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Baptism of the Holy Spirit?

Sermon 322

St. Martin’s 88 (Riverway)


While Apollos was in Corinth, Paul passed through the interior regions and came to Ephesus, where he found some disciples. He said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?” They replied, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” Then he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” They answered, “Into John’s baptism.” Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, in Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. When Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied— altogether there were about twelve of them.

Acts 19:1-7

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

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.”

Mark 1:4-11

“We’ve never even heard of the Holy Spirit.”

That’s what the Ephesians said to Paul when he arrived in town, and I can only imagine the apostle’s jaw hitting the floor. “So, you call yourselves disciples, but you haven’t received the Holy Spirit. What kind of baptism did you receive then?”

As we heard, they ended up telling him they had received John’s baptism, and that one was about preparation and repentance, and Paul was there to baptize them into the fulfillment of that preparatory immersion; into the name of the One who had come, whose sandals John admittedly said he was unworthy to untie.

Unbeknownst to the poor Ephesian disciples they had everything and yet had nothing. They needed to be baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.

What a scene that must have been! Paul opens a formal investigation the moment he enters town, puts on his detective’s hat, pulls out his notepad and paper, and gets to work.

And for us today, it’s worth looking into this subject of baptism as well; to put on our detective’s hat for a moment and join Paul in considering what baptism is and what it isn’t, and maybe even uncover what the Holy Spirit’s role is in all of this.

Our readings give us a lot of good information as to why Jesus was baptized and why his followers continue to it to this very day.

So, what is baptism anyway?

It's important to remember that the word baptism simply meant 'dipping.’ We saw in our gospel that Jesus entered into the waters of the Jordan and was dipped/immersed/overcome/overwhelmed in his baptism.

But the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams points out that Jesus then uses the word “baptism” at later points in his ministry to refer to being immersed in something else; something that doesn’t involve water.

He writes:

“Jesus speaks of the suffering and death that lies ahead of him as a 'baptism' he is going to endure (Mark 10:38). That is, he speaks as if his going towards suffering and death were a kind of immersion in something, being drowned or swamped in something. He has, he says, an 'immersion' to go through, and until it is completed he will be frustrated and his work will be incomplete (Luke 12:50). So it seems that, from the very beginning, baptism as a ritual for joining the Christian community was associated with the idea of going down into the darkness of Jesus' suffering and death, being ‘swamped' by the reality of what Jesus endured” (Being Christian 1-2).

St. Paul gets at this idea when he talks about being baptized 'into' the death of Christ in Romans 6. Rowan Williams concludes then that our baptism essentially drops us into the mysterious events that surround Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.

And so, it seems that baptism is a way (is the way) to link ourselves with Jesus and his death and resurrection. We somehow participate in his acts of redemption by doing what he did in the Jordan all those years ago. By taking part in the thing that began his ministry, we are mysteriously connected to the Holy-Week-actions that were the fulfillment of his entire earthly ministry.

Seen in this way, baptism is a tomb and a womb. We go into those waters and die with Christ (Paul is clear about that, we die with Christ), but then we come out reborn; members of his household, heirs of his kingdom.

Christians are adamant, baptism isn’t just a memorial of what Jesus did, it isn’t a nice symbol. No, something happens. We are changed in the eyes of God and the church. You do not come out of those waters the same as you went in.

What a strange thing to do with an infant! What an odd thing to do, period.

There is plenty of debate about infant baptism. We are in a tradition that baptizes babies. We see God as the primary actor in this sacrament. We are simply responding to what God is already doing in our lives. If you were baptized as a child, you then take on the vows that your parents and Godparents took for you at your confirmation. We can talk about that more over coffee sometime.

The point I want to make this morning is that we claim at baptism—whether as a child or adult—you received the Holy Spirit. That’s the claim Paul is making to the Ephesians after all.

Notice the questions Detective Paul uses.

When he hears of the Ephesians' ignorance of the Holy Spirit, his mind automatically goes to baptism. That’s not automatically where my head goes. If someone didn’t know about the Holy Spirit, I’d have a Powerpoint ready. I’d talk about the Trinity, who the Holy Spirit is, and his role in the Godhead and in our lives. Baptism doesn’t even make it onto my ten bullet points.

But for Paul and the early church, baptism was where the believer’s faith was expressed and the Holy Spirit was received.

The apostle doesn’t tell them, “Well if you haven’t received the Holy Spirit then clearly you haven’t been baptized in the Holy Spirit.” No, he moves from, “Have you received the Holy Spirit” to “Whose baptism did you receive, John’s or Jesus’?”

Paul explains to them that Christian baptism is “into Jesus.” Faith is not in the Holy Spirit, it’s in Jesus, but if you believe in Jesus and are baptized in his name then you will receive the Holy Spirit. Jesus comes first.

One of my favorite authors, Dale Bruner says, “Paul is showing us that the Spirit's ministry is the gospel of Jesus Christ, and not the gospel of the Holy Spirit” (210). Faith expressed through baptism is “the receptacle of the Spirit,” he says (208).

And so, how do you receive the Holy Spirit? Get baptized.

You may have heard from other traditions about being baptized in the Holy Spirit and want to know how to do that. Let me tell you, if you’ve had a baptism with water and in the name of “the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” then it’s happened; you have been given the Holy Spirit. There isn’t a second, separate baptism of the Holy Spirit. These events are one and the same.

If you are a Christian and today you say, “I’ve never heard of the Holy Spirit” or more likely, “I don’t really know the Holy Spirit. I don’t really know if he’s in my life or in my heart.”

May this sermon be a reintroduction to the Person of the Trinity that is presently residing in your heart.

Let today be a reminder of what your baptism means for you and your participation in this world.  Baptism reminds us who we are, and that we are eternally linked with Jesus and share in the Spirit.

Jesus entered the watery chaos for no other reason than for the sole purpose of this divine linking of Creator and creation. It is a gift. But it is also a reminder that if our Lord entered the messy, murky, and chaotic waters of the Jordan (and the world in general), then those who are baptized in his name should go toward the pain and chaos of the world too.

We dare not forget that the people who flocked to John the Baptist recognized they needed a savior. They were the sick who wisely realized they couldn’t cure their sinful, sorrowful hearts by their own will or determination, they needed the Great Physician.

They needed the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the God who brought their people out of slavery in Egypt to act once more. It’s those people, who knew how bad of shape they were in that Jesus walked with to the banks of the Jordan. Jesus was not safely locked in some corner of the Temple courts in far away Jerusalem. No, he was with people who longed to be made well; to be made whole again by God himself.

Baptism is a gift, but my friends, it comes with a calling. Not only do we receive the Holy Spirit and become an heir of God’s kingdom, but even before the waters of baptism dry off, we are sent to the messy, chaotic places of our city, our country, and world. To be linked to Jesus means to not steer clear from the brokenness of the world but to go towards it with bravery, mercy, and love. 

1st Sunday after the Epiphany. Year B. Acts 19:1-7. Mark 1:4-11. Rowan Williams Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer. Dale Bruner A Theology of the Holy Spirit. A large part of my comments on Acts 19 is a summary of Bruner’s argument. Pic: Detail of fresco in the Church of Vladimir Mother of God, Sretensky Monastery, Moscow.

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