This piece has been some time in its gestation, it’s something that I sense has been revealed to me over a period of time, and that it’s now time to share it. I sense that there is truth in it. I might of course be wrong, or there might simply be bits of truth in it. So, I’d welcome your comments reader, on what I’m sharing here.
The Gospels are agreed that Jesus’ ministry began after His baptism in the River Jordan by John the Baptist. John had been ‘preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’. John’s baptism by full immersion in the river was a risky business, the person being baptised might not survive, that was the whole point of it. It symbolised a dying and a rising to new life. But what did Jesus have to repent of? It’s important to ask that question because whatever Jesus had to repent of provided the context for what came next.
After His Baptism Jesus had a spiritual experience that shook Him to the core, He heard God say, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” It must have been the last thing he’d expected to hear. There is no record of anybody else having an experience even remotely like it after being baptised by John. It was this Call Experience, rather than the baptism, that was important for Jesus. It inaugurated a new vision of the nature of God. The old one had, put very simply, seen the relationship between the people of Israel and God as that of a Lord and His vassal: ‘You can have this land, but you must do what I tell you or you will lose it’. The new one saw the relationship between God and humanity as one of unconditional love like that of a loving parent towards their children.
Let’s look at the accounts of Jesus Baptism in Mark, Matthew and Luke.
Mark: In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’
Matthew: Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness.’ Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’
Luke: Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’
Notice the following:
 Mark and Matthew say that Jesus’ Call happened after He had come out of the water. Luke goes further in saying that it took place while Jesus was praying, after His baptism. All three separate His Call Experience from His Baptism by John.
 Mark and Luke say that the voice from heaven spoke to Jesus alone “You are my Son.” Matthew says that the voice spoke to those who were present that “This is my Son”.
[3} Mark and Matthew say that Jesus saw the heavens open and the Spirit descend upon Him. Luke simply says that it happened, with the implication that all those present would have witnessed it.
 Thus Mark is clear that this was an inner experience of Jesus’. Matthew says that the voice spoke publicly, and Luke implies that the opening of the heavens & the descent of the dove were public events.
How do we explain these discrepancies? The simplest answer is that Jesus had an inner experience of which others were unaware, but that as the story was retold, there was a tendency to make the experience a public one. The fact that the story of The Transfiguration in each of the Synoptic Gospels has a voice in the cloud proclaiming to Peter, James & John “This is my beloved Son, listen to him” suggests that they had not previously known that.
At His call God spoke directly & personally to Jesus, words of powerful acceptance, unconditional love and affirmation. From feeling like a sinner in need of repentance, He finds Himself hailed by God as His beloved Son. What is important here is that the main event was not His baptism by John but His experience of being personally addressed by God. At best His baptism was a necessary prelude to the main event, at worst it was an irrelevance.
No obligation is placed upon Jesus by God, He wasn’t, like Moses, given a list of commandments to keep but was offered an unconditional loving relationship. It implied that, as in a parent-child relationship, He would be trusted to learn what was necessary for Himself, with God’s help and support.
Jesus must then have faced some related questions. He’d come to John seeking forgiveness and had experienced God’s unconditionally loving acceptance and affirmation. God didn’t seem to have spoken to other people as He’d spoken to Jesus. Why Him? Much as Mary must have felt ‘Why me?’ at The Annunciation. Unconditional Love can’t give an answer to that question, I don’t think. But Jesus, like Mary, did have a choice, to accept or decline their Calling. Unconditional Love can’t impose itself, it needs active acceptance. Was he ready to give that?
If so, what next? If He accepted the reality of His Call, what it revealed to Him about the nature of God, if it was true, changed everything and presumably for everybody not just him. It marked a seismic change in human beings understanding of God and thence of themselves.
It was a Call to being rather than to doing: to live as God’s beloved Son What was an appropriate response? Was it His responsibility to share with others what God had shown Him? And if so, how? How do you communicate a personal life changing inner experience to other people who haven’t had such an experience?
Jesus wasn’t led by the Spirit of God to visit the Temple in Jerusalem & consult religious leaders there, but to go alone into the wilderness, seeking answers to these questions. No priestly figure was involved, and it all took place outside of, & independent of, both Temple and synagogue. Indeed, it would seem to imply that both were now marginal if not irrelevant. The challenge was to live from His Call Experience, and to set it at the centre of his life. To trust that God would guide & look after Him, teaching Him what else He needed to know and do, as a loving earthly father would. Prayer would be key to nurturing the relationship between them. Perhaps the Lord’s Prayer was originally the prayer that Jesus prayed in response to His Call.
