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Sunday, January 8, 2012

Enter: the Holy Spirit

At this point in the Church Year, the Holy Spirit enters the stage, present at Jesus’ baptism but also given all of us in our own baptisms, which are for us our Pentecost.  So we should expect the Spirit’s call and empowerment for our lives of discipleship.

Pr. Joseph G. Crippen, the Baptism of Our Lord; texts: Acts 19:1-7; Mark 1:4-11; Genesis 1:1-5

Sisters and brothers, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen

The Church Year begins with a lot of dramatic scenes from Scripture which are always compelling to us.  In fact, the whole cycle of Christian festivals are a series of dramatic moments for us to see, experience, and reflect on.  So we’ve had angels visiting a young woman, telling of her son’s impending arrival, and angels visiting shepherds nine months later to tell them of this birth.  We’ve got this young couple traveling as the baby is about to arrive, and struggling to find room.  And then there’s the birth itself, with animals and wondering visitors, concluding Friday night with the star-gazers from the East arriving with exotic gifts.  And even today in this familiar story of Jesus’ baptism, there is drama – the baptizer-prophet standing up to his waist in the waters of the Jordan, and Jesus and all Jerusalem comes to him.

There’s a lot of human interest in all these dramas.  But it’s more than that.  The Evangelists who tell these stories to us are actually also telling the story of God in the world, along with these powerful human dramas.  So John, who tells little of the human elements of Jesus’ birth, powerfully evokes Genesis 1 and the creation story by claiming that Jesus is the Word of God and Son of God, present at the creation and creating with the Father.  The angelic announcements always tie this child to God’s coming to the world.

What we sometimes don’t notice is who enters the drama in a significant way today, and what that means.  At Jesus’ baptism the heavens are torn open, Mark says, and the Spirit descends on Jesus like a dove.  And thanks to our lectionary, we hear the connections to Genesis 1 again by reading the first verses of that chapter.  And like John’s claim, we find that this “Spirit” – who to this point hasn’t been a big part of the story, though was mentioned by the angel to Mary as part of how this Son would be born – we find that this Spirit was also present at creation.  The NRSV translates v. 2 that a “wind” from God swept over the waters, but that word can also be, and has often been, translated “the Spirit” of God swept over the waters.  This is the festival of the Baptism of our Lord Jesus, but in fact, a central character is the Holy Spirit.

And as we leave the Christmas season and begin the season after Epiphany, it is in fact the Spirit whose entry into the story begins to shape our lives through the work of Jesus.  And it’s important for us as Lutherans to remember this.  Though we confess the Triune God, and invoke God’s name in our worship, in our casual conversation my observation over the years is that we too often fall into an odd, probably unintentional, dualism.  We speak of God, and we speak of Jesus, and the implication is that they’re separate somehow.  And we don’t really know where to fit the Spirit in, or at least we don’t mention her work in any consistent way.

What is clear from events like the story we heard from Acts this morning is that while at this point in the life of the early Church full-fledged Trinitarian theology isn’t yet a part of the believers’ language, nonetheless the presence of the Holy Spirit was a very real experience of the early Church.  Which makes sense since the life of the early Church in Acts all flows post-Pentecost, and that momentous drama of the entrance of the Holy Spirit had to have powerfully shaped the theology and life of those early believers.

But today isn’t Pentecost, you say.  And you’re right.  And yet, it seems to me that critical to Jesus’ baptism, and therefore to our own baptisms, and John the Baptist himself suggests this today, is that at this point in our story, this point in the drama, the Holy Spirit enters.  And we need to pay attention to this entrance.

We begin by remembering that while the practice of Baptism clearly evolved in the early Church, understanding the work of the Spirit in Baptism was of high importance.

We saw this in another drama today, which is kind of funny.  Paul finds a rather strange group of believers in Ephesus.  What kind of believers they are is a little unclear.  Somehow they’ve heard of John the Baptist, and somehow, far away in Asia Minor, they’ve received a baptism of sorts.  But as Paul talks to them it becomes apparent that they really haven’t heard of Jesus, just a call to repentance and turning to God.  And remarkably, when asked if they received the Spirit when they became believers, they say, ‘We have not even heard that there was a Holy Spirit.”

The reason Paul is examining them a little is that the Spirit sometimes wasn’t waiting for the apostles to act, and the believers learned to watch for this.

The pattern of baptism in the early life in Acts was that evangelists would baptize “in the name of Jesus” – so it’s not completely clear at this point in the Church’s life if the Triune Name was being used.  And then the apostles would come, lay hands on them, and pray for the gift of the Holy Spirit upon the believers.  We see both of these things done by Paul to these Ephesian believers today.  So in Acts 8, Philip preaches to Samaritans who “accept the word of God,” according to Luke, and are baptized by Philip.  But then Peter and John come and lay hands on them so that they can receive the Holy Spirit.

