Every Jew and every Christian will know the Genesis story of Joseph and his coat. The Authorised Version of the Bible and Andrew Lloyd-Webber tell us that it was a coat of many colours so I hope it won’t shock you too much if I tell you that the Hebrew (Kethoneth passim) is problematic and modern translations of the Bible translate it as a coat with long sleeves. And that highlights some of the problems that we have with translating the Bible into English or any other language.
A similar problem arises when we look at the accounts of John the Baptist who we are told came with a message of ‘repentance’ and we have tended to understand that in moral terms so that we must repent of our sins, and that then leads to the thorny question that arises from today’s gospel. If Jesus was sinless, then why did he need to undergo a baptism of repentance?
One suggestion which I quite like – although I think it is totally wrong – is that he did it to please his mother who presumably said, ‘Don’t upset your Auntie Elizabeth and Cousin John and you go and get baptised with the others’.
The real problem I think is one of translation. We have tended to translate the Greek word metanoia (or metanoeite) as ‘repent’ when it literally means to ‘change your mind’ or to ‘go beyond your mind’. Unfortunately, when the NT was translated by St Jerome from Greek into Latin the word ‘paenitentia’ was used which means to ‘repent’ or ‘do penance’ – but the original Greek word means to have a change of perspective, to change your world view and to find new way of perceiving and understanding life.
Now I am not telling you this to give a lesson in biblical languages but to show that the message of John the Baptist was about having a change of heart and a change of mind – it wasn’t primarily about going to confession and having a change of behaviour – that is secondary because a change of behaviour will follow the change of heart. There is no point in changing your behaviour if you haven’t changed your heart and mind – that is hypocrisy. There is no point in being loving, forgiving and welcoming on the outside when inwardly your heart is still filled with prejudice, hatred and anger.
At our last Group Service, Canon David Osborn preached about the assassination of Thomas à Becket in Canterbury Cathedral and we were reminded of the words from T.S. Elliot’s play Murder in the Cathedral where Thomas replies to his tempters by saying ‘The last temptation is the highest treason; to do the right deed for the wrong reason’. Yes, true conversion takes place in the heart and is then expressed in action.
Jesus taught us to beware of outward appearances which may be a sham. He says, don’t practice your piety before others..when you give alms do not sound your trumpets before you…when you pray don’t do it on the street corners…do those things in secret where your Father who sees in secret can reward you.
Jesus constantly emphasises the importance of inner motivation and intention and we find that most clearly in the Sermon on the Mount and for example when Jesus said, ‘You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’. But I say to you, everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart’.Jesus was concerned with inner transformation and that inner transformation is linked with baptism.
There is a story of a new vicar who complained that the baptismal font leaked and it no longer held the water for long enough and that it needed to be repaired. The churchwarden was reluctant to go to such expense, so the vicar asked what he predecessor did at a baptism and the churchwarden replied, ‘He did spit on his hand’.
And at a family service, I once asked the children, ‘What is baptism’ and a little boy shouted back ‘drowning’ and the people laughed, but he was right. Not many people realise that according to the instructions in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer the Anglican way to baptise a baby is to put the baby under the water unless the child is sickly when the water may be poured. Baptism is about drowning – about going under the water and dying with Christ so that we may be raised to a new life with him and that involves a new way of thinking. St Paul urges us to ADAPT our minds so that we have the same mind as Christ, so that we look at the world through his eyes of love and compassion rather than judgement and condemnation.
In baptism the first question we are asked is, ‘Do you turn to Christ?’ and at Easter in the early Church the candidates physically turned around to turn their backs on the world and its false values to face the Easter candle and the Risen Christ.
So why was Jesus himself baptised if he had no need of repentance and it wasn’t just to please his mother? Well, Jesus himself tells us in Matthew’s account that it was ‘to fulfil all righteousness’ and that again is problematic because we really don’t know what that means but what we do know is that by being baptised Jesus identified himself fully with the human race he came to save, and that his baptism [and the voice from heaven showing his father’s approval] marked the beginning of his ministry, and so it is that baptism marks the beginning of our ministry and that life long spiritual journey to be inwardly transformed in heart and mind. Amen..