The Temptations that the Gospels tell us beset Him in the wilderness offer clues as to what he learnt there: that his calling was to serve others rather than himself, He would go on the provide bread for others but not for himself; that He should exercise His ministry quietly under the radar as God does, rather than with public displays of divine power; and that He should not seek worldly power over people but rather to empower them.
He returned from His time in the wilderness preaching a very different message from that of John the Baptist. He talked rather of the inauguration of the Kingdom of God, in which all people would find the unconditional love and acceptance of God, and where everyone whom religion and society excluded, would be welcome without exception. This was what His reflection on His Call Experience had shown him, and His task was now to proclaim that what He had learnt was true for him, was equally true for everyone. He spoke and acted from His experience and was inviting other people to trust/have faith in the God Whom He now knew from personal experience.
That was quite a big ask, and He chose to encourage that trust by learning to show the same unconditional love and acceptance to others that God had shown him: He chose to “incarnate” God to them. He forgave peoples’ sins in God’s name, ate and spent time with those whom society looked down upon, and passed no judgement save on the religious people who spoke of a very different vision of God.
Jesus struggled at times to hand over His newfound faith to people who were close to him. Even He could not force anyone to believe! Gifted preacher that he was, He was helpless before the refusal of His own flesh and blood to believe in his words. The religious experts among the Jews mostly refused to believe in what He was saying.
Jesus began His ministry by calling others whom He chose, to follow Him, and the Gospels tell us of some who did so. Significantly there is no suggestion that Jesus baptised them or indeed anyone else during His lifetime. Some He called, and some subsequently appear to have chosen to follow Him. Others, like Mary & Martha and the Samaritan woman, He told to stay in their homes & villages, & to share there what they had learnt from Him.
Jesus rarely taught by quoting the scriptures. Rather I sense that His teaching came from what His Call Experience had taught him, His subsequent relationship with His unconditionally loving Heavenly Father, and from what God taught Him through everyday life. I think it likely that His teaching grew and developed during His ministry. I sense that in His ministry, in His storytelling & teaching He was simply sharing with others what he himself had learnt. So, when I read something He taught others my first question is ‘In what context did Jesus learn this Himself?’
He refused to judge people, preferring to forgive and challenge them, which is what He had experienced from God. He tries to treat other people as if they too are beloved children of a God Who delights in them. He forgave His followers who didn’t understand Him and called them to practice forgiveness themselves. It is only religious people who don’t accept His Good news about God that He judges harshly, their religion burdens people while He knows that God wills to set them free.
He forgives sins in God’s name. He welcomes outsiders, foreigners, and those whom society excludes.
He teaches that his yoke is easy and his burden is light, that God requires mercy and not sacrifice.
His compassion leads Him to heal people who are sick, but He doesn’t want people to have faith in Him based upon signs & wonders, so He asks them not to broadcast what he has done for them.
Some of His parables have Scriptural echoes but many don’t, they either flow from His reflection on His Call Experience or they’re drawn from what God taught Him from His observations of life.So, His Call Experience was for Him ‘the pearl of great price’, or the ‘treasure hidden in the field’; the importance of forgiveness underlies the parable of the the two debtors & the one about the unforgiving servant. He was disheartened by the mixed response to His teaching, but drew comfort from observing a sower, and the wisdom of ‘not casting your pearls before swine’ was probably learnt from bitter experience: some people simply weren’t going to accept what he offered & would likely turn on him.
He taught that God was a Father who loves all of his children; that He offers forgiveness & an ongoing relationship with all of humankind, none are excluded; and He desires His children to show a similar love to each other; that He is inaugurating His Kingdom now and desires their co-operation in doing so.
He invited people to trust Him, to have faith in Him and in His experience of God. Not everybody did, of course. His family seem not to have done so, thinking that he was out of his mind. Many, perhaps most, religious leaders didn’t. But some ordinary people did, including some of other faiths whose faith in Him delighted Him, for what He taught was ‘Good News’. Many of course rejected His teaching, some probably felt threatened by it & actively opposed Him. That was a cross that He discovered that He had to bear, and He taught His followers that they would too. Having faith in Him was a simple matter of trusting Him, and never a matter of a belief statement, Jesus never required a statement of belief from somebody seeking His help.
Early in His ministry he went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and entered the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to:
bring good news to the poor.
to proclaim release to the captives
recovery of sight to the blind,
to let The oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.
