mark 1:10-11

When the gymnasts in the Olympics perform their routines, they make their bodies do things that one would think human bodies should not be able to do without the aid of movie special effects. What amazes me, however, is that after I’ve been watching the gymnasts for a few minutes, I forget that the human body should not be able to twist and flip in such a manner. Instead, I recognize their moves as the most natural thing in the world.

Theologians, it seems, require some mental gymnastics to explain the concept of the Trinity. The hymn is clear–“God in three persons, blessed Trinity”–but how that works remains awfully hazy. How does the idea of the Trinity–never stated overtly in scripture but certainly present–coexist with Deuteronomy 6:4: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one”?

On the other hand, how can my friends among the Oneness Pentecostals ignore passages like today’s. What sort of gymnastics must they undertake to have Jesus playing ventriloquist, declaring his love for himself, and then doing some kind of astral projection to have himself as the Holy Spirit flying around overhead.

The problem with these sorts of gymnastics is that after we watch them for a while, they seem perfectly correct, perhaps even self-evident. When we hang out with people inclined to believe these sorts of things, their truth seems to be even more confirmed.

When Christians argue over these things, when we allow them to divide us or occupy the bulk of our attention and time, we take our eyes off of matters of greatest importance. I have no doubt that some of my theological understandings will be corrected when I get to Heaven, but there’s one understanding that I’m quite certain will not have to amended: Jesus is God’s Son, in whom God is well pleased.

What a shame it would be to miss the forest of Christ for the trees of theological interpretation. As a child, I remember having the moment represented in these verses presented as particularly important since all three members of the Trinity were clearly present. Okay, but how about valuing it for its proclamation of Jesus’  importance?

There’s a place for theological gymnastics. It’s enjoyable and even edifying to debate these matters, but only when we debate with those who have already entered into the sheepfold of Jesus Christ.

The Grand Inconvenience–Mark 1:9

At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. –Mark 1:9

Baptism, we can all agree, can be an inconvenience, a nuisance. First of all, the person being baptized needs to bring a change of clothes to church or slip into some white pajamas that the church provides. Regardless, there’s the awkwardness of changing clothes in a strange spot. Women, I am told, suffer even more as they have to deal with messed up hair and compromised make-up. If all of that were not enough, most people get baptized a grand total of once making it a fairly unfamiliar experience. “Put your left hand here and your right hand there. Hold your nose if you want to, and don’t breathe while you’re underwater.”

The minister might have an easier time of the matter in one way. With a pair of waders and a robe, he can get back into the action fairly quickly. Still, the minister needs to remember what to say and how to stand and what to do if a third grader does a cannonball into the water. Unless he has some clever lay person do the job, the minister needs to deal with keeping the floor from being too slippery (can’t have the church being sued) and making sure people have towels and such (can’t have new believers catching pneumonia).

Yessir, baptism can be a mighty inconvenience. It might involve inviting family that we really don’t like very much and probably some kind of special meal after church. You’ll almost certainly have to show up early or duck out of Sunday School early. Still, it’s a one-time event in most cases, so surely we can put up with all these annoyances.

Do I exaggerate? Perhaps, although I’m not at all sure. What I do know is that the trivial Sunday-morning annoyances that might accompany a baptism in 21st-century America do not compare to what Jesus dealt with. Let’s forget for a moment that Jesus had no actual need of baptism. Was he showing identity with himself? Instead, I would focus on the first half of that verse, where Jesus travels from Nazareth to a place on the Jordan, probably down near the top of the Dead Sea if tradition has it right, just to allow John to perform a symbolic ritual that really didn’t apply to him. This would be somewhat akin to traveling the breadth of the United States in an un-air-conditioned car to join a club to which you already belong.

Apparently, Jesus found baptism to be very important, not because it actually did anything to make him holy but because it fulfilled all righteousness (Matthew 3:15). If Jesus could yield to  that sort of inconvenience, how much more should we, who actually need to repent and experience the forgiveness of sins, the experiences that baptism symbolizes, do so? Baptized or not, let us never look on this one of two sacraments Christ left his church as inconvenient.