Sometimes it doesn’t work that way, however.  In Acts 10, the Spirit comes upon a group of Gentiles before anybody does anything, and Peter wisely recognizes that if the Holy Spirit has come, there can be no reason for withholding baptism from Gentiles.

But in general the pattern holds: Baptism with water, followed by prayers invoking the Holy Spirit.  Baptism, therefore, was and is the entry point into the community of believers.  But subsequent to that, and clearly as important, was joining those new believers to the Pentecost experience.  Recognizing that the life of the Holy Spirit is a gift of God to disciples of Jesus, and an important one, and taking the time to ask God for this gift for each believer.

This may seem obvious, but it makes Jesus’ baptism look more and more like an event where we should pay attention to what the Spirit is doing – for Jesus’ sake and for ours.

The mystery of the Incarnate Son of God and what we understand as his full divinity and full humanity means that we can’t truly understand what this event means.  If the Holy Spirit was present at his conception, why is the Spirit coming now, and why the form of a dove?  But I don’t think it’s necessary that we understand how all this works, and how the Triune God is working in Jesus.  Because of course it is beyond us.

What is important to us is that the presence of the Holy Spirit – whom Jesus would later call “his” Spirit – is tangibly a part of Jesus’ baptism.  What is interesting is that John foretells the importance of the Holy Spirit to Christian baptism.  At least he says that Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit.

As far as we know, Jesus didn’t actually baptize anyone.  But John’s point is that baptism – for Jesus, and now for us – is the entrance of the Holy Spirit into the lives of the believers.  It’s not just a sign of repentance: it’s literally a new birth, as Jesus himself will say in John chapter 3.

And all of this can be seen in our baptismal rite.  This morning, Tate will be washed in the name of God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  And after that baptism, he will have hands laid upon him and the Holy Spirit will be invoked, just as in the book of Acts.

We lost our way on this over the centuries, and these two actions had become separated for various reasons, and led to a practice of baptizing infants, and then at confirmation praying for the Holy Spirit.  Though the Church believed the Spirit was present at baptism, for a long time the action of laying on of hands was removed from that rite.

With the Lutheran Book of Worship, thankfully, in our Lutheran tradition this laying on of hands was restored to the baptismal rite.  At confirmation, the prayer at the laying on of hands asks that the Holy Spirit be stirred up in the believer – because of course the Spirit’s been in that person’s life since baptism.

Here’s the point: clearly the gift we receive in our Baptism, after being claimed into the community of the faithful, is the outpouring of the Spirit – which makes our baptism, according to John, and to Paul, our Pentecost.  We weren’t there for that powerful day in Jerusalem where tongues of fire came upon the believers’ heads.  But that’s not important.  Because the Spirit comes to us in Baptism.  And like the first believers, things will change.

So what does that mean?  If our baptism is our Pentecost – what can we expect?

Well, Jesus went from here into his ministry.  He went into the wilderness for forty days, then began his preaching and teaching and healing.  So did the disciples, post-Pentecost.  They went from being frightened, cowed people in closed rooms to bold proclaimers of the Good News of God in Jesus.

So it doesn’t seem such a stretch for us to expect the same empowerment and sending.  This is a time of year when people are still thinking about New Year’s resolutions – though the paper yesterday said that most people have already abandoned theirs by now.  I guess the idea is that if you are feeling the need for transformation, or new starts, now’s as good a time as any.

But what if we really believed that the Spirit is given us for transformation, holiness, obedience, new life?  What if our Baptism truly began our ministry?  Paul says in Philippians, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”  What if we actually believed this and lived this?

I suggest that today we begin to take this very seriously, that each of us, and soon Tate as well, have been given the gift of the presence of God in our lives through the Holy Spirit.  And that there is absolutely no reason why we should expect things to be the same.  In fact, we should begin to expect that God is calling us to serve, and to do ministry, and to become holy children of God, and also to expect that God will give us the ability to do this.

The call is clear, and has been for 2,000 years.  And now the Holy Spirit has come to make it possible with us.

It’s time we Lutherans started remembering that we worship a Triune God.

And that we start believing not only in God the Father, and God the Son, but God the Spirit, who breathed over the waters of creation and brought forth a universe, who came to a young woman and through her gave the world the Son of God, who blew through a group of frightened disciples and changed them, and the world, forever.

That’s the gift of our baptism.  That’s what we can and should expect.  That the Holy Spirit is working in us to perfect us and transform us, and to empower us to be the grace and love of God in the world for the sake of the world.

If that’s a little frightening to you, well, it is to me, too.  But it’s also a little exciting.  I can’t wait to see where we are being led.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen

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