Sunday 13 January 2018
Baptism of the Lord
Today is Baptism of the Lord Sunday, the day each year when we remember how Jesus came to the Jordan River and was baptized by John the Baptist. There’s something different about how Luke tells the story. In Mark and Matthew, Jesus comes and is baptized by John in the river, and as he’s coming up out of the waters, the sky is opened and Jesus sees the Spirit coming on him like a dove, and there is a voice that says that Jesus is God’s beloved Son.
But that’s not how it happens in Luke. Luke never describes Jesus’s baptism. It happens completely off-stage. Luke just says, “When everyone was being baptized, Jesus also was baptized.” That is all the description that we get of the event. Jesus also was baptized.
That also means that the Spirit doesn’t descend on Jesus when he comes out of the water, and the voice doesn’t speak to him then, either. No, all of that happens later, while Jesus is out of the water, on his own, praying. He’s praying, after he has been baptized, and he sees the heavens pulled open, and he sees the dove descending, and he hears the voice saying, “You are my beloved child. I take delight in you.
It’s a little different than the story we think we know. Things don’t happen quite in the order we would expect. First the baptism, then the prayer, then the Spirit.
But this morning we have a second story about baptism, and it happens to be written by the same author. The Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles are part of a two-volume work. The first volume, the gospel, tells the story of Jesus and his ministry, and the second volume, the Acts, tells the story of the early church.
In Acts this morning, we have a second story about baptism. The early Jesus Movement was centered in Jerusalem. But then one of the deacons, Stephen, is stoned to death. It causes massive disruption. Those early Christians flee the city in great numbers. They are religious refugees. Then up scattering all over the place, looking for new homes wherever they can find them, because they are afraid of religious persecution or even death if they stay in the place they are from.
Among these refugees is the deacon, Philip. He has fled to Samaria. And because he is there as a refugee, he has the opportunity to share the good news of Jesus with the people there. And his message is accepted, even though it must have been hard for the Samaritans to trust an outsider like Philip.
Those who believed his message are baptized. However, as Luke says, “the Holy Spirit had not yet fallen on them; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.” Peter and John are sent to finish the job. First comes the baptism, then the apostles are sent to lay their hands on the people, then the Holy Spirit falls on them.
That seems a little bit out of order, too, doesn’t it? Why would they not receive the Holy Spirit when they had been baptized? Is there something incomplete about their baptism?
Baptism is recognized by almost every brand and type of Christianity as a sacrament and as a rite of initiation. There is a fair amount of disagreement, though, about the details of baptism. Should it be done for children, or should it only be for people who are old enough to understand it for themselves? Does it need to be by full immersion, and can a pouring or sprinkling of water do just the same? Is it a one-time thing, or can it be repeated? If you were baptized in a tradition that is very different than the one you are in now, do you need to be baptized again the right way? And what exactly does baptism do for you? Does it wash away your sins? Does it assure you eternal life in heaven, or is it a condition of salvation? Does it grant you membership into a particular church? There are many questions.
And so we might turn to the Bible to try and answer them. We’ve got two stories here today. They both depict someone being baptized and then a little later, after some prayer or the laying on of hands, they receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. Is that how it always works? If so, the we might assume that Christians who have only been baptized are somehow deficient. Do Christians need to have a second experience later in order to be real Christians? Do they need to be born again? Do they need to have some kind of definitive experience of the Holy Spirit that once and forever changes them? And if so, what would be the evidence of that change? Speaking in tongues? Some sort of testimony of a vivid spiritual experience? Clear, visible spiritual gifts?
If those are the requirements, then how many of us are real Christians?
I think that’s a question a lot of Christians struggle with. I know I have. Am I a real Christian? Have I had the right set of experiences in the right order to prove that I am an authentic follower of Jesus?
You know those booths that they have at the fair: Are you going to heaven? Three simple questions will give you the answer. They have a clear list of what is required. Other groups have different requirements. And sometimes the requirements aren’t as clearly stated, but they are most certainly there, even if they are not usually spoken out loud.
What does it mean if my spiritual journey isn’t shaped like people tell me it’s supposed to be shaped? What if it is missing some element that I think it’s supposed to have? What if things happened in the wrong order or at the wrong time? What if it’s too late to make it up?
