Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
The Baptism of Our Lord, year B
texts: Mark 1:4-11; Acts 19:1-7
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
“We have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.”
What a strange thing for these Ephesian believers to admit. Clearly getting doctrines straight before baptism was not a high priority for the disciples of John the Baptizer who made it all the way to Greece. It’s hard to know which is more surprising: that John still had disciples going around as far as Ephesus proclaiming a baptism of repentance, well after he completed his task to prepare people for the Messiah; or that these evangelists didn’t even bother to tell the people much about Jesus.
We can’t know what they told. But since one of the few things John actually said about Jesus’ ministry was that Jesus would baptize believers with the Holy Spirit, one wonders: if they didn’t get to that part of John’s teachings, what, if anything, did these wandering preachers preach?
“We haven’t even heard there is a Holy Spirit.” This seems critical for us. Do we understand our baptism as connected to what the Holy Spirit is doing in our lives? Or do we live as if we’ve never heard there is a Holy Spirit?
We sometimes focus on the wrong things when it comes to baptism.
When we talk about baptism we seem to most often talk about rules. Who should be baptized? How much should they know before they are? Is it OK to baptize babies? Is the baptism of other communions of the Church as valid as ours? Is the Table of the Lord only for those who are baptized, or can others come? What of those who aren’t baptized, are they in danger of not being saved?
All such questions focus on baptism as status and seem to consider this Sacrament our chance to sort who’s in and who’s out, to control the gate, keep the room free of riffraff. The absolute monstrosity of centuries of the Church declaring that those who died unbaptized could not be brought to eternal life, in defiance of anything the Scriptures say, is only one example of how we consider baptism as a means of control: of the Church, of others, even of the Triune God. It is ridiculously arrogant to believe we have any say over whom God loves, saves, blesses, or raises from the dead. God will do whatever God wants to do.
But this odd story from Ephesus points out another reason why these questions distract us from a really important thing. Ephesus reminds us that Baptism is really all about the Holy Spirit.
That’s the experience of Baptism in the early Church: the presence of the Spirit was central.
The pattern of baptism in the early life in Acts was that evangelists would baptize “in the name of Jesus” – it’s not clear if the Triune Name was being used yet. Then the apostles would come, lay hands on them, and pray for the gift of the Holy Spirit upon the believers, as Paul did today.
So in Acts 8, Philip preaches to Samaritans who “accept the word of God,” and baptizes them. Later, Peter and John come and lay hands on them so they receive the Holy Spirit. All of this we do at once in our baptisms today.
Sometimes it didn’t work that way, though. In Acts 10, the Holy Spirit fills a group of Gentiles before anybody does anything. Peter wisely recognizes that if the Holy Spirit has come, there is no reason to withhold baptism. For the early Church, the presence of the Spirit of God was so deeply connected to their understanding of Baptism, they sometimes needed to baptize after the Spirit got there, to catch up. The same thing happened at Pentecost.
Likewise, Jesus’ baptism is when we see the Spirit of God come upon him.
We don’t know why Jesus needed to be baptized, certainly not for repentance and new life. We do know what happened, though: the Holy Spirit came upon him and his Father’s voice called him beloved, one in whom he was well pleased.
As he walked out of the waters of the Jordan, filled with the Spirit of God, he had an understanding that he was God’s anointed, God’s beloved Son. With hair and clothes dripping, he kept on walking out into the desert to meditate and fast and pray for 40 days on this new life ahead of him, this ministry. From his baptism, and the inflowing Holy Spirit, it all began, the teaching, the healing, the calling, and the path to the cross and resurrection.
This is the only thing that matters for us, too, because that same Spirit is poured into us.
We don’t need Baptism to protect us from God’s impotence or carelessness; Christ Jesus has shown us the Triune God is neither. If anyone will be saved, God will do it, and nothing we do or don’t do will change that. Baptism is never a question of our safety.
Baptism is, however, a clear place where we proclaim the Holy Spirit comes upon us and we are changed. Like Jesus. Sent into ministry. Like Jesus.
Let us be clear also: the Holy Spirit is not limited by our ritual, our actions, not even by this commanded Baptism we do as Christ’s Church. The Holy Spirit can and does go wherever she wills to go, and moves in and with people far beyond our reach and knowledge and control.
But we are promised by our Lord that the Holy Spirit will in fact come to us in baptism and change our lives. We see that happen to Jesus, and that’s what we should be expecting for ourselves, and for Sophia today.
Baptism for us, like Jesus, is our time of in-Spiration, when we are Spirited by God to live our lives of discipleship.
John baptized a baptism of repentance, inviting people to turn from their old ways and follow in God’s path. Baptism into the name of the Triune God is far more than that, it is the Holy Spirit joining us to the life of the Triune God, giving birth to us as children of God.
But the life after both kinds of baptism is the same: a new beginning going in God’s direction instead of our own. It’s no accident that when we baptize, or affirm our baptism, we begin by turning away from evil and the powers of evil that are against God. In Christian baptism we understand John’s call to turn around and start new.
What is different is that our baptism has the same gift given Jesus in his baptism, the coming of the Holy Spirit. The presence of the Holy Spirit empowers our beginning, our repentance, our new life. The Holy Spirit gives us the grace and strength to walk in God’s ways and not our own.
We begin to look different to others, and even to ourselves, because the Spirit is transforming us, creating fruit and life in us that others can see.
That’s our grace and gift in our baptism. We go from the font Spirited to live new lives in the world, part of God’s grace and healing of the world begun in Christ and continued in us.
When we come to the font now, placing water on ourselves in remembrance of our first washing, we want to keep our eyes open for this Spirit of God.
Our baptism is our Pentecost, as it was for Jesus, and our remembrance and living into our baptism is our constant joy in the grace of the Holy Spirit working in our lives and in the world.
We not only have heard there is a Holy Spirit, we live as children of God who expect that having the Spirit fill us will change us, and like Jesus, send us out into our service and ministry. We not only have heard there is a Holy Spirit, we expect to see signs of the Spirit’s work in us everywhere we look. The more we expect this, talk of this, look for this, the more we will see it.
So let’s keep our eyes open to the work of the Spirit, be unafraid to tell each other what we have seen. For the Holy Spirit has given us new birth, and the Father has called us beloved children, and our whole ministry and service in Christ now lies before us.
In the name of Jesus. Amen