There are certain things about Jesus that are so important that they appear in all four
gospels. For instance, for all that we place much emphasis on Christmas, it is only
mentioned in two of the gospels – Matthew and Luke – and even then the stories are
quite different. The crucifixion and resurrection are, of course, in all four gospels.
And so is the baptism of Jesus. What’s more, whereas the birth of Jesus isn’t
mentioned anywhere else in the New Testament, his baptism is also spoken of in the
Acts of the Apostles and in the Letter to the Romans. Clearly, for the earliest
Christians, Jesus’ baptism was important – more important than his birth which
wasn’t officially observed until the third century.
I believe his baptism ought to be more important to us, too, than his birth. The
reason I think it ought to be more important to us is that it helps us recapture who
Jesus truly was in a way the Christmas stories never can. The baptism of Jesus
helps us recover the insight that he was first and foremost a man of the Spirit, a holy
person. We have many other labels for Jesus, some of which reflect the real Jesus
and some of which time and tradition and theological writing have imposed upon
him. But one thing about Jesus we can be absolutely sure about is that he was what
Marcus Borg calls “a spirit person”.
“Spirit person” is not a particularly familiar term, and so let me briefly unpack it.
Marcus Borg in his celebrated book Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time
published in 1995 puts it like this:
Spirit persons are known cross-culturally. They are people who have vivid and
frequent subjective experiences of another level or dimension of reality. These
experiences involve momentary entry into non-ordinary states of consciousness and
take a number of different forms. Sometimes they have visionary experiences.
Sometimes there is the experience of journeying into another dimension of reality;
Sometimes the experience is of nature or an object within nature momentarily
transfigured by “the sacred” shining through it. …
What all persons who have these experiences share is a strong sense of there being
more to reality than the tangible world of our ordinary experience. They share a
compelling sense of having experienced something “real”. They feel strongly that
they know something they didn’t know before. Spirit persons are people who
experience the sacred frequently and vividly. [1]

For some thirty years of his life, Jesus had been – as far as we can tell – a small
town worker in wood, living in obscurity in Nazareth, possibly getting labouring jobs
for himself at the nearby Greco-Roman town of Sepphoris which was being built at
the time of his young adulthood. But what went through his inner thoughts? We will
never know what awareness he had of any particular vocation or of action of the
divine within his life, but it is possible that like other unmarried younger men he may
well have drifted off in his late twenties to join the disciples gathering around this new
prophet John, known as the Baptiser.
John urged people to be baptised. Ritual cleansings were not uncommon in
Judaism, and washing rituals were central to daily prayer and food handling. Pools
for complete bathing / baptism were common, and there was quite a complex of
them outside the south wall of the Temple complex. John’s baptism took a common
ritual cleansing action a step further; John used baptism as a dynamic symbol of
newness, freshness, and priceless opportunity. It was as if he was saying to people,
“Life is beginning again; will you participate in this new opportunity?” John’s baptism
– described as “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” – invited people
to make a tangible symbolic expression of willingness to embrace a new way of
looking at things and to commit themselves to a new vision of life together as the
people of God, a new vision which had radical religious-social-and-political
implications – which is why John eventually was killed on the orders of Herod
Antipas.
I think we can imagine the young man Jesus coming to hear John, being captured by
John’s vision, and perhaps being conscious of stirrings within himself for newness
and change. Maybe he already had some consciousness of a unique role in all this
through his already deepening spiritual harmony with life, his deep caring for all
people and his compassion for the needy in particular.
Captivated by John’s vision of newness, Jesus responded by joining others in being
baptised. But for Jesus, it was then that his life and vocation as a spirit person was
vividly and profoundly confirmed. Mark depicts this as a deeply personal experience
for Jesus. The vision he momentarily had of another layer of reality, and the words
he sensed addressed to him and about him from that other dimension of reality, are
both confirmation of his decision to enter into this newness and also a commission –

an ordination one might even say – of his unique vocation not merely to proclaim the
newness, but to embody it and to bring it into reality.
The words Jesus hears are from the Hebrew scriptures and express an
understanding of Jesus as both leader and servant, as the inaugurator of a new
kingdom and as the servant of God who suffers in order that God’s people might be
liberated. He is both the messianic ruler and the suffering servant, one who is to
exercise authority and leadership through non-violent service.
This profound spirit-person experience at his baptism forms the basis for all that
followed in the ministry of Jesus. His ministry as teacher and healer, movement-
founder and social prophet, lover of the dispossessed and marginalised, critic of the
religious, political and social order which exploited and brutalised his people, is fed
and fuelled by his baptismal experience and, we can safely assume from the reports
of the time he spent alone in prayer, his ongoing and frequent experiences of the
sacred.
Jesus experienced what the Celts call “a thin place”. “Thin places” are places where
the veil lifts between the visible world of our ordinary experience, and God – the
sacred, the Spirit. They are places or times when the sacred and the human
become very, very close; when one briefly seems to inhabit two worlds at the same
time.
Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk and one of the twentieth century’s greatest writers
on Christian spirituality, had this to say:
Life is this simple. We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent, and God is
shining through it all the time. This is not just a fable or a nice story. It is true. If we
abandon ourselves to God and forget ourselves, we see it sometimes, and we see it
maybe frequently. God shows Himself everywhere, in everything – in people and in
things and in nature and in events. It becomes very obvious that God is everywhere
and in everything and we cannot be without God. That’s impossible. The only thing is
we don’t see it. [2]
We don’t see it, Marcus Borg suggests, when our hearts are closed. At those times
we do not see clearly, or hear; we are insensitive to wonder and awe; we forget God

and lose track of mystery; we lack compassion and do not feel the suffering of
others; we are insensitive to injustice.
In the story of Jesus’ baptism we are vividly reminded of him as a spirit person
whose mission was undergirded by his experience of the sacred so that his heart
was as open as a heart can ever be to wonder and mystery, to compassion and
empathy and a passion for justice and social as well as personal transformation.
For generation after generation of Christians down two thousand years the two
rituals of baptism and Holy Communion have been “sacraments” – that is, practices
and actions which make sacred mystery accessible and available; Time and again
Baptism and Communion have created “thin places” for us to know God.
“Thin places” are not reserved for special people, set-apart people, holy people; we
all are holy and set-apart and special through our own baptisms, and we are all
invited here and everywhere to unlock our hearts, to see the ‘thinness’, and
experience the otherness.
“Earth is crammed with heaven,” wrote Elisabeth Barrett Browning. “Earth is
crammed with heaven. Every bush is aflame with the fire of God, but only those who
see take off their shoes. The rest just pick the berries."