January 10, 2016 Acts 8: 14-17 Luke 3: 15-16, 21-22
Rev. Catherine Purves
When I say the word ‘Baptism’ what’s the first thing you think of? I think 99% of us would say, Water. Water is what we most associate with Baptism. Whether it is a whole river full of water or just a sprinkling, water is what we consider the most essential part of a Baptism. And it’s not just the actual use of water that’s important. It’s all of the symbolism and all of the biblical references that water brings to mind. We think of Noah and the great flood as a cleansing of the earth. We think of Moses crossing the Red Sea as a powerful symbol of Israel’s salvation. We think of the water that God miraculously provided for the children of Israel in the wilderness and all of the references to thirst in the Bible, both physical and spiritual, as a symbol of our total dependence upon God. Water cleanses, water saves, water gives life, and water connects us to God. It is the primary symbol, the one we automatically think of, when I say the word ‘Baptism’. But it is not the only symbol.
John the Baptist was the one who first indicated that there was more to Baptism than just water. Our image of John is that he spent most of his time waist-deep in the Jordan River. He was all about the water. His Baptism was a rite of repentance, so for him, water was a powerful symbol of cleansing. It represented a fresh start and a way to overcome the consequences of sin by a radical change of lifestyle. Before he dunked them, he counseled people about how they must now live in preparation for the coming of the Messiah. And if he didn’t think that some of the people in the crowds were sincere in their repentance, he certainly let them know that too. So, for John, water became the primary symbol of a new life and a restored relationship with God.
It’s interesting, then, that John would draw such a sharp distinction between the Baptism that he practiced and the Baptism that would come at the hand of Jesus. John was very clear about the fact that he was not the Messiah. When the Messiah Jesus came, Baptism would be different. As John explained, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming…He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” Fire is the other symbol that we should associate with Baptism, but the necessary presence and the power of fire are often forgotten.
I was picking out bulletin covers this week for Lent and Holy Week, Easter and Pentecost. The options are fairly predictable. For Lent we have lots of crosses, crowns of thorns, and references to sin and suffering. Easter covers are dominated by a whole lot of lilies and Alleluias. When you finally get to Pentecost, virtually all of the covers are bright red. They are a strange mixture of flames of fire and descending doves. You’ll see that on Pentecost when you are handed a flaming red bulletin with a flash of white dove that almost looks like fire itself.
This is what John the Baptist was talking about. “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” Water alone is not enough. Baptism is not just a rite of cleansing or of our desire to live a new and better life. Certainly, we seek Baptism for ourselves and for our children so that we can be cleansed of our sins. But no matter how much water we use, and no matter how many times we repent and make promises to be more faithful, we can’t do it. We just can’t.
How many of you made New Year’s resolutions this year? Probably all of us. It’s just something you do, and it’s not a bad thing at all. A new year, a fresh start, a renewed resolve to change – sure, that’s all good. But how many of you have kept your resolutions? This is only January 10th. Even if your resolutions were about relatively simple things like diet and exercise, I bet most of us have already had a relapse or failed to do the things we really wanted to do. I know I haven’t managed to keep all of my resolutions. How about you? You could virtually live in the water like John the Baptist, and you wouldn’t be able to do it. We need water and fire.
As if to prove what John the Baptist was saying, we see that in the Baptism of Jesus himself, both symbols are clearly present. Yes, Jesus waded into the water like everyone else. He did that not because he had sins that needed to be washed away or because he had to make a lifestyle change himself. Jesus joined the crowds so that even in this he would be one with them. He chose to identify with their sinful neediness so that he could save them. He was baptized for us. Now we are baptized in him so that we can share his righteousness. He takes our sin and gives us new life. But how does that new life happen? We have already proven to ourselves that it is not through our sincere desire to change or by New Year’s resolutions.
In each of the four accounts of Jesus’ Baptism we are told that the Holy Spirit descended upon him in the form of a dove and a voice from heaven declared that he was the Son of God. This certainly doesn’t mean that the Holy Spirit was not with him before that. We know that the Spirit was present at his conception. Jesus was always Son of God and fully human. But this symbol of the descending dove, which on Pentecost would also be combined with the symbol of fire, should always come to mind when we consider the event of Baptism, even Jesus’ own Baptism. It is the fire of the Holy Spirit that makes our new life possible after the water has cleansed us.
There is an interesting little story in the book of Acts that shows why both of these symbols, fire and water, must be at work in the Sacrament of Baptism. This was at the very beginning of the expansion of the church into Gentile territories. The apostle Paul had not yet even been converted; he was still persecuting the church. But Philip had ventured out into Samaria and he was preaching the word, and winning converts, and baptizing people in the name of Jesus Christ. When the apostles in Jerusalem heard about what Philip was doing, they decided to send in the big guns, Peter and John, to check out what was going on.
That’s when things got interesting. These converts had already been baptized, we are told, but they had not yet received the Holy Spirit. They had the water but not the fire. This was not the Baptism promised through Jesus Christ. This was not what the disciples themselves had experienced on Pentecost. So Peter and John prayed with those Samaritan Christians. They laid hands on them and prayed that they might receive the fire. And the gift of the Holy Spirit was given to them.
Our text then goes off in another direction, and no more is said about what that Baptism of the Spirit looked like or how it was experienced. But elsewhere in the New Testament we have extensive evidence that the fiery descent of the Spirit brought power and spiritual gifts to those who were baptized. This was all for the building up of the church as a community of believers. Each and every individual who was baptized was to use his or her Spirit-given gifts and abilities for the common good. And this is still how we understand and experience Baptism and the baptized life today. Fire and water. The water cleanses. The fire empowers.
As we consider our future life as a congregation of baptized believers, the presence of the fire is going to be critical. Everyone here has been given a gift. All of these gifts must be used for the common good. No one can take a back seat and wait to see what will happen next. The Spirit is an equal opportunity employer, and everyone is called and gifted to participate actively and constructively in the church’s future. It is God who will build that future using the Spirit’s fire that was given to each one of you at your Baptism. Perhaps some of those embers have grown cold. But our reading from Acts shows us what to do if that is the case.
Remember, Peter and John simply started to pray for the presence of the Spirit. They laid hands on the heads of those Christians who had received the water, but not the fire, and then those baptized believers were filled with the Holy Spirit. So this is what we all must do: pray for the Spirit to descend in power, pray for the gifts we need to face the future with all boldness, pray for the courage to use those gifts, pray for the Spirit’s guidance and sustaining presence. At this time of change, we must pray for the fire we need to be the church of Jesus Christ.