In similar vein is His Sermon on the Mount:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
Eventually He felt bound to take His teaching to Jerusalem, so that there was an an opportunity for the religious leaders to embrace it. He was probably not hopeful but felt obliged to try. When they rejected Him & conspired at His death He accepts his fate & dies speaking words of forgiveness, and concern for His closest friends. He died as He had lived.
The Gospels have a number of stories of how the crucified Jesus appeared to His followers after His death. The stories don’t make a great deal of His triumph over death [that would come later] rather they are concerned that those who had betrayed & abandoned Him might experience the forgiveness, acceptance & affirmation that He had experienced from His Heavenly Father at His Call. Plus the assurance of His continuing presence & support in their lives, and a commissioning to continue His Calling & teaching about the Kingdom of God. The Resurrection stories and Paul’s subsequent conversion experience became the equivalent for His followers of what He had experienced at His Call, and maybe it was the realisation that they had experienced that in Him that led them to see that he had incarnated God to them.
This pattern of failure, a felt need to repent, and subsequently being surprised by God’s affirmation continued, as it still does.
I continue to ponder the fact that Jesus needed to go to John seeking a baptism of repentance. What might He have felt the need to repent of? While we can never answer that question with confidence, it remains important. Not least because it provides the context for His Calling and is therefore likely to have influenced His life and teaching. Its not difficult to see how such a need would have been forgotten later, but are there some hidden clues as to what Jesus might have felt a need to repent of? I think that there could be.
Two parables stand out in the Gospels, both in Luke, they are many peoples’ favourites, not least because they contain much detail that is seemingly not strictly necessary. The most effective & powerful stories that we share with others are those that come from our own personal experience. I suspect that these two parables were personal experiences of Jesus: The Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son
There are obvious parallels between the story of the Prodigal Son & Jesus’ Call. The son returning to his father, penitent, and hoping to be treated as a hired servant, echoes Jesus seeking repentance with John but finding Himself accepted & loved by God at His Calling.
Jesus heard a voice: “You are my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased” could be the words spoken by the prodigal’s father for the latter says much the same by his actions. ‘Put a fine coat on him, kill the fatted calf & let’s have a party.’
The story sounds like a secular version of Jesus’ Call. Now that surely can’t be a coincidence, so what’s going on here? I can see two possible explanations:
 Jesus felt the need to seek the forgiveness of His earthly father as well as His Heavenly One. The secular one happened to Jesus either before or after His Call.
 Reluctant to share His Call experience with anyone beyond His inner circle but wanting to communicate its message to all, He told it as a secular story?
Intriguingly Jesus refers to the prophet Jonah in both Matthew [12;38-42] and Luke [11;29;32}. Why did He choose Jonah out of all the Old Testament prophets who called the people to repent?
Jonah was called by God to preach repentance and was later surprised by God’s mercy when people did.
He ran away from his call and only returned to it after a near death experience in a whale. Did Jesus run away from God, like the prodigal son? Was it that that needed repentance?
The son was near to death and was forced to feed pigs [an unclean animal]. Was that how Jesus learnt that its not wise to feed pearls to swine? How else would a Jew have known that, when they would have avoided all contact with pigs?
When Jesus crossed the lake into gentile territory [Mark 5:1-20], healing a man possessed & causing a herd of swine to rush into the lake, might he have been returning to the place he’d run to?
If Jesus had seen himself having behaved like Jonah, then that might explain why He chose to quote him, and when the reason was forgotten, the early followers of Jesus would have easily made the connection with Jesus’ Resurrection and Jonah’s time in the whale.
If there is truth in the above, then Jesus would not have been surprised when His disciples ran away at the crucifixion, because that is what He had done earlier. And it would have been a source of joy & wonder for Him to appear to them with a message not unlike the one He had heard at His calling. It would have affirmed His attempt to incarnate God in His life and ministry.
All this is just my speculation but I sense that there is truth in it.
What are the implications of the above?
1. We should focus on Jesus’ Call not His Baptism. To focus on Jesus’ Baptism focuses us on sin & repentance, & makes us followers of John the Baptist, while to focus on Jesus’ Call focuses us on His and our divine calling as beloved children of God & makes us followers of Jesus.
2. Following Jesus means trusting Him and what He incarnated, rather than focusing on statements of belief about Him.
3. Jesus incarnated the God He knew, and we are called to do the same. This will mean life-long learning.
4. Institutional religion will find this challenging now as it did then
5. We will find supporters & fellow travellers in many unexpected places, as Jesus did.
First posted in http://contemporaryspirituality.blog