We dealt with some of these questions with Kaylah not long ago. After seeing the Atchleys baptized in September, she asked about baptism. Could she be baptized? Of course, both The United Methodist Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America insist that a person can only be baptized once. Even if the first baptism was done in another tradition, like a Catholic or Mormon church, it doesn’t matter. Baptism is effective the first time and it cannot be repeated. But in Kaylah’s case, we didn’t know whether she had been baptized before or not. And we have only limited communication with the people who might know. So we were in limbo, not knowing how to answer her question: can I be baptized? We found the answer just a couple of weeks ago when we met her birth mom, Tinyjah. She was able to tell us that, yes, Kaylah and Kiahla had both been baptized, and that solved our theological dilemma. She didn’t need to be baptized because she already had been.
But if we are trying to find the answers to our questions about identity and baptism in the bible, there are more than just two stories. In fact, there are several different stories of baptism just in the Book of Acts. You might expect that they would all follow the same pattern, but actually, they don’t. The first time anyone is baptized in the name of Jesus is after the experience of the Spirit at Pentecost. The Pentecost experience itself is referred to as a baptism of the Holy Spirit, a baptism that Jesus will perform. But then after that experience, the apostles baptize people with water.
Later Philip is interpreting scripture with an Ethiopian eunuch, a high official in the court of the queen. Th eunuch comes to believe, and when they pass by some water, he asks to be baptized, and Philip does it, even though he has had very little training and he is not a Jew. There is no word about the eunuch ever receiving the Holy Spirit.
Next is Paul. He has a mystical experience in which he sees Jesus, he is struck blind, he repents of his sin, then he is prayed for and receives the Holy Spirit, and then he is baptized.
Next there is a group of Gentiles in the house of Cornelius. While Peter is preaching, they receive the Holy Spirit and start speaking in tongues. Peter decides that if they already have the Holy Spirit then he has no excuse not to baptized them, even if they are Gentiles, so he does, the whole household at once.
Some time later, Paul encounters Christians at Ephesus. They have believed, but they haven’t received the Holy Spirit. Paul thinks this is strange, so he asks them about their baptism. They were baptized according to the way John baptized. Paul tells them that they need to be baptized again, this time in the name of Jesus. When they are, the Holy Spirit falls on them and they begin prophesying and speaking in tongues.
There are more examples than this, but this is enough to make the point. There isn’t a consistent pattern of how it’s supposed to happen. Sometimes people believe before they are baptized and sometimes people are baptized before they believe. Sometimes they are baptized as individuals, and sometimes they are baptized as a group. Sometimes baptism makes people a part of a congregation, and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes the Spirit comes after baptism, sometimes before, and sometimes not at all. Sometimes the coming the Spirit is accompanied with special gifts like speaking in tongues, and sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes the baptism has to be done in the name of Jesus or it doesn’t count, but other times, like in the case of the apostles, there is no need to be baptized in the name of Jesus. There is a surprisingly wide variety of how this whole becoming-a-Christian thing happens. And all of these examples are just from one author.
Which is sort of a long way of saying that the Spirit moves in mysterious ways. And it is no wonder that different Christian groups have different beliefs about baptism. The bible doesn’t agree about it either. You know that Mormon practice that we usually think of as very strange, when they baptize dead people by proxy. Guess what. That’s in the bible. In 1 Corinthians 15:29, Paul explicitly talks about baptism of the dead by proxy.
Which maybe indicates that we should allow for some grace when we have differences with other groups of Christians. We may have really good reasons for the way we do things and strong theological arguments for why our way is right, but often the Bible is less clear than our doctrine. There are good reasons why others might do things differently.
And it also indicates that we should have some grace with our faith journeys. Everyone’s story of faith is different. We don’t all follow the same path, even if we are part of the same denomination or congregation or family. Some people have really vivid spiritual experiences, and if you do, it doesn’t mean that you’re a crazy enthusiast. And if you don’t, it doesn’t mean that you’re lacking in spirit. Some people have one really transformative moment that feels like being saved or converted, and if you do, it doesn’t mean that your faith is too simple. Some people have a more varied or gradual experience of God’s grace, and if you do, it doesn’t mean that conversion is incomplete. Some of us experience God in silence, some in music, some in nature, some in service, some in preaching, some in the struggle for justice, some in ritual, some in heartfelt extemporaneous prayer, some in words that have lasted the test of time.
We are not all the same. We do not all need to be the same. God calls us in our diversity. But whoever we are, whatever is in our past, whatever path we have taken to get to this place, God’s word to us today is the same. They are the same words Jesus heard. “You are my beloved child. In you I take delight.”